Maybe an innocent but misunderstood remark to a son or daughter-in-law triggered a spiral of anger. Maybe the fallout from a bitter divorce left a grandparent on the outside looking in. Maybe a miscommunication over babysitting led to accusations that couldn’t be taken back. For whatever reason, some grandparents become estranged from their adult children — and, in turn, from their grandchildren. When family relationships fall apart, piecing them back together can seem difficult. But if you take the right approach to reconciliation, things can be set right again.
Consider “Sarah” [a composite based on the cases of several people]. She was ecstatic when her grandson, Devon, was born. They shared a special relationship that delighted them both. However, her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Karen, was difficult. It seemed Sarah was constantly disappointing Karen by not feeding Devon “properly,” letting him stay up “too late,” or taking him to a PG-rated movie without asking his parents’ permission first.
After a particularly tense discussion with Karen, Sarah’s son e-mailed her to say that the couple felt that she “didn’t respect” their rules, and wasn’t a good influence on their son.
Sarah was furious. She hastily wrote an e-mail calling their accusations petty and spiteful. Afterward, she felt awful about the message and tried to make things right, but received no response.
“When it comes to hurt emotions, many parents of adult children feel like saying, ‘Can’t you just get over it?'” says Pat Burns, author of Grandparents Rock (Morgan James Publishing). “But repairing old wounds requires accepting an adult child’s pain as their reality and simply saying, ‘I never meant to hurt you.'”
Ten Steps Toward Reconciliation
If you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to Sarah’s, these 10 steps toward achieving reconciliation might help heal the rift in your family:
1. Identify the payoff for reconciling — for example, restored time with your grandchildren. Write it down and keep it where it will be in view when you make the first conciliatory phone call.
2. Express your feelings to someone other than the person from whom you’re estranged. You’ll find it easier to move toward reconciliation if you’ve vented your hurt and anger with a trusted friend or counselor first.
3. Try to understand their point of view. List three reasons why your grandchildren’s parents might think it right to pull away from you. Even if you don’t agree with the reasons, the process will help you step into their shoes and see the situation from their perspective.
4. Make the call. Dial the parents and request a time when they might be willing to talk for a few minutes. Don’t force a conversation in this initial call, and stay calm and respectful. If you’re aggressive or insistent, they may resist meeting with you.
5. Acknowledge the cost of the estrangement and how it would be better for everyone if you could heal and move forward.
6. Apologize sincerely. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you got angry with me for taking Devon to that PG movie, but if you had told me ahead of time that you don’t approve, I wouldn’t have taken him.” That is an explanation, not an apology. Simply say, “I’m sorry,” without adding your defense. A genuine apology consists of three parts:
• “I’m sorry.”
• “I can understand how you might have felt upset.”
• “How can I make it right?”
7. Hear them out. Allow the parents to express the feelings that prompted their estrangement. When they’re finished, resist the urge to debate or tell your side. Simply ask them if there’s more they’d like to say. Don’t rush them or cut them off. Give them time to completely offload whatever pent-up feelings precipitated the rift.
8. Make things right. Ask them what they need from you to get things back on track. Listen without interrupting, and let them know you’ll think about what they’ve said. Don’t say they’re asking for too much, but at the same time, don’t impulsively promise to do something you can’t reasonably commit to.
9. Let it go. You may want to hear an apology from the parents, but don’t try to force one from them. While it would be wonderful if they would take responsibility for their contribution to the problem, they may not be ready yet. Allow them to apologize in their own time, and be prepared for the possibility that they may never say they’re sorry for the estrangement. It may be frustrating, but remember to keep the benefits of reconciliation foremost in your mind.
10. Forgive. Staying angry at someone isn’t worth the price in stress, sadness, and wasted energy. We all make mistakes. We all forget to be our best selves out of fear, hurt, or pride. As Mark Twain said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Find the best version of yourself, forgive, and move forward.
Sarah’s desire to patch things up motivated her to move through these steps, despite her deep feelings of anger and hurt. It was awkward at first, but, eventually, she made it through important conversations with her son and daughter-in-law, leading to a healthier relationship all around.
Life is too short not to enjoy the love and companionship of our children and grandchildren, even if it means taking the leap of faith required to attempt a reconciliation. On this Grandparents Day, we encourage you to give it a try.