Carolyn and Bob Henderson became step-grandparents when their son married into a family with three children from a previous marriage. Since they had been looking forward to becoming grandparents someday, Carolyn and Bob were excited about the prospect of becoming instant grandparents, yet wondered what this step-grandparent role would look like.
The Hendersons are not alone. According to the latest statistics, up to 33 percent of persons 65 years or older are step-grandparents and the numbers are growing rapidly. Those who find themselves in this new role recognize that they face a potentially awkward situation as they work to find their place in the family.
“When we became step-grandparents, the children were 2, 9, and 14,” said Bob Henderson. “There were no other grandfathers in the picture, but there were two very active grandmothers and Carolyn would make three. Recognizing that we had not been around these children since birth and we had no idea what they liked to eat or what they liked to do, we decided to take it slowly. We were not going to try and make up for years of living in hours. We wanted to respect the other grandparents and let the children know that we were genuinely interested in a relationship with them.”
According to some step-grandchildren, this can be an awkward time, especially if there are other grandparents in the picture. One child explained that he already had a close relationship with his grandparents and didn’t really want a relationship with his step-grandparents.
Henderson recalls a time when Morgan, the youngest grandchild, saw him chewing gum and asked what he had in his mouth. He told her it was gum, but she might not like it because it was hot gum. She wanted a piece. Now every time she sees him she wants some of that "hot gum." He believes it is little things like this, going to football games, watching recitals and just being there that encourage bonding between step-grandparents and their grandchildren.
Experts agree that the best way to cultivate a relationship with step-grandchildren is to spend time with them. Find out about their areas of interests. Get to know their friends. Attend their sporting events. By focusing on these things step-grandparents can build strong healthy relationships with their step-grandchildren.
The Hendersons offer these helpful tips to couples who find themselves in the role of step-grandparent:
- Accept your role. You are a bit player, not the star of the show.
- Recognize that there is usually lots of stress involved in bringing two families together. Do what you can to help minimize the stress versus creating more.
- Don’t pry into the past.
- Focus on the needs of the children, not your wishes for the relationship.
- Remember special events.
- Recognize that what works for some might not work for others. Every situation is unique.
- Be as supportive as you can of their interests. If possible do things with them.
- Support the parents in their rules and expectations. Find ways to praise the children and be slow to criticize.
In the words of a step-grandchild, “My life was already a juggling act. I didn’t need any more complicated relationships.”
Step-grandparents who are sensitive to the complexities of the situation and respect the grandchildren’s needs and wishes about their relationship stand a good chance of developing a lifelong bond with their step-grandchild. After all, isn’t that what grandparenting is really all about?
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As a Certified Family Life Educator Julie writes and speaks on issues related to strengthening marriages and families.