Being a step-grandparent isn’t a role that many people dream of, but it’s a reality that many more are living.
According to the most recent numbers from the Census Bureau, 8% of all American children, and 48% of American children in blended families lived with a stepparent—adding up to a whole lot of step-grandparents.
And that doesn’t even count the number of step-grandparents who get there by marrying later in life, to someone who already has grandchildren: According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 67% of previously married adults ages 55 to 64 remarried.
Regardless of how you might have come into the role, creating a relationship with your step-grandchild can present unexpected challenges. You may feel less of a connection, or be unsure how to bond. If you’ve remarried, you may also be struggling to mend fences with your own kids. Even something as seemingly simple as what the grandkids should call you can take on a larger significance.
Some step-grandparents are eager to embrace their new title, and wind up coming on too strong, says Joshua M. Gold, PhD, Professor of Counseling, University of South Carolina, and author of Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm: “Teens, in particular, are getting ready to leave home and may not be open to making more connections with people they don’t know yet.”
Expect civility and politeness; be delighted if there is more. The children don’t know you, and may feel a divided loyalty to their own grandparents or divorced parent.
On the flip side, knowing a child from the time she was a zygote creates a bond that you’re unlikely to feel right away with a strange kid—if you feel it at all. That problem may be heightened if you already have grandchildren who are in your life regularly.
But if you’re patient, the rewards will come. “The step-grandparent relationship takes time to be co-created,” says Gold. “In the end, I don’t think children can have too much emotional support. You can never have too many people who you know you can rely on, who are there when you ask and who rejoice in your accomplishments.”
The delicate dance
While there are no hard and fast rules to these kinds of personal relationships, experts say that the following tips can help you forge a calmer path:
Don’t give advice. Or thoughts. Or hints. And never take sides. It is not your place to give orders, undermine their parent or step-parent’s rules or demand they change their traditions align with yours.
You must honor the evolution of the new parenting alliance, even if you disagree with the rules that govern that parenting relationship. “If you are not sure if something is appropriate to do or give, go through the parents. Respect that they are the gatekeepers,” says Jane Isay, author of Unconditional Love.
Keep it even. It’s totally fine if you don’t feel the same about all your grandchildren, but do your best to hide it. If you’ll be opening presents at a family holiday, make sure they’re of equal weight. (It’s fine to differentiate in private, of course). And don’t compare one child to another.
Toss out your ego. “The wise step grandparents play the long game. If you are angry at the parent or grandchildren, tell a trusted friend, but don’t make a big deal out of it,” says Isay.
Especially if your relationship with your kids is at all frail, you need to accept that they may have negative feelings, and not bring them into your new grand-parenting relationship. Says Isay: “No one ever died from being agreeable.”