When President Jimmy Carter designated the first Sunday after Labor Day as Grandparents Day in 1979, he said he hoped that younger people could learn from the wisdom of an older generation and that grandparents provide a link to our national heritage and traditions. People who fight for grandparent rights are fighting for the same things.

A grandparent’s right to visit a grandchild varies from state to state with the exception of Florida, said family law attorney Richard S. Victor of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In all other states, grandparents have a standing right to request visitation for a number of reasons, including if a parent has died, parents are divorced or separated, the child was born out of wedlock or the child has been living in the home of the grandparent, said Victor, founder and executive director of the national nonprofit Grandparents Rights Organization.

Some states are more lenient in determining what’s in the best interest of the child while others are more strict and grandparents must show that harm will come to the child in the current situation, Victor said.

“The standard courts use is a balancing of the parents’ constitutional rights to rear their children without interference and the child’s interests to have a relationship with their grandparents. Ultimately, courts must do what is in the best interests of the children,” said family law attorney DaNece Day of Steven Titus & Associates in Gillette, Wyoming. “Grandparents can be the connection to the past for children and a conduit to ensure they have relationships with extended family. Grandparents have many things to share and teach their grandchildren, and courts recognize that grandparents play a special role in their grandchildren’s lives.”

The child’s best interest
Grandparents suffer greatly when separated from grandchildren, but children suffer, too, said Susan Hoffman, director of Advocates For Grandparent Grandchild Connection, a charitable nonprofit based in Newport Beach, California. They feel frustration, helplessness and bereft of an important part of their future.

“There is a body of research indicating that when children lose access to a loving adult (such as a grandparent) with whom they have had an established relationship, they suffer abandonment issues, lower self-esteem, emotional disorders, acting-out behavior or withdrawal,” Hoffman said.

A grandparent can be denied the opportunity to visit a grandchild for any reason chosen by a parent, even something as simple as treating them to forbidden fast food, Victor said. Instead of anger and emotion, approach the conversation calmly and logically, he said.

“The first thing to do is open the lines of communication. Talk to each other. Ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ The last place you want to resolve things is in court,” Victor said.

Losing the right of visitation often occurs after the death of an adult child when the grandparent is not related to the remaining parent.

“Remember, you each have something in common — love for the child,” Victor said.

It may not be easy, but remember that your place is as a grandparent, not a parent.

“Stress the importance of the parent. Never badmouth the parent. It could lead to animosity and emotional distress for everyone, including the grandchild,” Victor said.
What to do
Here are a few guidelines from Hoffmann’s book “Grand Wishes: Advocating to Preserve the Grandparent Grandchild Bond”:
• Change your behavior, not theirs. The only way to achieve a different outcome is to change your own behavior.
• Assume the “you and me” rather than “you or me” position. It’s easier to come to an agreement with someone when you are on the same side.
• Learn how to go along in order to get along. Presenting oneself as agreeable, rather than aggressive and domineering, makes life so much easier for everyone.
• Recognize the red flags. Pay attention to subtle behaviors, such as excuses, that have the potential to escalate.
• Take action to re-connect. Don’t just stand by and do nothing if you find yourself suddenly alienated from your grandchild.
• Remain neutral and non-threatening. Don’t give advice, and keep opinions to yourself.
• Remove all expectations. Parents are busy and so are kids; don’t expect them to accommodate your schedule. Instead be grateful for any time that you are given.
• Don’t take things personally. When others lash out it really has nothing to do with us.
• Adopt preventative measures. Respect parental boundaries and follow their rules, which can divert problems before they escalate.
• Focus on being happy rather than being right. You will be much happier remaining connected to your grandchild if you lose the need to always be in the right.

“If a grandparent has made reasonable and civil requests to see their grandchild without success, they should consult with a family law attorney and prepare to file for visitation rights,” Day said. “It will be important to keep records of all efforts made to obtain visitation and create, maintain or strengthen the relationship with the child. It is also important to document the past interactions and family traditions.”