Snapshots of family relationships

Research summary – May 2008

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5. Relationships between grandparents and grandchildren

Grandparents can play many important roles in children's lives. They can be loving companions, caregivers, mentors, historians and sources of various other forms of support. In some cases, they also can become surrogate parents.23

While many grandparents appear to welcome the opportunity to commit to frequent, regular and lengthy periods with their grandchildren, others prefer to pose heavy restrictions on the time they spend with them. Still others live too far away from their grandchildren to see them frequently, if at all (see Ochiltree, 2006). And, like all relationships, those between grandparents and grandchildren evolve and are not always beneficial to one or both parties. The relationships would tend to change in response to the grandchildren's increasing maturity and the ageing of their grandparents, and other changing circumstances, such as parental separation and/or residential relocation.

This chapter explores the closeness of relationships between grandchildren and their paternal and maternal grandparents, as well as the impact of separation on these relationships, as perceived by the children's parents. These results are based on the GPPS 2006.

Current relationship between grandchildren and grandparents

Respondents who had at least one living parent were asked to indicate whether the relationship between their own parents and children was "very close", "close", "not close" or "non-existent". Reports that the relationship varies were recorded, although this response option was not suggested to respondents. Respondents were also asked the same questions about the relationship between their children and grandparents on their other side. It is worth noting that no distinction was made between specific children in the family, nor between grandmothers and grandfathers. For simplicity, the discussion below refers to "maternal grandparents", "paternal grandparents" and "children" or "grandchildren" (i.e., plural terms are used). Figure 5.1 summarises the patterns of answers provided by fathers and mothers.

  • Most mothers and fathers described the relationship between their children and their maternal and paternal grandparents as "close" or "very close" (67-85%).
  • Both mothers and fathers were more likely to consider that their children had a "very close" relationship with their maternal grandparents than with their paternal grandparents (mothers: 56% vs 32%; fathers: 46% vs 39%).
  • However, views appeared to be influenced by whether the grandparents were on the respondents' side or their partner's side. Specifically:
    • mothers were more likely than fathers to describe relationships between the children and their maternal grandparents as "very close" (56% vs 46%)
    • similarly, fathers were slightly more likely than mothers to report "very close" relationships between the children and their paternal grandparents (39% vs 32%).

Figure 5.1 Perceived current relationship between grandchildren and their grandparents, by gender of parent, as reported by parents

Figure 5.1 Perceived current relationship between grandchildren and their grandparents, by gender of parent, as reported by parents

Source: GPPS 2006

Figure 5.2 summarises the views of separated and non-separated parents regarding the closeness of the relationship between their own parents and children. The separated parents are divided into three groups: resident and non-resident fathers, and resident mothers.24

  • Of the five groups of parents, "very close" relationships between their own parents and children were most likely to be reported by mothers who were not separated (58%), followed by resident fathers and resident mothers (51-55%), then fathers who were not separated (41%).
  • Patterns of responses of resident fathers and mothers were very similar: 51-55% of resident fathers and mothers described the relationship between their children and their parents as "very close", while 13-18% described it as "not close", "non-existent" or "varies".
  • Of all groups, non-resident fathers were the least likely to report that the relationship was "very close" (19% vs 41-58%) and the most likely to describe the relationship as either "not close" or "non-existent", or one that "varies" (41% vs 13-20%).

Figure 5.2 Perceived current relationship between own parents and children, by separation and residence status, as reported by parents

Figure 5.2 Perceived current relationship between own parents and children, by separation and residence status, as reported by parents

Note: * There were too few separated mothers who were not living with any of their children (i.e., non-resident mothers, n=12) to provide results for this group.
Source: GPPS 2006

Perceived impact of separation on relationship between grandchildren and grandparents

Separated parents were asked to indicate whether they believed that the relationship between their own parents and children had become closer or more distant, or whether the relationship had not changed since their separation. Figure 5.3 shows the pattern of answers of separated fathers and mothers to this question, according to their residence status.

  • Both fathers and mothers most commonly maintained that the relationships between their own parents and children had not changed since separation (51-58%).
  • However, perceived changes in the relationship between their own parents and children varied according to parents' residence status. Specifically:
    • Resident fathers and mothers were more likely to maintain that this relationship had become closer rather than more distant (closer: 36%; more distant: 6-8%), while the reverse applied to non-resident fathers (closer 13%; more distant 36%).

Figure 5.3 Perceived changes in relationship between own parents and children, by residence status, as reported by separated parents

Figure 5.3 Perceived changes in relationship between own parents and children, by residence status, as reported by separated parents

Source: GPPS 2006

The closeness of a relationship does not necessarily reflect how beneficial that relationship is for each party. Nevertheless, most parents who believed that relationships had become closer also believed that such a change had beneficial effects on the children (66%). On the other hand, of those parents who considered that the children's relationship had become more distant, 58% described the impact as being minimal or mixed, while 34% considered the impact to be negative.

23. According to the ABS (2004), around 1% of all Australian families with children under 18 years are headed by grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

24. Results for non-resident mothers are not presented owing to the small number of respondents in this group.