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Contact with paternal grandparents rises when compared to sole mother residence, while contact with maternal grandparents remains largely unchanged.
Divorce often reduces children’s contact with their paternal grandparents. In our study, in fact, about 10 per cent of grandchildren whose parents divorced had no contact at all with their paternal grandparents. We showed that the explanation for this loss largely lies in grandchildren’s residence arrangements after a divorce.
Although custody arrangements are changing to some degree, in most Western countries children still typically live mainly with their mothers after divorce. This arrangement shapes differences in how often they see their grandparents on the mother’s and father’s side of the family—contact with paternal grandparents falls while contact with maternal grandparents does not. When mom and dad share physical custody of their children, however, contact with paternal grandparents increases—compared even with intact families—while contact with maternal grandparents remains largely unchanged.
“Divorce, largely because of residence arrangements, often reduces contact with paternal grandparents, compared with what happens during marriage, and also compared with maternal grandparent contact after divorce. About 10 per cent of grandchildren from divorced parents never saw grandparents on their father’s side of the family.”
We conducted our study of grandparent contact in Flanders, Belgium, surveying more than 1,000 grandchildren between the ages of 10 and 25, and more than 1,100 grandparents of grandchildren from 0 to 25 years old. Flanders is a particularly interesting place to study children’s post-divorce residence arrangements. After a divorce, as in most Western countries, the majority of children there live with their mother. Some live with their mother full-time, and some stay with their father now and then. Sole residence with fathers is uncommon and occurs most often in difficult family situations and when mothers are educationally and economically disadvantaged.
However, recent policy changes have encouraged shared physical custody arrangements, in which children live about half of the time with each parent. Joint parental authority was legally established in 1995, and in 2006 joint physical custody, or shared residence, became the default residence arrangement after parental divorce. About one-fifth of Flemish children with divorced parents (and more than one-quarter of those whose parents divorced after the 2006 law was passed) live alternately with the mother and the father.
Sole residence lessens grandparent contact on the non-residential parent’s side
We found that, typically, grandchildren whose parents were married had more frequent contact with maternal than paternal grandparents. After a parental divorce, grandchildren who lived mostly or always with their mothers tended to have considerably less contact with paternal grandparents. However, when physical custody was shared between mom and dad, the gap was closed. In the rather exceptional cases where grandchildren lived with their divorced father, contact between grandchildren and paternal grandparents was higher than contact with maternal grandparents; in these cases, contact with maternal grandparents was often much lower than among children of married couples.
Paternal grandparents may be playing an important role in caring for the children of their divorced sons when children live with their fathers for a substantial part of the time. Grandparents may also be influencing residence arrangements, in the sense that fathers may be more inclined to seek joint physical custody when their parents are willing to be involved and help with child care.
We were surprised to find that when divorced mothers had sole physical custody of the children, contact with maternal grandparents didn’t increase. This might indicate that divorced mothers don’t need or can’t count on extra help from their parents, even when the children live with them all the time. However, it’s also possible that extra help comes in forms that don’t require more contact, such as monetary support.
Grandparents’ care correlated with children’s well-being after divorce
In a more recent study, yet to be published, we identified correlations between the quality of grandparent relationships and grandchildren’s subjective well-being. Our results showed that grandchildren who lacked any good grandparent relationship reported significantly more depressive feelings and lower life satisfaction than those who enjoyed at least one good relationship with a grandparent. Children who had a very good relationship with a grandparent, in contrast, reported higher life satisfaction, self-esteem and feelings of being in control of their lives. This was especially true for children of divorced parents. These links suggest that grandparents can offer benefits to children regardless of their parents’ relationship status, but that strong grandparent relationships particularly matter for children whose parents have divorced.
These findings may have important implications for policy makers, who face pressure to increase the level of contact that fathers have with their children after divorce. When considering the arguments, policy makers should be aware that different residence arrangements have consequences not only for the parents and children involved, but also for the grandparents on both sides of the family. Increasing children’s access to their divorced fathers raises the frequency of contact with paternal grandparents while leaving contact with maternal grandparents largely unchanged, and thus leads to greater grandparent involvement in total.
Additionally, we have found a correlation between grandparents’ involvement and children’s well-being, especially in difficult times such as a parental divorce. Shared physical custody has upsides and downsides, and it involves considerable disruption to children’s lives. But the potential benefits for children from contact with grandparents on both sides of the family deserve closer scrutiny. We also shouldn’t forget that grandparents themselves derive joy from time with their grandchildren and that disruption of these contacts has adverse effects on their own emotional well-being.
These days, grandparents are potentially also more available. Considerable increases in life expectancy mean that grandparents often survive into their grandchildren’s adulthood. In addition, declining fertility means that grandparents have fewer grandchildren, so the older generation has more time and attention for each grandchild. Given the instability of many parental relationships and the consequent risks to supporting children, grandparents’ availability may be particularly important.
Questions about the importance of extended family
Our research raises further questions about whether policy makers, when considering how to manage where children live after divorce, should think about children’s access to other parts of their extended families. Researchers could examine what happens to relationships with aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members after parents separate. We need to know whether such access is likewise influenced by residence arrangements and whether children may benefit after divorce from extra contact with these relatives.
Jappens M & Van Bavel J (2016), Parental divorce, residence arrangements, and contact between grandchildren and grandparents, Journal of Marriage & Family, 78.2