Step Lightly to Build a Relationship With Stepgrandchildren

For grandparents, post-divorce relationships can become more complex when an adult child marries again, often adding stepchildren to the family. As grandparents themselves remarry after widowhood or divorce, many create still another family configuration by becoming stepgrandparents to their new spouse's grandchildren.

Every day 1,300 couples with children under 18 remarry, according to the Stepfamily Foundation in New York. Seven million children live in a stepfamily.

For a child, the remarriage of parents can potentially add four stepgrandparents. One-third of grandparents interviewed in a recent study had at least one stepgrandchild.

When Leslie Linsley of Nantucket, Mass., remarried, her husband's two grandchildren joined her four grandchildren in the family circle. Because the couple lives on a resort island, grandchildren and stepgrandchildren are in and out of the house all summer. Calling this "one of the best summers we've had," Ms. Linsley says cheerfully, "I think it's because nobody tried too hard."

Not trying too hard is, in fact, a central tenet among those seeking to help grandparents of divorce establish good relationships with stepgrandchildren.

"Give it time," says Ethel Dunn, president of the National Coalition of Grandparents in Madison, Wis. "That's the most important thing for stepgrandparents."

Ms. Dunn tells of one grandmother who called her, complaining that her stepgrandchildren did not love her. After asking a few questions, Dunn learned that her son and his wife had been married only a few months. The stepgrandchildren were teenagers and had seen her only once.

"You couldn't expect them to love her," says Dunn. "They didn't know her yet. She wanted this instant love. Nobody can give instant love."

Stepgrandparents' connections with children depend in part on the children's ages. Gaining the trust and affection of a teen who already has long-term relationships with biological grandparents is different from bonding with a baby.

Gift-giving by steps

Some stepgrandparents hear complaints that they do not love stepgrandchildren as much as they do their grandchildren. But intergenerational specialists find that stepgrandparents generally do give love and attention to their stepgrandchildren. "They welcome them into the fold and try to have an extended family relationship," Dunn says.

"Stepgrandparents are generally pretty generous," adds Jeannette Lofas, president of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York. Acknowledging that some people will favor a biological grandchild over a stepgrandchild in giving gifts, she says, "You can't totally fault them for that - that's their blood. But when they give exorbitant gifts in front of the stepchild, that's hurtful."

Establishing close relationships can be even more challenging when families are scattered. Linsley, whose stepgrandchildren live in Ohio, suggests writing letters or sending e-mail before visiting, "so you get an idea of the level on which the children are communicating." That also makes it easier to buy an age-appropriate gift - "something they'll like, or something that's approved by the parent, which is important."

Regardless of distance, Linsley offers another piece of advice: "If you always have the attitude that you're going to let the parents take the lead, you'll be welcome in their home. Ask them how they want to handle something."

Helene Block Fields of Downers Grove, Ill., who remarried five years ago, has seven stepgrandchildren. "I tell two of them I'm a stand-in for their deceased grandma," says Mrs. Fields.

Being a stand-in, she adds, involves "not intruding, not expecting anything back, not trying to fill your own needs with these children who are in some ways yours, but they're not yours. They're all very much dividends and wonderful to have."

Not the hub, but the rim

Stepgrandparents, Fields cautions, must also be careful to avoid jealousies or competition with the other set of grandparents. "If you are a stepgrandparent, you may be on the periphery," she says. "You might not be at the hub of the circle, but on the rim."

Yet even there the presence of stepgrandparents can be profound. Noting that her own stepfather had an "enormous influence" on her son's life, Ms. Lofas says, "I can remember him having my little son on his riding lawn mower. Whatever he was doing, he would take my son along. It was a great bonding experience."

To increase the chances of gratifying relationships like this, Dunn tells stepgrandparents, "Be there, let the child know you care, but don't push. If you step back and let the child come to you, eventually he or she will."

Dunn adds: "Be kind. If you as a stepgrandparent show that you're willing to accept the situation as it is, then the children will too."

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