04/16/2012 12:39 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Step-Grandparent Pitfalls

"Mad Men" does it again by focusing on another issue that crops up in divorce -- step-grandparenting. Two episodes ago, I was reminded of the difficulties when step-grandma Pauline babysits Don and Betty's preteen daughter Sally. For starters, Sally refuses to eat a tuna fish sandwich (relish, ugh) prepared by her step-grandma. Later she objects to Pauline's rules about television watching. It's easy to understand Sally's resentment and Pauline's frustration.

Experts predict that at least one-third of grandparents will eventually have a step-grandchild. Grandparents can play a significant loving and protective role in a child's emotional well-being, especially if that child has been neglected or abandoned in the past. Some children may be harder to reach, but it's worth the effort for the sake of healing and rebuilding the family.

In my book "Your Child's Divorce: What To Expect, What You Can Do", I tell grandparents that it's helpful to understand the dynamics of the new constellation and the adjustment issues, and I offer tips from seasoned grandparents and step-grandparents. Here are a few:

  • Do not to come on too quickly since most children are shy of strangers. Even loving children will be suspicious if they are showered with attention. Give them space to learn about you while you are learning about them.
  • Acceptance has a lot to do with the age of the child. Teenagers and preteens (like Sally) may avoid new family contact. It takes longer to establish trust.
  • Avoid overcompensating. You run the risk of making biological grandchildren jealous.
  • Treat step-grandchildren and biological grandchildren fairly but make distinctions. For example, give comparable not the same gifts -- "fair" is not "equal."
  • If you are a long-distance step-grandparent, send a card on birthdays and special occasions to show you care. E-mail a hello every so often but take your cues from the child. Don't push too hard.
  • Make an extra effort to get to know each stepchild individually by finding out his or her special interests, skills, hobbies, etc.
  • Discuss what stepchildren should call you. If you feel comfortable go by Grandpa Pat but don't be hurt if you are called Mr. Brown.
  • If the step-grandchild resents the remarriage, it's likely you will automatically be a target for his anger, just on general principles. Keep in mind that even the less approachable child is looking for acceptance. It will take time for the defensive child to realize this is a done deal.
  • One surefire way to wreck your child's chance for marital happiness is to complain bitterly about a step-grandchild. More than likely, your son or daughter is aware of the problem and will appreciate your tolerance.
  • When a child remarries, expect to get the whole package -- a host of strangers who are suddenly relatives, among them children who carry a lot of baggage. Look at it from the other end of the telescope; it's hard enough to adjust to the stepparent. You may be part of the territory they may not want to explore. It may take a long time before they reach out to you, if ever.
  • Finally, face it, some kids are lovable and some are not. If you inherit one with purple hair, nose rings and tattoos, remember that beauty is only skin-deep. Smart grandparents find a common meeting ground.

So hang in there, Pauline. Sally may learn to like relish in her tuna fish yet. And if she doesn't, use Betty's recipe and hold the relish.