Melody Teh

Family & Pets

How to be a good step-grandparent

How to be a good step-grandparent

In today’s modern society, it’s not uncommon or unusual for there to be many different types of families. Becoming a step-grandparent is now increasingly common, with researchers predicting one-third of grandparents will eventually welcome a step-grandchild into the family. It’s both an exciting and challenging new role to undertake, with step-grandparents playing an important role in blended families. But without the bloodline obligating step-grandparents and step-grandchildren to bond or the life-long connection to build upon, it can be difficult to know what your role as step-grandparent is within the family.

Over60 spoke to Emeritus Professor Doreen Rosenthal from The University of Melbourne, who is the co-author of New Age Nanas: Being a Grandmother in the 21st Century, with Swinburne Emeritus Professor Susan Moore. For their book, they interviewed over 1,000 Australian grandmothers and found that, as expected, many grandmothers had step-grandchildren as well as biological grandchildren.

“Most survey respondents who raised the issue of step-grandparenting went on to describe a positive relationship, sometimes better than with their biological grandchildren,” Professor Rosenthal told Over60, adding, “Others commented on the way that step grandchildren could bring new perspectives to family life, for example cultural differences.”

When we asked the Over60 community about their experiences, it was very positive, indicating that step-grandparenting, like most of the changes that come with families, are accepted and embraced.

“I am a step grandparent, but don't refer to myself as this, nor do my 'grandchildren' or their parent's. I'm just Grandma or G-ma as the cheeky one once said (I loved it by the way),” says Felicity Weston, of the children from her husband’s daughter from his first marriage. “We have been together 31 years now, so it's nothing new. I adore them both, and their parents by the way.”

She adds, “I always include them in my grandchildren count, wouldn't think not to.”

Stella Burnell, who has two step grandchildren from her son’s partners’ previous relationship, agrees.  “I've got four bio grandchildren and two step grandchildren. I would never call them that though – they call me Grandma Stella and I call them my grandchildren”

Stella believes the key to any grandparenting is just taking life as it comes, like you would with your biological grandchildren.

“They are still very young. They just take life as it comes and so do I,” she says.

Felicity acknowledges that it’s not always easy to develop close relationships with new family members.

“I am not, however, entirely sure the door swings both ways in respect of my husband's feelings towards his step-grandchildren, my biological grandchildren; but that says more about him than me,” she says, continuing, “You can't force these things. I've had to learn to live with it, as confronting as it is at times. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with anyone, certainly children from another portion of the family and you have to work at it without appearing to force it.”

Here, Professor Rosenthal shares her tips for new step-grandparents to bond with their new grandchildren.

  • Take your time: Bonding is often closer or easier if you know the step-grandchildren from birth, that is, they are the children of step-children with whom you already have had a long and/or close relationship. However, if the step-grandchildren and their parent are new to your family, it may take time and tact to get to know them. Don’t try to force their love. Don’t worry if you don’t immediately bond but don’t wait too long. Research indicates that the older the step-grandchild, the less likely he or she is to develop a close relationship with the step-grandparent.
  • Try to have regular access: This may be easy if the step-grandchildren are part of a family to whom you are closely connected (for example, if they are in the same household as your biological grandchildren), although this brings greater opportunity for conflict. But if a special effort has to be made to visit these children, relationships may not form, or may be slow to develop unless you put the time and effort into regular visits.
  • Negotiate your role: Make sure that your step-grandchild’s wishes are considered as well as your own. You may be a cuddly step-grandparent but your step-grandchild may see this as a physical intrusion. Settle on how much affection is comfortable for them. Ask them what they want to call you; don’t insist on ‘grandma’ or ‘grandpa’ or variants of these traditional names.
  • Treat step-grandchildren fairly: You don’t have to love them but try to make them feel included in your family life. You can have a good relationship and get on well without loving them.
  • Don’t get involved in family conflicts: It’s hard to be neutral but there is no positive payoff in taking sides when step-grandchildren are involved. Remember, you can easily be seen as an outsider in times of stress.
  • Be flexible: Step-grandchildren can be an unexpected and wonderful gift provided you have realistic expectations. You can enjoy being friends; you can pay them attention; you can include them in family activities. Try to engage your step-grandchildren, but don’t be hurt if some of your efforts are rejected.
Professor Rosenthal's lasting words of advice is to remember all relationships are different.

“Remember, that whatever you do, it’s a complex relationship and you may find there are serious obstacles to achieving a close and loving relationship with your step-grandchildren. But remember, also, that sometimes it’s hard to be the good grandparents to your biological grandchildren!”

Do you have step-grandchildren? What tips for new step-grandparents do you have? Share with us in the comments below.

Related links:

New-age nanas: a guide to successful grand-parenting in the 21st century

How to talk to your granddaughter

The many things grandparents sacrifice for their family