Grandparents and divorce: Tips for helping your grandchild
An overview of how to stay neutral, stay connected, and stay on message in helping your grandchildren deal with the trauma of divorce
Divorce and all of its ripple-effect baggage have always introduced unsettling consequences into the lives of young children and teens. In recent years, however, grandparents have emerged as both comparable victims and formidable opponents when their sons and daughters’ marriages fall apart. Though “Gramps and Nana” have always been in the picture, the fact that grandparent advocacy groups have been formed and legislation enacted impacting visitation rights speaks to the prior generation’s desire and determination to maintain a bond even after a marital one has been broken.
In addition, many grandmas and grandpas are now finding themselves footing the bills for child care, welcoming their grown offspring back home as “tenants,” and, in some cases, petitioning the courts for legal custody.
Should you find yourself in a similar circumstance, the following tips will enable you to provide the emotional anchors your grandchildren need without compromising your values, depleting your bank account, or being taken advantage of.
Regardless of how you personally feel about your son or daughter’s soon-to-be-Ex, it’s not the time to air those opinions whenever your grandchild comes over to play. In the case of acrimonious splits, he or she is already going to be hearing enough gossip and mad-mouthing at home that you don’t need to contribute to it by sharing your own judgment calls.
Since children are often made to feel that they are either the reason for the divorce or a tool to prevent it from materializing, they (and their parents) are aggressively going to be seeking allies during these turbulent times. You’ll not only be asked a lot of questions but probably also be asked to intervene in order to make things “normal” again. It will call upon all your reserves of diplomacy to neither fuel the fires nor make promises that are outside of your control. The issue is–and properly should be–that the parents can no longer live with each other’s company and that, in the best interests of everyone involved, moving apart was determined to be the best decision.
Whatever acts that precipitated the separation, along with accusations of whose “fault” it was, have no bearing on the truth that the child is still loved by both parents and by you. Tempting as it may be to rehash past events and lament their loss; it will only impede the adjustment to new circumstances as well as add to a child’s fears of what the future will bring next.
It also needs to be remembered that young people are impressionable when it comes to seeing how adults handle various breaches of conduct. Whether they know it or not, what they observe about their parents (and grandparents) will manifest itself positively or negatively when they are grown and have children themselves.
Accordingly, any discussion of bad behaviors (i.e., infidelity, alcoholism, etc.) needs to be couched in terms of why the behavior was inappropriate as opposed to personal attacks on the person who engaged in it (i.e., “Larry is a born loser” or “This is what happens when you marry a foreigner”). Just as damaging as putting labels on people, of course, is the flip side of defending their actions (i.e., “Janice only drinks because he doesn’t pay attention to her” or “He only hit her because she didn’t keep the house clean enough”). To a young person’s ears, these explanations become templates for their future assessments of the character of others. Whether they accuse or excuse in their own relationships as adults will have been influenced by how they perceived communications breakdowns in their childhood and teens.
Obviously the age and maturity level of your grandchildren will have significant bearing on how much discussion takes place. Your most important job right now is to provide a stable and supportive environment, a safe harbor amidst the stormy seas the entire family is presently trying to weather.
There should also be no discounting the thin line that exists between love and hate. The same spouse that your son or daughter was ready to take to the cleaners six weeks ago could soon enough be restored as the object of undying affection if the circumstances suddenly turn. The last thing you need is for one of your little darlings to turn to the errant parent next Thanksgiving and innocently ask, “Why does Gramma think you’re a big fat lazy slob?”
In a perfect world, feuding parents would coordinate calendars, carpools and daily/weekly phone-dates to ensure that the lines of contact between their children and the grandparents aren’t disrupted. Unfortunately, they’ve got enough on their plates to deal with that making the time to keep both generations connected isn’t their highest priority. Accordingly, most of the effort to stay in touch usually falls on the grandparents, the exception being scenarios where the latter is already providing after-school care or lives in the same house.
Find out when the next soccer game or play performance is. Offer to help with homework. Learn the names of your grandchildren’s friends. Encourage them to talk about their day, their dreams, their fears, and everything else in-between. Buy them books and make the time to discuss what they thought of them. Share your past through stories and photographs, reinforcing that they are part of a much bigger picture than just the Mom and Dad who are currently determined to erase each other out of existence.
With more and more parents now sharing joint custody, it’s important to establish enough of a relationship with the ex so as to facilitate visitations and phone or email chats on a regular basis. Easier said than done, of course, particularly if the interaction was hostile DURING the marriage and/or the spouse relocates to a different city, state or country. At the earliest opportunity, it’s important to reinforce with both parents your love and concern for the children and to negotiate arrangements that will allow you to participate in their lives and upbringing. This could include offers to share costs of telephone calls, establish email accounts, provide cards and postage, and arrange mini-vacations.
Your chances of cooperation will be better, of course, if it’s clear that you’re not using this time with your grandchildren to poison their thinking regarding the non-custodial parent. In worst-case scenarios where contact is refused, it would be in your best interests and those of your grandchild to seek legal counsel regarding grandparents’ rights in your state or country.
Stay On Message
“Disneyland daddies” is a term that has long been used regarding the practice of non-custodial parents going overboard with gifts in order to curry favor with the shuttled child. Unfortunately, the same term can be applied to grandparents who not only want to be favored over the child’s other set of grandparents but even over the parents as well. The attitude results in an outpouring of presents and special favors (which the children come to equate with guilt-money) and the lessening of discipline and rules whenever the children are visiting at Grandma’s house.
While the elders may think that they are only making up for the bewildering sense of disenfranchisement that occurs while a household is being divided, what they are really doing is encouraging their grandchildren to become skillful players in the divorce war. If certain behavior is prohibited at Mom or Dad’s and yet forgiven at Grandma’s, who is going to carry the greater clout in that child’s life?
Likewise, if Grandpa can afford to go out and buy the latest must-have video game for Christmas while a struggling single parent can only afford a new pair of socks and a book, it won’t take long for the little recipient to decide that the failure of the marriage must have been based on the failure of the person, specifically, the one who doesn’t have the bigger wallet.
If you feel yourself starting to go overboard, consider what you would be doing at this moment if the divorce WEREN’T taking place. While a family split is disconcerting enough by itself, radical changes in which children suddenly feel smothered, over-protected, or inundated with gifts could lead them to feel that something even more disastrous is in the works. If you have been an attentive, loving, and accessible grandparent from the outset, you need only to keep doing what you’re doing to assure your grandchildren that the divorce has not changed your love for them. If you haven’t been as close as you might have been, it’s not too late to start. Just make sure that your actions and words are in the child’s best interest and not performed out of spite, retribution, or competition.