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Where are Nan and Pa?

In July 2022, the Institute of Family Studies reported that two in five grandparents provided ‘some care’ for grandchildren, with 63% offering support for those under 10 and 33% for children 10-12 years old. Those with younger grandchildren were more likely to offer care once a week or more. 

These numbers reflect the key role grandparents and in particular grandmothers play in the lives of Australian children. However, there is another cohort of grandparents who do not see their grandchildren and a six-year longitudinal study by (Condon, Corkindale, Luszcz & Gamble, 2013) revealed that approximately 10% of the sample had no contact, with the most common explanation being constraints produced by parents. Fracturing from grandparents is often a consequence of parental alienation where in the absence of abuse or neglect and with the incitement of the other parent, a child rejects, derogates, and demonizes their parent. This rejection and animosity often spread beyond the parental subsystem to include the target parent’s whole extended family, including grandparents. Rejection of this relationship has been repeatedly validated as a behaviour characterizing parental alienation situations.  

It is well validated that parental alienation has long term mental consequences for these children who may exhibit anxiety disorders and trauma reactions in adulthood, and it is reasonable to suggest that this is exacerbated by the loss of key relationships.  

Children and the alienated parent are not the only losers; grandparents also suffer. To understand their experience, Bounds and Matthewson (2022) conducted semi-structured interviews with twelve alienated grandparents which revealed thirteen alienating behaviours which contributed to their disconnection. Behaviours experienced by grandparents are consistent with those described by alienated parents in other research and include brainwashing, denigration, and encouragement of disrespect. Consistent with current thinking, some participants characterised the conduct as a form of family violence. Grandparents found it difficult to accept the contact being ruled by the alienating parent and when they did see their grandchildren experienced communication as strained due to the constraints imposed on what could be spoken and the underlying sense of disrespect or denigration. The power of the alienating parent to end the relationship at any time contributed to a sense of lack of permanency and anxiety. 

The implications of the research for practice suggests grandparents need to understand this dynamic to protect them from contributing to the triangulation. The authors also note that programs typically focus on the alienated child and parents, but it may be more helpful to broaden the perspective to include other family members and support grandparents with coping strategies. Finally, they recommend that court sanctioned therapy with consequences for non-compliance is best practice and a combined approach by both mental health and legal professionals is important and effective for all parties. 

This is a situation where there are no winners, with consequences that will extend through life. An approach which understands the pattern as it includes all those whose lives are touched and seeks to transform fracture into connection is the goal. 


Bounds, O. & Matthewson, M. (2022) Parental Alienating Behaviours Experienced by Alienated Grandparents Journal of Family Issues 2022, Vol. 0(0) 1–23. 

Condon, J., Corkindale, C., Luszcz, M., & Gamble, E. (2013). The Australian first-time grandparents’ study: Time spent with the grandchild and its predictors. Australasian Journal on Ageing, 32(1), 21–27. 2011.00588 

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