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Children and Divorce

What Grandparents Can Do to Help

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Grandfather and Grandson Fishing

Grandparents can support grandchildren during difficult times.

Photo © ArtisticCaptures | Vetta | Getty Images

Your child, the parent of your grandchildren, is getting a divorce. Children and divorce add up to a heartbreaking situation. You’ve already gone through a good bit of grieving and emotional whipsawing. Now it’s time to think clearly about your actions, because your actions may affect your relationship with your child and grandchildren in the future.

Stay Connected With Your Adult Child

Your first job is to make sure that the parent-child connection survives this crisis. Your child is going through a great deal of stress and grief. The best thing that you can do is simply to provide a listening ear. Your child doesn’t really want solutions; besides, the time for fixing things is past. He or she wants an outlet for his grief and pain. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t tolerate any behavior that is abusive, emotionally or otherwise, but you should be patient, even if it is the fortieth time you’ve heard the same litany of suffering. If there comes a time when your child asks for advice, give it, but be sure that you have moved beyond anger and vindictiveness and that you are giving advice that is reasonable and well-thought out.

Avoid Taking Sides as Much As Possible

It’s not your job to assign blame. Only the persons in the marriage know the truth of what led to the breakup of the marriage. Still, at some point your child will probably ask, “Was I wrong to do this?” or “Wasn’t she wrong to do that?” When that occurs, the wisest course of action may be to decline answering. If that doesn’t seem advisable, you may give your opinion, but moderate your response as much as possible. Perhaps you do feel anger at your child’s spouse for what you believe to be hurtful behavior. Still, fostering a hatefest is not helpful behavior, not for you and not for your child. Try to help your child get beyond assigning blame as much as possible and move to the next step.

Be Careful about Your Relationship with Your Child’s Ex

Maintaining a relationship with your grandchildren will be easier if you still have a relationship with your child’s ex, especially if the ex is going to have primary custody. You must, however, continue to put the feelings of your child first. If your child wants you to eschew contact with his ex, you should probably respect those wishes. As time goes on, some divorced parents achieve a friendlier relationship. If this proves to be true of your child and his ex, you may be able to re-establish contact with your child’s ex.

Do Not Use the Grandchildren

Your grandchildren need you to provide a comforting presence in their lives, and they are smarter than you may think. If you try to use them in any way, no matter how subtle you think you are being or how laudable your motives, they will figure it out. Then they will figure that you no longer care about them except as a means to an end. Similarly, do not badmouth either of the children’s parents. This includes thinly veiled slams and sarcasm that you think the children will not pick up on. Remember, they are smarter than you think. Do not attempt to elicit any kind of information from the kids. Ask the parties involved directly if you must know.

Provide the Grandchildren with a Low-Stress Environment

If your grandchildren used to visit in your home, strive to continue those visits and try to make the visits low-key. Don’t bring up the divorce unless the children do. If they bring it up, try to restrict yourself to expressing sympathy, reassuring the children that the divorce was not their fault and assuring them that they are loved. Active outdoor play is a great stress-reliever for kids. Playing games is a great way to bond and relax.

Be Diplomatic With the Other Grandparents

Perhaps during your child’s marriage, you developed a relationship with the other grandparents. If so, you are facing the loss of yet another relationship. If you live near the other grandparents, you may also face the sometimes awkward situation of encountering them in social situations or while shopping or running errands. Generally speaking, it is best to be cordial but not confiding. If you discuss the divorce or other personal matters with them, here’s what is likely to happen. They will tell their child what you said, their child will tell your child, and you will be in the doghouse, especially if the substance or spirit of what you said is reported less than accurately. Again, as tensions cool, you may be able to re-establish friendly relations with the other grandparents.

Make Wise Choices About Celebrations

Typically, both sides of the family come together for children’s birthdays and many other special occasions. Post divorce, many families discard this custom in favor of separate celebrations. Children are unlikely to be upset about separate celebrations, often having the philosophy that two parties are better than one. Events that involve larger communities, such as school plays and religious ceremonies, obviously cannot be staged multiple times to meet the needs of the fractured family. On those occasions, politeness should be observed at all costs. If any member of the family becomes quarrelsome, it is preferable to leave the event immediately rather than ruin the occasion for the child.

Be Positive About the Future

Overly sympathetic grandparents may do more harm than good. Once the initial period of grief has passed, the children and grandchildren need to adjust to the changes in their lives. The grandparents’ attitude should be that it’s time to start rebuilding lives rather than dwelling on the past. Grandparents need to believe the message in order for it to be effective. That means that you must avoid thinking negatively—“Their chances of happiness are gone”—and start thinking positively—“They are strong. They will survive.” Then let your behavior reflect that conviction. Positive attitudes are powerful and contagious, and by being positive you can be a real asset to your child and grandchildren.

Many grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren after divorce. Could it happen to you? Learn about protecting your visitation rights by documenting your relationship with your grandchildren.

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