Grandparent divorce weakens relationships with grandchildren

May 21, 2002

Grandparents who have experienced a divorce, particularly grandfathers, do not have as much contact with their grandchildren and take part in fewer shared activities, than those who do not divorce, says a Penn State researcher. Divorced grandparents also feel less closeness to their grandchildren and consider the role of grandparent less important to their lives, Dr. Valarie King, assistant professor of sociology, demography and human development and family Studies, told attendees recently at the Population Association of America conference in Atlanta.

"Grandparents who have ever been divorced tend to live farther away from their grandchildren than grandparents who are married," King explains. Ever-divorced grandparents also report weaker ties with their adult children, who control grandparent access to grandchildren. Using data from the Iowa Youth and Families Project, King examined 538 grandparent-grandchild relationships. She recently presented her results in the paper, "The Legacy of a Grandparent's Divorce: Consequences for Ties Between Grandparents and Grandchildren" at the Population Association of America conference in Atlanta.

Grandfathers are especially impacted by divorce, she says. Grandfathers who have divorced report much less contact, fewer shared activities, and report higher levels of conflict with their grandchildren, than ever-divorced grandmothers and never-divorced grandparents.

"Divorced grandfathers in the study live twice as far away from grandchildren than divorced grandmothers," she explains. On average, divorced grandfathers live 160 miles away from their grandchildren. Ever-divorced grandmothers and never-divorced grandparents tend to live roughly 80 miles from their grandchildren. The negative influence of divorce on grandparent-grandchild relationships is greater for paternal grandparents than it is for maternal grandparents, King adds. Greater distance and the weaker quality of the grandparent-parent bond are largely responsible for this, she says, but a good parent-grandparent relationship can ease the negative influence of a grandparent's divorce on the relationship between grandparent and grandchild.

"The influence of divorce on grandparenting should not be overstated," says King, a research associate of Penn State's Population Research Institute. "Certainly many grandparents who have experienced a divorce are involved with their grandchildren, and a grandparent's marital history is only one of the many factors influencing grandparenting."

Not all aspects of grandparenting are affected by divorce, she found. The educational role grandparents play in their grandchildren's lives is relatively unaffected by divorce. Divorced grandparents are just as likely as married grandparents to discuss their grandchild's future, share skills, or act as a mentor to their grandchildren, she says. Additionally, grandparents who have divorced are more likely to discuss problems with their grandchildren. As divorce becomes more common in the population, greater numbers of grandparents will experience divorce, and the full effect of grandparent divorce will be felt in the next few decades, she says.

Penn State

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