Grandparenting when families fall apart
“We decided to go our separate ways.”
“It’s just not working, and it’s time to move on.”
“We’ve grown apart, and this is what we think will make things better.”
These phrases seem so calm, respectful, and polite. However, they are often used to describe one of the most emotionally devastating experiences of a person’s life: divorce. These trite descriptions of divorce mask the fact that an entire family—parents, children, and all of their loved ones—will never be the same.
If your children are discussing divorce or in the midst of a nasty one, you probably have more questions than answers. Will I get to see the grandkids very often? How can I maintain good relationships with both parties? Should I take sides? How can I help taking sides when one person is so wrong? When you add to the situation that your own son or daughter is embroiled in this mess and dealing with their own pain and unanswered questions, you can see that divorce is not quick, simple, or easy.
When divorce enters the picture, grandparenting suddenly becomes a lot more complicated. Divorce changes everything, from day-to-day plans, to holiday and birthday celebrations. Staying connected to the grandkids in the midst of divorce and afterward takes flexibility, patience, and lots of grace, but it is possible.
Avoid Taking Sides
The sympathies of grandparents are often with their own biological child, but in truth, most divorces have at least a little fault on both sides. Try to stay out of the middle of the marital conflicts of the couple involved. You will probably have hard feelings toward this person who has hurt your child, but to maintain a connection with your grandchildren, you will need to be able to set your feelings aside and be civil.
Avoid gossiping about either parent with the other one. If you know details of one party’s personal life, keep them to yourself. Encourage both parents to discuss things directly with one another, and don’t allow them to depend on you for transmitting messages. If the message is misunderstood, you will look like the bad guy.
There will be all new arrangements after a divorce. Especially if it is your son who is involved, keeping a somewhat warm relationship with your ex-daughter-in-law is crucial to maintaining a connection with your grandkids. Because many custody agreements mean that time with a child’s dad is limited, learning to work with your grandchild’s mother is very important.
Be aware that your own child may be hurt and see your attempts at a friendly relationship with the ex as disloyalty. Reassure him or her of your support and explain that it is important to you to preserve your relationship with the grandchildren. You can be supportive to your child while working with the ex-spouse and maintaining relations with the grandkids. Most of the time, your child will come around and be able to see the sensibility of this arrangement.
Many problems with divorced couples are caused by communication difficulties. One party may fail to communicate changes of plan to the other, or pick up and drop off times may not clearly defined. To avoid problems on your end, make sure that you clearly understand what the parent means. Direct communication with each parent can help with this. If possible, avoid relayed messages. A simple text can clarify misunderstandings. If, for instance, a parent says that the kids need to be dropped off Saturday afternoon, it would be wise to text the time you had in mind in case the parent has a different idea.
Remember that discerning “tone” in texts and emails can be difficult. You may intend a comment to be humorous, but if the recipient is having a difficult day, they may read it as sarcastic or unkind. Double-check every message that you send to make sure that it reads the way that you intend it to.
Also, while texts and emails can be useful for communication, there is often no substitute for a phone call. If you have many questions or arrangements to make about the grandkids, a phone call can be simpler than multiple text messages.
Keep the Grandkids in Mind
Often, divorcing couples need reminders that the kids are struggling too. Sometimes, adults can be so wrapped up in their own pain, that they forget that kids are dealing with all of the same feelings but without the emotional maturity to process it all. Parents occasionally need a gentle reality check that their immaturity or emotional intensity is hard for the kids to handle.
Grandparents can give kids a safe place to process their emotions. However, don’t press the grandkids to make each visit all about their feelings toward their parents and the divorce. Simply be available if the children want to talk. Do more listening than talking. Ask questions rather than advise. Give plenty of hugs and encouragement. You won’t be able to “fix” most of their problems, but a listening ear, sympathetic attitude, and gentle smile can help these kids feel that they are not alone.
Thankfully, beginning twelve months after the divorce, many couples have processed their feelings and learned to work together. The kids will have established a sort of equilibrium, and a new “normal” will be achieved. While life will never be the same, it can still be good, fulfilling, and happy.