The Importance of Extended Family

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When parents separate, children often need their extended families more than ever. The grandparents and the extended families on both sides of the family can be a resource for the parents and the children. Sometimes, because of strong feelings about a former partner, parents are tempted to exclude the former ‘in-laws’ from their lives and the lives of their children. Sometimes the extended family abandons a parent and their children or takes sides.

Maintaining positive relationships between children and their extended family members should be encouraged and continued. Failure to do so can result in another loss for the children. The benefits for the children in keeping these relationships are:

Self-esteem

Self-esteem is a measure of how much a child likes the person they see themselves as. We get our sense of self partly from how others, especially those closest to us, see us. During a separation or divorce, children may question who they are and whether or not they are lovable and valuable. They may blame themselves for the loss. Parents, grandparents and extended family members can reassure children that they are loveable. Some ways of giving children this message are:

  • continuing to include them in family events
     
  • encouraging and facilitating communication between the child and their grandparents and other extended family members
     
  • assuring the child that the separation has not changed anything about how you and other extended family members continue to love and value them.

Stability

Parents are separated or divorced, not the children or grandparents or extended family. If the extended family members were important to the children before the separation, they will be important after too. Members of the extended family can provide stability and continuity in the children’s lives. For example, if the family always gathered at Grandma’s house for Sunday dinners, the children still can at times (even without one of the parents).

Cultural identity

Extended family members, especially grandparents, can assist in passing on cultural teachings and traditions, including language. For example, grandparents can share stories, skills and teachings during their time with the grandchildren. This is also connected to the children’s healthy self-esteem.

Sense of belonging

After separation, children will wonder where they belong. They will need assurance that they still belong in both families, whatever the cause of the separation and even if one of the parents is not currently in the picture.
Grandparents and other extended family members can help the parents by:

  • respecting their role as decision makers regarding their children and not telling them what they should do
     
  • offering help without strings attached
     
  • asking them what they need and doing what you can to provide what is needed
     
  • listening to them without judgment or blame for either parent
     
  • respecting their grieving process. This means allowing them to be angry, sad, in denial and without pushing them to be ‘over it’
     
  • not taking sides.