More support needed to ensure children’s access to grandparents

Published 18 July 2011

margaretMore support is needed to prevent children from suffering the loss of access to their grandparents because of family disputes, according to a researcher at the University of New England.

UNE’s Professor of Early Childhood Studies, Margaret Sims (pictured here), says that while the importance to children of relationships with their grandparents is clear, the legal system could create barriers in cases where the relationship between the child’s parents and grandparents has broken down.

In her recent study with Dr Maged Rofail, Professor Sims said that the rights of both grandchildren and grandparents needed to be given higher priority, and that arguments between a child’s parents and grandparents could be dealt with by better support for counselling and mediation.

“As many of these arise from feelings of hurt, pain and anger, counselling and mediation have a high likelihood of creating families where relationships can be managed in a more positive manner,” the study concludes. “This is to the advantage of all parties, but particularly the grandchildren themselves. Acting in the best interests of the child requires the legal system to put more effort into supporting the grandparent-grandchild relationship rather than allowing the relationship to fracture on the understanding that attempting resolution will stress parents.”

The study suggests that this could include “court-ordered (i.e. compulsory) mediation or counselling so that underlying problems exacerbating grandparent-grandchild contact problems (such as disagreements between grandparents and their adult children, and breakdown of in-law relationships) are dealt with in a manner that enables children to maintain relationships with their grandparents”.

“While people do feel hurt – sometimes very hurt – in family disputes, the real point is the welfare of growing children,” Professor Sims said. “We need to provide support that enables difficulties between parents and their children to heal so grandchildren don’t suffer.

“One of the big problems we now see is that children are tending to lose out by being isolated in nuclear families instead of being nourished by an extended family.”

At the same time, Professor Sims added, grandparents themselves often go through enormous suffering when denied access to their grandchildren, and this itself could lead to large social as well as personal costs.

Professor Sims has published a number of books in this area, including Social Inclusion and the Early Years Learning Framework, and is the Editor of the Australian Journal of Early Childhood. She says it is important that parents be receptive to dealing with difficulties with their own parents, and to make an effort to ensure that they are involved in the lives of their grandchildren. “Generally speaking, the more people in children’s lives the better,” she said. “Parents need to make time for the relationships with grandparents; they have to see that they’re important.”