The art of step-grandparenting

There are two ways to become a step-grandparent. The first is when you yourself remarry and your stepchildren either already have, or have had children. The second is when your children remarry. Either situation brings similar challenges, although the grandchildren’s emotions are likely to run higher when it’s their own parents who have remarried — and their own living arrangements, holidays schedules, and so on, which have changed.

What to expect

Ideally a step-grandparent becomes a special resource within the family — another person to love the grandchildren and another resource for elder insight into life’s challenges. But it’s not a role that happens overnight. Stepchildren and their children may be slow to welcome you into their family. The best approach to take is a long-sighted one: don’t demand acceptance or love right away. Think of making an opportunity for a relationship rather than creating an “instant family.”

A common sticky area is discipline and childrearing practices. One valuable piece of advice given to stepparents and grandparents is not to take on a disciplinary role with non-biological children, particularly early into a relationship (except where there is a need for physical safety, of course). Step-grandchildren are unlikely to see you as having any authority over them, and if their initial impression is that you are trying to control them, it may be a long time — if ever — that they begin to see you as friend and family. If discipline problems arise, take them up quietly with your child, and let him or her tell you how they would like you to handle them.

Remember that in the case of your child remarrying, he or she is likely struggling with how to align his or her parenting with the new partner — a large challenge in and of itself — and so there may be a period where “the rules” are changing or not enforced in the same way. Listening during this time can be much more important than giving advice or wishing for the “old days.”

Jealousy and competition

It can be surprisingly difficult to not compete with other grandparents. Some issues that come up are whether your grandchildren will call their ‘new’ grandparents grandma and grandma, and what you yourself will be called. It can also begin to seem like the gifts and vacations Olympics, with all the grandparents competing for “most fun” “best gift” and “most phone calls.”

But in the long run, what children need most is a feeling of security from their elders. You do not need to compete to have a meaningful relationship with your grandchildren. And whether or not they call you or anyone else grandma has no bearing on their feelings for you. If you’re the step-grandparent, consider whether you’re willing to have them call you by your first name, and if not — and they don’t want to call you grandma or nana – work together with them and your child to come with an alternative. And if you’re the grandparent, relax and remember that you have been there for your grandchild’s whole life — another person to love them is only an addition to their lives and doesn’t take anything away.

Of course there is another reality. The key issue for some families when it comes to extended family can become time. Where will vacations and weekend visits be spent? With more grandparents to visit there can be difficulties with certain holidays. Work with your children and grandchildren to create the opportunity for time together and for special family rituals — but don’t get too hung up on particular dates. The more flexible you are, the more time you’re likely to have with your grandchildren — and that’s a good thing.

Who’s special?

Some grandparents struggle with the difference in their feelings towards grandchildren and step-grandchildren. “When my son moved in with his girlfriend and her children, I wasn’t prepared for how strongly protective I would feel about my [biological] grandkids,” says Jocelynn Struthers, 64, of Scarborough, in a telephone interview. “When I stayed with them and her kids were arguing with my son’s, I found it very hard not to step in and take their side. I knew the other kids didn’t have any say in the situation but I also felt that my grandkids were getting trampled on through no fault of their own… I worried that they would be upset that I wasn’t taking their side, since I’m their gram.”

And then there was the whole question of holiday gifts. “I definitely felt obligated to buy gifts for all the kids, which gets expensive” Jocelynn muses, “But I didn’t want my grandkids to feel like they’d gotten lesser gifts because I had to buy more of them. I ended up getting cheaper toys for the new kids, and they noticed. I’m not sure what I’ll do next year.”

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how to treat step-grandchildren and grandchildren, but it is a good idea to think it through so that you’re not blindsided on a family vacation or during a holiday.

In general it is a good idea to treat kids fairly equally in the most obvious ways — make sure there is a gift for everyone under the tree, even if it is a modest one, or invite everyone to family gatherings. But there’s also nothing wrong with acknowledging that your biological grandchildren do have a special bond with you that has taken years to develop. There’s no need to put a halt to your special routines and activities, or to stop having time alone with grandchildren. In fact, if you are occupying your child’s children, it may be a chance for the stepchildren to have a bit of special time with their parent and stepparent.

Much of it is out of your hands

A study by Sanders and Trygstad published in 1989 of step-grandchildren and grandchildren’s attitudes towards their grandparents found that in the cases of step-grandchildren, “the strength of the step-grandchild/step-grandparent relationship is more highly related to the respondent’s view of the stepparent than the grandchild-grandparent relationship.” So if your step-grandchildren aren’t happy about your child’s role in their life — or your stepchild isn’t happy with you — they may not be willing to meet you half way.

In this case it often becomes a waiting game: if you can be friendly but not push, once other issues are resolved you may find the grandchildren are ready to welcome you with open arms.

Blended families are a complicated dance between old relationships and rituals, and new opportunities and challenges. The best tools to create meaningful relationships are patience, acceptance, and communication. With those qualities at your command, chances are good that your family’s expansion will result in even more children to love and enjoy — and that’s a good thing.

Photo © Rhienna Cutler