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Dealing With Divorce of a Child

Common Emotional Reactions and How to Handle Them


Worried senior woman
Izabela Habur/Vetta/Getty Images

Divorce is one of the realities of modern family life, but that doesn't mean that it's not difficult to handle. Other than a death, news of the impending divorce of a child is probably the most devastating blow that grandparents can receive, especially if there are grandchildren involved. If you’ve been on the receiving end of such news, you’ve probably experienced a wide gamut of emotions. These five emotional reactions are fairly standard for grandparents dealing with divorce.

Grieving for Failed Dreams and Relationships

When a child divorces, a relationship dies, and grandparents typically will grieve for that relationship. Your child will probably still have a relationship with the ex-spouse, but it will not be the loving and satisfying relationship that everyone hoped for when the couple married. Even if you had early doubts about the relationship, you undoubtedly hoped that your doubts would be proved false. That hope dies with the news of a divorce. If you have a close relationship with your daughter- or son-in-law, you are facing the potential loss of that relationship. Grief is a natural reaction to these circumstances, and grandparents must allow themselves to go through the grieving process.

Combating Guilt About Your Own Role

Most grandparents have experienced trying to steer children out of a relationship that they think will not turn out well, and most have found it an exercise in futility. Even though adult children are responsible for their own decisions, grandparents will almost certainly question themselves about whether they could have done something to avert this family disaster. If they have divorces or troubled relationships in their own pasts, perhaps they will feel that somehow they negatively affected their children’s ability to sustain a marital relationship. Grandparents should not allow themselves to fall into the trap of feeling guilty about the failure of their children’s relationships. It’s impossible to go back and test what might have happened if things had been done differently, so feelings of guilt are non-productive and should be avoided whenever possible.

Feeling Torn by Divided Loyalties

It is very common to feel torn between your feelings for the divorcing parties, even though one is your own child. Parents know very well that their children have faults, and clear-eyed parents will recognize that their own child must bear some responsibility for the failure of the relationship. If you had developed a close relationship with your daughter- or son-in-law, you may even feel that your own child is largely at fault. On the other hand, some parents turn all of their sorrow and anger against the daughter- or son-in-law. However you may feel that the blame should be apportioned, it is important to recognize two things. First, it is impossible to determine what really goes on between two people in a marriage. Second, it is not your role to determine blame. Try to steer your energies in more positive directions.

Worrying About What the Future May Hold

Uncertainty about the future almost always engenders worry. Suddenly, nothing in the future of your child and grandchildren seems secure. A divorce can impact employment, emotional stability, geographic location and a host of other factors. Grandparents need to focus on what is constant: the parents’ love for their children, and their own love for their children and grandchildren. The classic advice to focus on the things one cannot change and accept the things one cannot change is certainly good advice in this situation. Those who believe in a higher power may find some solace in thinking of the future as being in the hands of that high power.

Fearing Loss of Contact With Grandchildren

Closely akin to worry, fear is also a natural reaction to a divorce in the family. One of the major fears of grandparents in this situation is a loss of their relationship with their grandchildren, especially if custody seems likely to go to the parent who is not their child. This is not an unreasonable fear, as statistics show that many grandparents lose contact with grandchildren after a divorce. This is one area, however, in which grandparents can take some meaningful action. Although they certainly cannot ensure a continuing relationship with their grandchildren, they can take steps to make it more likely.

When Dealing With Divorce Becomes Too Stressful

Stress in the grandparenting role is not uncommon. Grandparenting is not always easy. Long-distance grandparents experience significant emotional effects, as do the grandparents of grandchildren with special needs. Like grandparents in these situations, grandparents who are dealing with divorce should seek assistance if their sadness becomes overwhelming, especially if it is preventing a normal life. Seeking counseling or joining a support group may be helpful. It's crucial that grandparents take care of themselves so that they can help their children and grandchildren during this difficult time.

Read more about when grandparenting isn't fun.

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