Alienated grandparents

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I always had a close relationship with our two grandkids, now 9 and 12. However, our son recently went through an acrimonious divorce and now our former daughter-in-law is denying us access to the children. We are heartbroken. Is there anything we can do?

A: Your case is a perfect example of how the effects of divorce are felt well outside the immediate nuclear family. In a perfect world your right to see your grandchildren wouldn’t be an issue at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world, and when a divorce gets ugly, forcing the grandparents out of the picture becomes just another way for warring spouses to hurt each other. What they don’t realize (or refuse to acknowledge) is that they’re hurting their children in the process.

Studies clearly show that grandparents often serve as caregivers and a source of unconditional love for their grandchildren. A caring grandparent is a positive, and sometimes the only stable presence in the children’s lives. That’s especially important now, during this emotionally taxing time, when your grandchildren would certainly benefit from your love and support.

What can you do to regain access? From a legal standpoint, not much. While criteria varies from state to state, as a general rule (and with the exception of documented cases of parental abuse) courts usually side with the parents.

If your grandkids are not victims of abuse, then a lengthy and costly court battle is not in your (or the children’s) best interest. Going to court also has the potential to alienate the children from you for good.

Besides, diplomacy is always a better bet than a confrontation. Have you considered approaching your former daughter-in-law directly, not through your son? Since the divorce is fairly recent she may still be hurt, so chances are she cut you off from the children in the heat of the moment, without much thought of the consequences. She might also be concerned – especially if you sided with your son – that you would turn the children against her.

Start by assuring her that you’re not taking sides, will never denigrate her in front of the children, or undermine her parenting skills (and, needless to say, stick to that promise). Tell her what you’d like to do with the kids. For example: “We will take them to see the new “ Harry Potter” movie and have pizza afterwards.” Setting clear parameters, at least in the beginning, might alleviate her fears that you are “kidnapping” her children.

Resist the urge to ask for too much too quickly, such as taking the children for sleepovers or weekends. Tread gently and be patient; focus on re-establishing a cordial relationship with your former daughter-in-law and on rebuilding the trust that might have gotten lost in all the fighting. If she’s a reasonable person, she’ll eventually give in because she’ll probably see the benefits of having you in her children’s lives.

Of course, there’s always a chance that her bitter feelings toward your son will spill over into her relationship with you, and that she’ll persist in keeping the children away. That doesn’t mean you should give up; just find other viable options. For example, if your son has visitation, ask to see the kids for a couple of hours while they’re with him. This may not be your idea of “quality time,” but it’s better than not having any contact at all.

And, if you and the children are computer-savvy and have Internet access, keep in touch by email and Instant Messenger. Remember to send cards and small gifts for birthdays and holidays. Above all else, you want these kids to know that you are doing everything you can to remain in their lives, that they can always count on you, and that you’ll always love them.