We haven’t seen our grandchildren since our son and his wife separated. What can we do?

Grandparents aren’t automatically entitled to have contact with their grandchildren. In many situations, contact will try to be maintained and parents will be happy to encourage that. This is important, as grandparents can play a vital role in supporting separated parents, and can be a stabilising force in children’s lives at a time when other things seem so uncertain.

But what if one or both parents stop this access to the grandchildren? On the face of it, that decision is out of the grandparents’ hands, and there may seem little you could about it – you can’t put your foot down, and rocking an already rocky boat may not seem an attractive route to take. But all isn’t completely lost; if you’re keen to maintain contact with your grandchildren (it’s widely acknowledged that a grandparent’s relationships with a grandchild can be an important one), it’s worth getting specific legal advice on your situation.

In general, and assuming there is no good reason for a grandparent to be kept away from their grandchild, there are three main options.

  1. Talk it through

If the right outcome can be achieved through a calm conversation with the parents, then this is ideal. The grandparents I advise are usually keen to avoid the issue escalating to such an extent that relationships become broken and the chance of maintaining contact with grandchildren disappears completely.

My starting advice is for grandparents to tread gently while making it clear that they’d like to spend time with their grandchildren. Having an idea of how this might work – a few hours each week, or an overnight stay once a month, for example – could be useful, as it gives the parents an idea of expectations (and shows you’re being reasonable and not asking for too much). The important thing at this stage is that you work towards re-building or cementing your relationship with the grandchildren, with the backing of their parents.

Of course, this may not work. Separations are often emotionally charged; sides may have been taken; things may have been said that mean grandparents’ needs and wishes are either not seen as a priority, or they go deliberately unmet. The classic scenario is the aggrieved son-in-law or daughter-in-law who wants nothing more to do with their in-laws, and makes it that way for their children, too.

Those situations can be extremely difficult to navigate. If that’s where you find yourself, or you worry that broaching the subject could cause things to blow up, I’d definitely advise talking this through with a family lawyer. They’ll help you handle things as best as possible, which could involve exploring other options.

  1. Try mediation

Mediation is still a hugely underestimated way of getting a solution to family issues. It’s not just for divorce; mediation can be ideal in a situation in which contact with grandchildren is being denied. Its major benefit is in getting people talking, seeing things from a different perspective, and agreeing a way forward.

The mediator will aim to keep things as collaborative and amicable as possible. It’s a perfect opportunity for grandparents to explain why they feel so strongly that their relationship with the grandchildren ought to be nurtured; what the grandparents can add to the children’s lives; how they’re prepared to fit in with the (separated) family’s lives and provide helpful support in everyone’s interests.

As a mediator, I know that this can work. I see entrenched positions alter through dialogue and cooperation. It can be hugely positive for all involved.

  1. Go to court

The last resort. Court is always best avoided, because of the time and cost involved, and also its potential to worsen already fractured relationships. So I’d always suggest trying other possible solutions first. In fact, mediation usually has to be explored before applying for a court order.

The court can decide things like:

  • who a child spends time with and when; and
  • what type of communication should take place between the child and their grandparents.

And the overriding consideration is: what would be in the child’s best interests?

That’s a question I encourage all clients to keep in mind whenever they’re working through their child-related family issue. Sometimes, best interests means putting personal interests on the backburner, or accepting an arrangement that may not be ideal. But it doesn’t mean grandparents should necessarily avoid speaking up when contact has been denied, because the best interests of children are often served by sharing a healthy, loving relationship with their grandparents. The key is to go about things in the right way.

For specific advice about your situation, or to talk more generally about a family issue, contact Kate Rayner on 020 3811 2894  or email [email protected].