The issue of shunning, withholding affection, socially isolating children and grandparents from each other, when it is in the child’s best interest, is psychological and emotional abuse that carries significant costs for society in the areas of intergenerational transmission of abuse, delinquency and adolescent maladjustment and interventions by health practitioners.
Through presentations and articles, AGA Canada also works to educate members of the provincial legislatures, lawyers and lawyers associations, justice professional groups, mediators and mediator associations, social workers, psychotherapists and psychologists, media groups, grandparent and seniors groups, children’s rights groups, family support groups, doctors and medical professional groups, church support groups, seniors support groups and many more.
There are several questions that we are often asked. Please follow the links below for our answers.
1. Is the extended family eroding? 2. Is there a new generational conflict going on? 3. Is society facing a dramatically new challenge? 4. How widespread is this alienation issue? 5. How do children’s protection laws compare across the provinces? 6. What are the long-term effects of abuse on young children? 7. What are the effects on grandparents? 8. Why is it abuse? 9. What are the social and economic costs related to this abuse? 10. How can grandparent involvement help alleviate these costs and contribute to the welfare of children?
1 - Is the extended family eroding?
Some grandparents live too far from their grandchildren and don’t see them as often as they would like. Some lack the health or stamina to be involved. Some feel that they just don’t want to be involved. In other cases, their own children are alienating an increasing number of grandparents from the grandchildren.
2 – Is there a new generational conflict going on?
We are Boomers. We grew up thinking that we could change the world. Activism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests, Flower Power and the Sexual Revolution, all shaped us. Generally, we were anti-war and anti-government. We claimed the moral authority. We believed in equal rights and equal opportunities. We believed that anything was possible. We were so optimistic and wanted to make a difference. We strived to fulfill our own individual goals and potential. We pursued our dreams.
We were always confident. We were prepared to work hard and we expected to be rewarded for our efforts. We were driven workaholics. We were hesitant to take too much time off work for fear of losing our place on the corporate team. As a result, there was always an imbalance between work and family.
Mom stayed home because our children were “special”. We were fiercely loyal to our children. We always took such an interest and empathized with them. We wanted to ensure that our children had high self-esteem and stayed away from drugs. We encouraged our children to have their own voice and to assert themselves.
Our children are Gen Xers. We raised them to be much more independent than we were. While we grew up in close, emotionally supportive families; our parents were strict and restrictive. We wanted more for our children. Gen Xers were the first generation of latchkey kids. Unfortunately, they also saw the highest divorce rate and second marriages in history and many grew up with single parents.
They were taught to believe they could get whatever they wanted. Growing up in the 1980s was a good life. The 1990s and the new millennium saw even more boom years. Let’s face it - they had a gold-plated childhood. They grew up not only with a sense of entitlement but impatience and hyper connectivity to the new social media.
They saw that we were workaholics and they decided to focus on a clearer balance between work and family. They work smarter and with greater output; not work longer hours.
They are first generation that will not do as well financially as we did. Times are harder for them, the economy has changed and they are more cautious about their money. Many struggle with high mortgages, car payments and babysitting costs.
They are more entrepreneurial, highly educated with high job expectations. They are self-reliant, more self-focused and individualistic.
Gen Xers are very skeptical and suspicious of their parent’s values. They often see their Boomer parents as always wanting things their own way, narcissistic, overbearing, guilt trippers, greedy, materialistic and ambitious.
3 – Is society facing a dramatically new challenge?
As Boomers we were always accustomed to having things our own way but now we are increasingly faced with a dynamic over which we have little control.
We had to earn our parent’s love and respect. Today, we have to earn our children’s love and respect. Gen Xer parents no longer see us, the grandparents, as oracles of knowledge. They feel that the Internet gives them all the parenting information that they need. They really don’t want our opinions. They don’t want to be told what to do. They see Boomer parents as hovering, overbearing, overly involved and controlling. These parents often want to make every call themselves and don’t want second-guessing.
Sometimes the underlying irritant is also repressed sibling rivalry or a comment that someone innocently made, or our sons and daughters wanting to simply exercise their control. Sometimes, it’s a child blaming one parent for a divorce or a remarriage or feeling displaced in a blended family. Sometimes it’s a misguided jealousy that the grandchild may love the grandparent more than the parent. Sometimes, it’s the insecurity of a daughter-in-law fearing that her husband is too close to his parents.
Whatever the underlying reason, they end up alienating themselves from their Boomer parents. For them, there is no other way to establish their own sense of independence, identity and autonomy. Moreover, the rule is that the parents must suffer in silence. They must not tell anyone about the alienation or embarrass their children in any way.
Strangely, parents who were close with their children seem to be more at risk because their 30 something children want to be independent but they don’t know how to do that and still be close to their parents.
This estrangement leaves families divided, unable to truly understand what is going on and why it’s happening. Children can’t verbalize it to their parents; parents don’t know what they did or failed to do and grandchildren are left without their grandparents – just because!
A Canadian study of alienated grandparents found that it is paternal grandparents who are most at risk of losing contact after parental separation or family conflict. Of the grandparents interviewed, 67 per cent were discouraged from or forbidden contact with grandchildren by their daughters-in-law. The circumstances varied from access being entirely refused or restricted after separation and divorce, to withholding as a consequence of conflict in an intact family. (Edward Kruk, Grandparent-Grandchild Contact Loss: Findings from a Study of Grandparent Rights Members, Un. of British Columbia, Canadian Journal of Aging, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1995).
4 – How widespread is this alienation issue?
According to Elder Abuse Ontario, 2% to 10% of older adults (40,000 - 200,000) in Ontario have experienced or are experiencing some type of abuse. There are no specific studies that outline the number of Ontario grandparents that are alienated and suffering in silent shame, unwilling to tell people what their own children are doing to them.
We estimate the number of alienated grandparents in Ontario at 100,000 and up to 300,000 children.
The Silent Epidemic in Our Neighborhood is very real. The estrangement varies in degrees. Sometimes it is just an icy coldness manifesting itself in few visits and never being asked to babysit. Other times people just refuse to have any contact whatsoever. It sadly affects more people than you think. It stays silent because no one wants to admit that the child that they were so close to doesn’t want to talk to them anymore and blames them for the way his life turned out.
It’s happening with regularity in every country, community, every nationality and every religion. It happens in small towns and in big cities. All you have to do is Google ‘grandparent alienation’ or ‘grandchildren visitation rights’ and you will see the size of this generational epidemic. There are websites, chat rooms and FaceBook pages all over the Internet.
So many are suffering quietly, defenselessly and in shame. Imagine not hearing from your child, not seeing your grandchildren, thinking that the grandchildren must feel that you have abandoned them, not knowing what exactly you did and not knowing how to fix it. You feel guilt, shame and you can’t tell anyone – what would they think of your son or daughter? Even seeing strangers with their grandchildren reinforces what is absent in your life. You don’t go out anymore. There is no joy in your life. You think of your grandchildren first thing in the morning and last thing at night and so many times in between. You feel a bit like a leper, so different from everybody else. You can’t understand how your wonderful son or daughter, with whom you were so close, suddenly doesn’t want you in his or her life anymore. It’s a living bereavement.
5 – How do children’s protection laws compare across the provinces?
Seven provinces and the Yukon Territory have statutes that specifically address grandparents' rights.  In the remaining provinces and territories, grandparents may still petition for access just like any other interested party, but the laws of the province have not yet been amended to recognize the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.
1. Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act (amended via Bill 34 in December 2016) asks that judges listen to the petitions of grandparents in cases of access or custody. Yet, Ontario’s law is still the most antiquated in the country nor is mediation process pushed forward as a method to resolve family disputes.
2. In British Columbia, grandparents are mentioned among those who may be given court-ordered access to a child. The law also states that access can be granted independently of custody and that the courts may set terms and conditions as judged to be in the best interests of the child. In British Columbia mediation and collaborative family lawyers are promoted as ways to avoid lengthy legal battles. (Family Relation Act [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 128)
3. Manitoba addresses grandparents' rights in a fairly lengthy statute that covers grandparents along with other individuals who might apply for access. When deciding whether visitation is in the best interests of the child, the court is directed to consider the mental, emotional and physical needs of the child. In addition, the court will consider the nature of any pre-existing relationship; and, when the applicant is a grandparent, "that a child can benefit from a positive, nurturing relationship with a grandparent." Manitoba law also spells out the different forms that access can take. These include time spent with the child (supervised or unsupervised), the opportunity to attend specific activities of the child and the right to exchange gifts with the child. The court can also consider the right to communicate with the child or to be supplied with pictures of the child and information about the child. (Child and Family Services Act C.C.S.M c. 80.)
4. In New Brunswick, the law specifies what should be considered in determining the best interest of the child. These factors include the following: the mental, emotional and physical health of the child, any care required, the wishes of the child, when they can be determined, the possibility that access would disrupt "the child’s sense of continuity", the ties that exist between the child and grandparent, the need for a secure environment that would allow the child to reach his or her full potential, and the child's religious and cultural heritage. (Family Services Act. c. F 2.2.)
5. Grandparents are specifically mentioned in Quebec's statutes: "In no case may the father or mother, without a grave reason, interfere with personal relations between the child and his grandparents." The court is given the responsibility of governing relationships between children and grandparents in cases in which the parties involved fail to agree. (Article 611 of the Civil Code of Quebec)
6. In 2012 the legislature of Nova Scotia amended its statute so that it specifically mentions grandparents among those who can seek access to a child. This Grandparents' Rights Affirmation Act amends the existing Maintenance and Custody Act. In 2007 the Law Reform Commission of Nova Scotia produced a report entitled “Grandparent-Grandchild: Access” that provides an in-depth analysis of both statutory law and case law as it applies to grandparent visitation rights. In Nova Scotia applicants for access must first obtain the leave of the court before they can file a suit for access. The Law Reform Commission found that this step allows for the weeding out of suits that are frivolous or lack merit.
7. The Children’s Law Act of Newfoundland & Labrador specifies that grandparents have a legal right to apply to court for access to their grandchildren. Courts have recognized that maintaining relationships with extended family is often in a child’s best interests. Family Justice Services (FJS) provides free mediation services in custody and access disputes.
8. The Yukon statutes address issues of custody and access and are quite lengthy. They are very specific about what constitutes the best interests of the child, but most of the criteria are more relevant to questions of custody than of access. (Children's Act, R.S.Y. 2002, c. 31)
6 – What are the long-term effects of abuse on young children?
According to The Public Health Agency of Canada: In young children (0-12), psychological abuse can cause failure-to-thrive, elevated levels of cortisol (stress hormone) that can damage areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation, delays in language development, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, limited peer interaction, severe cognitive and academic interaction, aggression, etc.
7 – What are the effects on grandparents?
For excluded grandparents, this is an ongoing “living bereavement”. It causes stress, loneliness, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, alcoholism, social anxiety, increased use of antidepressants, greater risk of hospitalization, increased risk of coronary heart disease/stroke, depression and suicidal tendencies - all leading to increased loss of social cohesion in communities and higher provincial health and social costs.
According to The National Senior’s Council of Canada:
The social isolation of seniors can cause communities to suffer a lack of social cohesion, higher social costs and the loss of an unquantifiable wealth of experience that older adults bring to our families, neighbourhoods and communities.
Social isolation reduces social skills and can cause depression, social anxiety, loneliness, alcoholism and schizophrenia.
People who have been isolated have higher risk of negative health behaviours including drinking, smoking, being sedentary and not eating well and a higher likelihood of falls.
They have four-to-five times greater risk of hospitalization.
Social isolation is also a predictor of mortality from coronary heart disease/stroke.
Social isolation affects psychological and cognitive health and leads to higher levels of depression and suicide.
Social isolation increases the risk of developing mental health issues, has an impact on the person’s self-esteem and confidence, which decreases their connection with the community and inhibits them from accessing health care services, thus perpetuating isolation.
The lack of a supportive social network is also linked to a 60% increase in the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
8 – Why is it abuse?
Using children as pawns in relationships, withholding affection, socially isolating and refusing children access to their grandparents or refusing grandparents access to the kids - is defined as emotional and psychological abuse by: The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, Elder Abuse Ontario and The Public Health Agency of Canada.
More specifically, according to The Public Health Agency of Canada:
Psychological abuse is the systemic destruction of a person's self-esteem and/or sense of safety, often occurring in relationships where there are differences in power and control.
Isolation, including the deprivation of contact and other psychologically abusive tactics and behaviours such as using children as pawns in relationships, is abuse and the term can be used interchangeably with psychological abuse, emotional abuse, mental cruelty, intimate terrorism and psychological aggression.
Researchers have confirmed that psychological abuse is a common and significant form of interpersonal violence… victims experience greater trauma from ongoing, severe psychological abuse than from experiencing infrequent physical assault.
9 – What are the social and economic costs related to this abuse?
According to The Public Health Agency of Canada, there are 3 types of costs:
1. Costs of intergenerational transmission of abuse Schools must cope with the behavioural problems of emotionally traumatized children.
Later on, these controlling tactics may impact negatively in our workplaces, homes and communities.
Governments will need to allocate significant resources in school settings for early intervention, anti-bullying and healthy relationship programs.
2. Costs of delinquency and adolescent maladjustment Child maltreatment is a significant risk factor for adolescent maladjustment (Ireland, Smith and Thornberry 2002, 361).
Children are at increased risk of delinquency and involvement in gang activity (Ireland, Smith and Thornberry 2002, 383).
The costs to society are enormous for counseling and response of the legal system (law enforcement, courts and corrections).
3. Costs of interventions by health practitioners Research shows that victims of abuse are more likely to use the health care system than individuals who are not abused (Schornstein 1997, 70-74).
Moreover, abused women may be diagnosed solely in terms of symptoms (Schornstein 1997, 70- 74), meaning the root causes of their symptoms are never addressed…fostering the need for on-going, long-term medical treatment. Women may instead be over-medicated (Gondolf 1998, 3-22; Schornstein 1997). When this happens, the costs associated with the use of medications, and in some cases, long-term addictions, are great.
10 – How can grandparent involvement help alleviate these costs and contribute to the welfare of children?
Grandparents can play an important role in reducing the enormous social and monetary costs.
There is also research showing that grandparents and grandchildren add a lot to each other’s well being. There is also no evidence that this research has been extensively used in legal arguments.
Grandparents are part of a family’s first reserve in times of crisis. They are not only playmates for grandchildren, role models, family historians and mentors. They also help establish and maintain a sense of security and grounding for grandchildren, particularly in troubled marriages or divorce situations. Grandparents can be indispensable in helping children understand family dynamics and in reducing and preventing increased cases of delinquency and adolescent maladjustment by giving their grandchildren attention, someone to talk to, love and lasting self-esteem. The research is clear on this:
1. Legal cases usually focus on what is in “the best interest of the child”. Several research studies have concluded that grandparents play a significant role in the lives of children, and in fact, ignoring the existence of a grandparent who has formed strong bonds with a child may not represent the best interests of that child. (Kivnick, 1982; Wilson and DeShane, 1982; Wilks and Melville, 1990).
2. One research study indicates that the grandparent’s role is an integral part of their self-identity. When the role of grandparent is removed, the physical and emotional effects are severe, resulting in necessary medical and psychological intervention. (Downs and Walz, 1981).
3. Research has shown a strong correlation between a grandparent’s involvement and a child’s wellbeing. A grandparent taking an interest in the youngster’s hobbies was associated with the grandchild having fewer peer problems; getting involved with their schooling was associated with fewer behaviour problems; and grandchildren who talked about future career plans with grandma or grandpa had lower incidences of emotional issues (Oxford Study, 2010). A further study found that grandparents who are involved in the daily lives of their grandchildren increase the wellbeing and happiness in those children. (Prof. Ann Buchanan, Jan. 2016, Oxford Un. / Institute of Education in London). Her book on 'Grandfathers: global perspectives' published by Palgrave Macmillan, includes analysis, as well as chapters by scholars from around the world and three new studies relating to child wellbeing.
4. A study entitled “Grey Power: The Power of Grandparent Involvement” found that grandparents can promote children's cognitive and academic development in a number of ways. (McCluskey, Ken; McCluskey, Andrea. Reclaiming Children and Youth 9.2 (Summer 2000): 111-115).
5. A 1987 study found that adolescents were found to share regularly a variety of recreational activities with grandparents and expressed positive feelings about spending leisure time with grandparents. (Dellmann-Jenkins, M., Papalia, D. & Lopez, M. J Fam Econ Iss (1987) 8: 35. doi: 10.1007/BF01555770)
6. A study published by the American Sociological Association concluded that an emotionally close grandparent-adult-grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations. (Sara M. Moorman and Jeffrey E. Stokes, Does Solidarity in the Grandparent/Grandchild Relationship Protect Against Depressive Symptoms? / Aug. 12, 2013.)