We recently read the sad news that grandparents are increasingly turning to the courts to see their grandchildren.
No less than seven grandparents a day applied for contact orders in the year to year to March, the government revealed: a total of no less than 2,517. In how many of those cases were the children left wondering what on earth had happened to Grandma or Granddad, who had suddenly disappeared from their lives?
These sad scenarios using arise following a divorce or separation. In an acrimonious split, emotions run high and if one half of the former couple feels wronged or guilty they may not feel very inclined to find space in their lives for the parents of their former partner. Another all too common situation – one I have witnessed on a fair few occasions – is the angry, egoistical parent trying to use access to their children as a bargaining chip or simply as a form of revenge. Such parents simply cannot put the children’s needs for contact with their family above their own urgings.
These statistics struck a real chord with me. Freed from the complexities of the parenting role, grandparents can be a great source of warmth and fun in a child’s life. My own granny was my best friend growing up. The idea that I might have lost contact with her if my parents had divorced is unimaginable, but that’s precisely what happens to so many grandparents.
Much has been written – and rightly so – about the plight of non-resident parents in a separation or divorce, who so often feel left at the mercy of the parent ‘with care’ and subject to their whims. But in reality, such parents do have legal recourse and there is a presumption – in most cases – that they have a right to some involvement in their children’s lives.
There is no such presumption for grandparents. They have no automatic right to contact with their grandchildren following a separation or divorce and that’s why so many (too many) end up going to court to try to keep the relationship alive for whatever time they have left. In my view, the government statistics are shocking and it’s long past time family members other than parents were given automatic legal rights to contact, subject, as always of course, to what is in the best interests of the child.
But let’s get real here. The yoke of disadvantage does not lie equally on the shoulders of all those grandparents. It is, the vast majority of cases, the paternal grandparents who struggle for access following the end of their son’s relationship. The mother may be using such access as leverage to gain ground in other areas – for example, better maintenance payments – or simply because of the child’s mother resents the grandparents, feeling that they are interfering in the child’s life, or criticising their upbringing.
With legal right to see their grandchildren, grandparents in fact have to apply for leave to be heard by the court at all, and this has to be granted before they can apply to see them.
Grandparents should never be forgotten. They are not an optional extra in any family and they have a very important role to play in a child’s development. They provide them with a sense of their family’s history and can help form a sense of their identities as individuals, separate from their parents. Discovering that they might have to go to court, cap in hand, to ask for permission to see their grandchildren is quite a shock for many grandparents and in some cases they simply do not pursue the matter for fear of causing even more trauma.
Of course, court is not the only option available to resolve such unhappy circumstances – mediation can be an effective alternative for example, although many grandparents do not realise such alternatives exist.
It’s all a rather sad picture. A solid relationship between a grandparent and grandchild can be a real lifesaver for a struggling child in that very unsettling time during and after divorce.
Of course, grandparents caught up in such unhappy family dramas need not be complete victims of circumstance of course. My advice to any grandparent who finds themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place is to always try and help themselves. Never take a ‘blood is thicker than water’ stance and always maintain scrupulous neutrality on the divorce proceedings. They should treat their child’s partner with the utmost kindness and respect right from the start. However difficult things become, criticism of the partner, especially criticism made directly to their grandchild, is an absolute no go area. Their grandchild should feel throughout that their grandparents provide a non-judgmental bolt hole and if they manage to maintain this, they will have a much better chance of remaining involved in the child’s future.