In the weeks after his parents filed for divorce, one 3-year-old boy bombarded his paternal grandparents with invitations to visit his house. It was a tricky situation. They wondered if their son would view an appearance at his ex-wife’s house as disloyal. They questioned if their daughter-in-law would even feel comfortable seeing them so soon after the breakup.
On the other hand, their grandson was reaching out to them. Would he feel abandoned and unloved if they didn’t make a point to honor his request? The couple hemmed and hawed before ultimately deciding to go to their grandson. Rather than enter into his home, though, they picked him up and took him to a nearby playground.
If your adult child is getting divorced, grandparenting is about to get a lot more complicated. Suddenly it’s no longer just about building sandcastles with your grandchild, scarfing down ice cream, and letting him stay up past bedtime to catch the tail-end of his favorite Disney movie. Now, there are the feelings of four different groups to consider: the other grandparents, your child, your child’s ex-spouse, and your grandchild.
Your place, your grandchild’s safe haven
After your child’s divorce is announced, your home and the time you spend with your grandchildren should remain as similar to pre-divorce visits as you can manage, says Lillian Carson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and grandmother of 10 who wrote The Essential Grandparents’ Guide to Divorce: Making a Difference in the Family (Health Communications). “Time with grandparents can be a relief for grandchildren who may be caught in the middle of two parents. Your home should be a neutral zone.” Keep the focus on your growing relationship with your grandchildren, not their parents’ disintegrating one.
When they confide in you
Don’t be surprised if the stability of your home encourages your grandchildren to share feelings they are unable to express to their parents for fear that they will be taking sides. Sure, when your adult child is going through a divorce, it’s the main topic of conversation. You talk about it with your spouse. You talk about it with your best friend. You talk about it with your child. But, be careful not to spend all of the time you have with your grandchildren delving into their feelings about the divorce. “Don’t try to be your grandchild’s therapist,” advises Carson. “That’s not your job.”
Only when your grandchildren mention the divorce, should you address it with them, she says. If they mention it, be an attentive listener and offer your love and empathy. Chances are you may be feeling emotions similar to theirs: anger, guilt, sadness, anxiety. Both your grandchildren and you are involved in a difficult situation that was not your choice to enter into.
When your grandchild opens up to you, frame your response positively and reassure him or her that the divorce is not his or her fault, suggests Marsha Temlock, M.A., a grandmother and author of Your Child’s Divorce: What to Expect… What You Can Do (Impact Publishers). If you feel your grandchild is bringing up an issue that should be addressed by the parents, don’t involve your grandchild when you approach them or broach the topic by saying something along the lines of “When Katie was visiting, she told me… ”
Instead, when you are alone with your adult child, guide the subject with a non-accusatory musing such as, “I noticed that sometimes Katie has trouble falling asleep. I think she misses having both parents around at bedtime. Maybe you could call her at bedtime?”
Be prepared for an angry reaction such as, “Well if someone hadn’t asked for a divorce, she’d have both parents at bedtime!” Try to be sympathetic, but point out that everyone’s main goal is to help the child adapt to the new situation, without blaming ex-spouses.
They’re all ears
“Try not to stir things up,” says Carson. “A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘What would be the value of passing on this information? Would it be helpful to my grandchild?'” No matter what your personal opinions are, always remember that your grandchild loves both of his or her parents, despite any occasional display of anger.
One grandmother believes that the casual, positive comments she makes show her grandchildren that even though their parents are divorced, she still thinks their mom is a good person. “If we’re making spaghetti,” she says, “I’ll say something like, ‘Your mom always makes the best meatballs. What a great cook she is.’”
And no matter how tempting it may be, don’t play spy by trying to get information that could be used in divorce proceedings. If, when your grandchild talks to you, what they say becomes fodder for the parents’ arguments, your grandchild will realize this and feel unable to trust you. Then, who will he or she have to turn to?
Ex-spouse: Friend, enemy, none of the above?
After a divorce, many fathers are only able to see their children every other weekend when they try to squeeze in as much one-on-one time as possible. So, it’s no surprise that research by Jeanne Hilton, Ph.D. shows that when a father becomes a non-custodial parent, the child’s relationship with his or her paternal grandparents suffers. That’s why Temlock encourages grandparents to maintain a relationship with their child’s ex-spouse.
Karen Bastille, whose 3-year-old granddaughter, Maya’s parents divorced, says her ex-son-in-law has retained a role in the family. “Maya’s dad will often visit her in my home on ‘Daddy Day’. He’ll order pizza and we’ll all have lunch together. It’s a treat my granddaughter has come to regard as a ritual,” says Bastille. “Sometimes, he will even stay for dinner.”
Carson admits that sometimes an adult child may see this as a betrayal. “But, it’s not being disloyal. Communicate to your child that even though it may seem that you are helping his or her ex-spouse, you are just trying to maintain a relationship with your grandchild,” she says. You should be able to support your child during the divorce and have a healthy relationship with your grandchild, without having to choose one or the other.
Birthday parties times two?
Many celebrations and holidays are child-centered. You may be wondering if, after the divorce, there will be two birthday parties, two Easter egg hunts… two Thanksgivings? Since her daughter and son-in-law divorced, Bastille says that some holidays have been one-family events while others have included both families. When they are all together, she says, everyone manages to remember the most important thing — Maya’s happiness.
“It can be awkward for the adults, but family members have been able to control any lingering emotional turmoil and make it a good day for Maya,” she says. Of course, every family is different, and some divorces are more acrimonious than others. If a grandchild’s parents’ marriage ended bitterly, and emotions are still raw, joint celebrations don’t have to be insisted upon. Ask yourself if it would be more difficult for the child not to see both parents together at the celebration, or to see them there together, arguing the whole time.
Although grandparenting through a divorce can be a challenge, the role you play in your grandchild’s life may also become more crucial. As Bastille has learned, grandparents can offer not only their love, but “an oasis of sameness when everything else in your grandchild’s family life is changing.”