Children and Divorce: How Grandparents Can Help

Be sure to support your adult child

Grandfather and Grandson Fishing
Photo © ArtisticCaptures | Vetta | Getty Images

Your child, the parent of your grandchildren, is getting a divorce. You’ve already gone through a good bit of grieving and emotional swings. Now it’s time to think clearly about your actions, because they 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. Hopefully, you have been in the habit of nurturing your relationship with your adult child, but simple measures aren't enough at this time. 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. Still, at some point your child will probably ask, “Was I wrong to do this?” or “Wasn’t she wrong to do that?” When such questions are asked, it's best to avoid answering. If that doesn’t work, 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, 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.

It's also possible that you sympathize with your child's ex and feel that much of the blame falls on your own child. It's okay to feel that way, but try not to let it show. Your child will see it as a serious betrayal, and it's not possible to know whether your judgment is accurate. 

Be Careful About Your Relationship With Your Child’s Ex

Staying close to your grandchildren will be easier if you still have a relationship with your child’s ex, especially if the ex is going to be the primary custodian. You must, however, continue to put the feelings of your adult child first. If your child wants you to avoid contact with an ex, you should try to respect those wishes.

If you were close to your daughter-in-law or son-in-law, it's natural to feel bereavement. 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 some level of contact, although in most cases re-establishing a really close relationship is unlikely. 

Do Not Use the Grandchildren

Children are affected by divorce. 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. Of course, you should 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. An active outdoor play is a great stress-reliever for kids. 

Be Diplomatic With the Other Grandparents

Perhaps during your child’s marriage, you developed relationships with the ex's side of the family. Perhaps you became close to the other grandparents or other family members. If so, you are facing the loss of additional relationships, and you have even more reason to be sad.

If you live near the ex's family members, you may encounter them in social situations or while shopping or running errands. Generally speaking, it is best to be cordial but not confining. 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 trouble with your child, especially if the substance or spirit of what you said is reported less than accurate. Again, as tensions cool, you may be able to re-establish friendly relations with the ex's family.​

Be Wise About Social Media

Although some modern couples use social media to announce that they are splitting, it is not your news to give. Never reveal anything about a child or grandchild's personal life on social media unless the party involved has already done so. Even in that case, be very, very careful. In fact, any time that a family member is going through a personal crisis is a good time to reduce your social media presence. You can always message friends and family directly. 

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

Just as grandparents shouldn't overpraise, they should also avoid being overly sympathetic. Once the initial period of grief has passed, your child 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 and a role model for your child and grandchildren.

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