A New Report on Grandparents’ Role in Divorced and Separated Families Launched

Posted on: 24 November 2009

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin, launched a new report recently (November 23rd) on grandparents’ role in divorced and separated families.  The report was written by Virpi Timonen, Martha Doyle and Ciara O’Dwyer of the Social Policy and Ageing Research Centre, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin.

Despite extensive changes in patterns of partnership formation and dissolution in Ireland, the effects of divorce and separation on nuclear and extended families have remained poorly understood.  This is the first study conducted in Ireland aimed at understanding inter-generational relationships – the nature of contact and support between grandparents, grandchildren and the divorced or separated parents in the aftermath of relationship breakdown in the ‘middle’ generation.

Drawing on interviews with grandparents whose son or daughter has experienced relationship breakdown, this study found that:

  • The separation process impacts on grandparents’ everyday lives in a number of practical ways.  Support and care provision by grandparents is typically most intensive in the early stages following the adult child’s relationship breakdown, but in some cases extends to several years and can involve very substantial sacrifices of their own time, opportunities, leisure and even employment by the grandparents.
  • Five main types of support and care are channelled by the older to the younger generations, namely (1) financial; (2) housing; (3) child care; (4) legal and other advice; and (5) emotional support.
  • Grandparents experience grief, fear and anger, as well as a range of other emotions throughout the process.  However, most think that it is important to provide support first and to focus on their own feelings only after the needs of their adult children and grandchild were met.
  • Grandparents believe that they play a nurturing and protective role and constitute a dependable and positive support to grandchildren following their parent’s separation.  A common perception is that grandparents provide reassurance to grandchildren by conveying unconditional love, affection and affirmation to them.  They endeavour to reassure grandchildren, see to normalize the separation of their parents and want to act as a confidant to their grandchildren if they so desire.
  • The ‘middle’ generation exercise an important ‘mediating’ influence on grandparent-grandchild relationships.  The existence of amicable relationships between the grandparent and their adult child’s ex-partner tends to translate into contact with grandchildren being less formalized and more flexible.
  • Grandparents can act as ‘peacemakers’ and ‘bridge-builders’ between the generations.  In many instances, they deliberately cultivate relationships of cooperation and trust with their child’s ex-partner as they consider it the most appropriate action to take to ensure the wellbeing of and contact with their grandchildren.
  • Some grandparents experience erosion in the quality of their relationship with their grandchildren.  The weakening of relations is ascribed to the custodial parent who was thought to openly criticize members of the non-custodial family.
  • Some grandparents experience loss of contact or reduced contact with their grandchildren.  A sense of powerlessness and loss was relayed by the respondents who had no contact with their grandchildren following their adult child’s separation.
  • The impression that the interest of the grandchild(ren) are often not best served by the legal processes associated with divorce and separation, guardianship and access, is strongest among grandparents who have difficulties in securing (adequate) access to their grandchildren.
  • Very few grandparents access any formal services such as counselling, information services, or legal and mediation services.  Despite the fact that many are able to draw on informal supports, the wish that more information and support were available to them was frequently expressed.
  • Report Recommendations
  • The help, care and support that grandparents provide to the younger generations is frequently the lynchpin to successful transitions to life after divorce or separation both for their adult children and grandchildren.  Supporting grandparents is important because it translates into supporting all generations implicated in divorce and separation.
  • Our research findings suggest that many grandparents would use and benefit from formal support services were they more widely available and responsive to the needs of grandparents.
  • Information and counselling, the latter possibly in the form of peer-support groups, appear to be particularly urgently needed.
  • Transfer payments are also highly important, especially to custodial grandparents and grandparents who have made considerable financial sacrifices (including, in some cases, giving up employment) in order to support their children and grandchildren.  Benefits available to these groups should be protected and enhanced for low-income groups.  Further research is warranted to explore the different supports that are most accessible and acceptable to grandparents.

The fact that TILDA, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, is now collecting detailed baseline information on older adults, many of whom are grandparents, will provide further, representative information and facilitate additional research on grandparents in Ireland.

The Social Policy and Ageing Research Centre, in the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin, was established in 2005 with a view to analyzing the social policy ramifications of population ageing in Ireland and in the comparative perspective.  Fundamental to the Centre’s work is the belief that research has a central role to play in making Ireland a better place to grow old in.

The authors are grateful to the Family Support Agency for funding this study.

The full report is available in PDF form by sending a request to cgarry@tcd.ie

Notes to the Editor

Quotations from Grandparents’ Role in Divorced and Separated Families by Timonen, Doyle, O’Dwyer and Moore (2009).

On financial support:

….Certainly financially we still help her out.  As regards the [grand]children’s clothing…even things like books, the [grand]daughter does ballet…we certainly would still financially help her out.  Pay for holidays…

(Respondent 26, grandmother, married daughter)

On finding the appropriate level of involvement:

…For a while I felt I was trying to compensate for their lack of parenting and now I’m not doing that any longer. I’ve withdrawn from that and I think the danger is that you would get hooked into that role and stay with it.

(Respondent 18, grandmother, married daughter)

I don’t want to be their mother…I’ve been there done that… They have two perfectly good parents so I’m going to let them parent…I’m not going to parent her [daughter] or the kids, I’m just going to be there for them.

(Respondent 24, grandmother, unmarried daughter)

On emotional support:

We just had to be strong for him….and listen to him, listening is very important….I found it very strange because I think it was the first time, and I have three children, it was the first time that I actually had to be very strong and say – right, get up, get on with it – which is not nice.

(Respondent 13, grandfather, unmarried son)

On suppressing their own feelings:

…All the time we….had to put people out there first….and put how we were feeling secondary…And bite our tongues.

(Respondent 3, grandmother, unmarried son)

On helping grandchildren to make sense of a new situation:

…if we’re drawing pictures or anything here we always put in mammy and lately we put in [name], who would be the new partner…

(Respondent 12, grandmother, unmarried son)

On grandchildren’s behaviour:

It was quite a regular kind of thing, on and off, when he threw the tantrum. I suppose he was torn between the two parents and he would probably be trying to size one up, against the other.

(Respondent 4, grandmother, unmarried son)

On forcibly losing contact with grandchild:

[I]t’s really hard…not to see him. I find myself looking at boys and wondering what is he like… You are in a kind of no man’s land – because he is not missing, not dead. He is out there somewhere and you are looking for him in the crowd all the time, all the time.

(Respondent 4, grandmother, unmarried son)

On positive impact on grandchild-grandparent relations:

They had a horrific six months where everywhere they turned, everything was wrong… And to get on to the better side of story is that the bond I had with them is a new, it’s unreal, and it’s amazing, and it has eased up now because their dad has a house now and so they live between the two houses and they are coming to me tomorrow night, they still come and down and stay… We have all moved on.

(Respondent 21, grandmother, married son)