An Overview of Grandparent Alienation 

     [Excerpt taken from The Alienation Of Nana: A True Story]

                                   Chapter One

            - An Overview of Grandparent Alienation-

The following discussions are not intended to address or include situations where children are at realistic risk of being physically, sexually, or emotionally harmed by the abuse or neglect of a grandparent.  The term ”alienation” does NOT apply to those situations or to any legal measures taken by a parent whose purpose is to keep a child safe from harm inflicted by a relative - even if those measures include the termination of all contact with the abuser to whom the child is related. This discussion concerns only the termination of relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren implemented by the middle generation, the children’s parents, for reasons that are unsupported by any facts that point to the abuse or neglect of the grandchildren.  


Alienated grandparents often grow old long before their grandchildren grow up. Sometimes grandparents even die before their grandchildren come of an age where they might muster up the courage or curiosity to seek out grandparents whose DNA they carry, but who were shunned before the children were old enough to form memories of them - to see for themselves who these people really are.  Courage takes time and maturity and a purpose to find within oneself.  Curiosity, on the other hand, can suffocate in an instant under the weight of a parent's glance or the size of the family to which she belongs, that reminds the child that her first duty is of loyalty to the people who banished her grandparents in the first place. That banishment is called “alienation.” 


Over the past three decades, I have learned an easy test by which to quickly separate the legitimate from the illegitimate situations where parents impose an interruption or termination to the contact between their children and their own parents, i.e., the children's grandparents.  In the legitimate situation, parents seek to protect their children from a manageable circumstance, usually occurring in the grandparent’s life: e.g., sickness, death of a spouse (the other grandparent), addiction, depression, etc. Temporary restrictions are imposed on the contact to protect the children from situations they may not be old enough to understand and which could cause them confusion or anxiety.   The restrictions are “temporary” because the circumstance that triggered the need for protection will either pass with time, or be accepted and integrated into the family’s new way of life - such as a life without the other grandparent who just died.   

In the illegitimate situation, i.e., in an alienation, parents seek to permanently end the relationship between the children and the grandparents, and they use the protection of the children as the pretext for doing so.   The pretext is eventually exposed for what it is: a lie; but rarely will the true victims of the alienation - the children - ever see or understand it to be so. The underlying lie that is told to justify the extraordinary step of eliminating grandparents from a child’s universe will eventually take on a life of its own.  The lie will become the only “truth" the children know, making it highly resistant, if not impervious, to any real facts.  That is why the alienation of grandparents is so frequently the enduring state of affairs that the grandparents - and then the grandchildren - take to their respective graves.  

At first blush, the two situations may look alike, because the parents in each situation will contend that the separation being imposed is in the children’s best interest; but one needs only to scratch lightly at the surface to find the profound and significant differences between them that reveals the feigned justification to be the bogus motivation that it is.  

In the legitimate situation, the objective of every grown-up in the room is to preserve the relationship between the children and their grandparents, while still protecting the children from any harm that may be caused by the latter.  The goal is to find a path forward where the children are protected, but where the relationship with the grandparents can still be encouraged and reinforced. That path forward always stems from a premise that says the relationship itself is as valuable to the children and for the children, as is their protection from the immediate circumstance.   Whatever safe vehicle is chosen to address the risk at hand will be steered back to normalcy as quickly as possible, protecting both the children and the relationship they have with their grandparents.   That vehicle might initially take the form of visits under supervision; or visits in small increments of time; or chatting face-to-face via computers or iPads, rather than in a hospital room or rehab facility; but it is always presumed that the children can only benefit from having a relationship with a close relative who loves them. 

In an illegitimate situation, the objective of every grown-up in the room is to destroy the relationship the children have with their grandparents, and often to destroy the grandparents themselves.  Once accomplished, the goal will then be to destroy the memories the children have of their grandparents.  And finally, the goal will be to destroy any pleasure, joy or pride the grandparents themselves might take from being these children’s grandparents - even while keeping their distance as required under the terms of the alienation.  For example, gifts that are sent to the children by the grandparents - with a note that says the children do not need to be told who sent the gift - are returned unopened to the grandparents.  They will not even be allowed to have a picture of their grandchildren.  In other words, grandparents will not be permitted to experience their grandparent-hood in any fashion at all; not even in a fashion that does not put them in contact with the grandchildren who are said to need protection from their grandparents.    Thus, alienation is all about what can be destroyed. Alienation has nothing to do with what can be preserved or who can be protected.  And it certainly has nothing to do with the “best interest" of the children.

In the reading I have done on this topic, there seems to be a middle ground that I have never actually encountered in my own practice, and have only observed once in a courtroom many years ago in someone else’s case; but I mention it here because there is literature on it and should therefore be included in this discussion.  That middle ground is where the parents of the grandchildren have cut off all ties between the grandparents and the grandchildren because the grandparents are alleged to have been “meddling” or “belittling.”  The point of one particular paper taking this position was to illuminate a bona fide reason why parents could legitimately decide that their children have no contact with the grandparents even in the absence of any abuse or mistreatment.  If the grandparents were meddling and belittling grandparents, rather than “doting” grandparents, alienation might be, the writer said, legitimate.  The article reminded me of a true story, and I wondered whether the author of this particular paper would have drawn the same conclusions if he had dug deeper into what a “meddling” grandparent might offer his grandchildren - not only some day in the future, but now in the present, while the grandchild was still young.   

True story - picked up twenty-plus years down the road, later in this series.  Here, we are in 1978.  A divorced couple were the parents of an only child.  A son.  The father’s father had been in a concentration camp for much of the second world war.  The father's mother had been able to disguise her Jewish identity and was able to hide in plain sight until her deception was betrayed or discovered just before the war ended.  She was caught and tortured.  Their experiences cannot even begin to be imagined.  And it is understandable that their psychological scars were visible everywhere.  By any standard, their behavior was viewed as abnormal - but totally understandable.   There had always been tension between them and their daughter-in-law, and that did not change when she and their son divorced.  But the daughter-in-law never interfered in the contact between her son and his paternal grandparents. 

“Meddling" and “belittling" are mild words for how these grandparents behaved.   For example, after their grandson’s mother had re-married,  the child’s grandfather came to the apartment she shared with her son and her new husband (who was not Jewish) to pick up his grandson for a weekend of visiting, shopping, and his grandmother’s fabulous home cooking.  The door was opened to him and he was invited in to sit and wait while his grandson gathered his belongings for the weekend visit.  The grandfather declined the invitation to take a seat, and instead, immediately handed a small gift box to his ex-daughter-in-law while he remained standing in his coat at the doorway.  The new husband stood by and looked on while the child was in his bedroom - in earshot of what was happening at the front door.  

“Here,” the grandfather said.  "This is for your Christmas tree that honors the people that killed six million Jews.”  

Inside the box was an angel-ornament for the tree. 

There was a Christmas tree in the apartment, and there was a Menorah, and his grandson was being raised to celebrate the traditions of both - and the religions of neither.  The tree was offensive to the Jewish grandparents who had survived the Holocaust, and they let it be known in the rudest and most disrespectful manner possible.  But it was understandable.  His ex-daughter-in-law could have asked him to leave - without his grandson - and could have called his behavior  “belittling” and “meddling”  - not to mention historically inaccurate.  She could have seen to it that his grandson’s visits would be totally dependent on their own son’s willingness to fly into the geographical area where his parents lived - two towns over from their grandson - while their son resided on the east coast - a two-hour plane trip away. She could have refused to serve as any sort of liaison for contact between her son and his grandparents. She could have.  But she didn’t.  

Was it the right decision?  The wrong decision?  Would your answer be different if I also told you that when this child grew into an adult, he confided in his mother that his grandparents had never referred to her by name or as “mommy” or “your mother”?   His grandparents, the son said, called her “the bitch.”   “How is the bitch?” they would ask of a ten-year-old child at the dinner table.  

That was more than just meddling or belittling.  At the point that a child's parent or step-parent is being treated as an object of a grandparent’s contempt, the balancing test will - and should - yield a different outcome.  Not because the sins are so much more offensive, but because they have now taken on the form of child abuse. Read the caveat written in red font at the top of this blog.  There are many ways in which an adult can abuse a child, and making a child complicit in a secret character assassination of a parent is one way to do it.  When a child is made to pay for the love coming from one person with the currency of his betrayal of another person who also loves him, that is child abuse.  And the same would be just as true if a parent was maligning the other parent throughout (or after) a custody dispute, expecting the child to choose one parent while betraying the other.  When a parent or a grandparent speaks with such venom and hostility to the child about any adult who loves the child, especially a close relative such as a parent or grandparent; and then expects the child to treat that character assassination as their little secret; emotional and psychological damage is almost inevitable. That is why this level of “belittling” would be grounds for intervention, suspension or termination of contact with the child, while the former level, in my opinion, would not.

Most parents who terminate a grandparent's access to the grandchildren do not do so for any reason having to do with the relationship between the grandparents and the grandchildren. They terminate contact between the grandparents and the grandchildren because of the relationship between the parents and the grandparents.   The children are merely used as the weapons of a war which only the parents understand.  (I will discuss this in more detail in a future chapter.) So when they terminate their own children’s relationship with grandparents who love them, the parents do not ask how much love might be lost to those children; or what memories will be stolen from their children’s future; or how it might shake their children’s world to its core when they realize that two people who loved them so much yesterday just disappeared off the face of the earth today - without so much as saying good-bye.  They do not ask what family history will be lost, like what it was like to be Jewish in Poland or Germany in the middle of the twentieth century - and live to tell about it to a grandchild who is seen as the miracle of their lifetime. When a parent is alienating grandparents from the lives of one’s own children, no one asks those questions. No one. Not because no one cares; but because they care about something else so much more: destroying the grandparents.  And how better to make that happen than to launch an assault with weapons that will level the greatest and longest lasting damage - all the while knowing they are protected by law to do it.  There is not a thing that the target of an alienation can do about it.  There is no legal recourse open to grandparents who are trying to prevent an alienation, and no recourse to reverse one that has already been implemented.  No recourse at all.

Today - in a political era that has given us nightly pictures and reports of children being separated from their parents and grandparents at the border - we see an updated horror show of what family separation looks like; and it has appalled us as a nation.  As this blog is being written, more than 525 children are still waiting to be reunified with the parents or grandparents who brought them to this country.  We all know the not-so-distant history of Nazis separating families at the gates of the concentration camps, where guns and dogs were needed to tear them apart from one another.  Force and legal authority are always required to perpetrate these kinds of atrocities that come from outside the family unit.  But when instigated from within the family unit, a parent can separate his children from other members of the family simply because . . . well, simply because he is the parent.  He needs no German Shepherds.  No guns.  No force.  No orders from high above his rank.  He can separate his family on a whim, on a lark, or on liquor.  And there is nothing that can be done by the targeted relative to alter the intended outcome.  Nothing.

That does not mean the grandparents who were alienated from their grandchildren by the parents of those children are helpless to alter their grief.  It just means their love will need to find a different way to express itself. They will not be able to give hugs or have talks.  They will have no histories with those children, no growing bond that occurs naturally as children mature and grandparents age.  No history to share of what it was like to grow up in the sixties in America, instead of the thirties and forties in Europe's last century. These grandparents will have to fight to make their love known, and to leave their love behind when they are gone.  It is all they can do, for the only other option is to give up.  And for some, that is no option at all.   It will take their own death to extinguish their hope.  It will take their own death to end their fight. 

Love cannot always save us, but it can be the reason why we fight.  Then love becomes the wound that bleeds. The space to be filled. The emptiness that echoes into silence.

                                                                                                 Call The Midwife, Season 7, Episode 7

                                       Go to the next chapter

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