This is an unabridged column I wrote for GRAND Magazine.
With a 40 percent divorce rate in this country, many grandparents will witness the divorce of their grown children. Having been witness to signs that their grown child’s marriage was in trouble, some grandparents will not be surprised at the news of the divorce; in fact, they may have even anticipated it. Other grandparents are completely blindsided, caught off guard, having thought their grown child’s marriage was in tact. Of course both groups of grandparents will be saddened, but this latter group, less prepared to deal emotionally with the news, will be faced with additional challenges.
Based on my research and conversations with grandparents who have dealt with a grown child’s divorce, I have suggestions that may prove helpful.
Find appropriate emotional outlets for whatever you’re feeling. As a grandparent, sharing your hurt, anger, disappointment, relief, or whatever you’re feeling with the parents going through the divorce is not appropriate. The grown children going through the divorce are already on emotional overload, and probably don’t have the capacity or motivation to help you deal with your emotions. The best thing you can do is to not heap your own tumultuous emotions on top of theirs.
Rather, share your feelings with your spouse, close friends, a counselor, a support group, or other grandparents who have been, or are currently, in a similar situation (in some cases, the in-law grandparents can be a good resource, if you have a good relationship with them). Other grandparents who have been through a grown child’s divorce can provide some valuable firsthand dos and don’ts. Also, talking with professionals can help you learn some practical coping skills.
Do not ask for information and updates. It is anxiety provoking for someone facing challenges, such as your grown child going through a divorce, to have a barrage of questions fired at them: “So, how’s it going? Anything new? Did you talk with the lawyer? Did you put the house on the market? Did you tell the children?” Assure your grown children that you will not be asking them questions or for updates. Simply let them know you are always available when and if they choose to share things with you. When they do share with you, do not jump in with unsolicited advice. Just say, “How can I help?”
Do not tell a grown child what they should do, even when pressed. In the heat and confusion of emotions, it is common for the grown child facing a divorce to turn to his/her parents with questions and statements such as these: “What he’s done really is unforgivable. I should divorce him, right?” or “Don’t you agree I should kick her out of the house?” Refrain from throwing in your shoulds, for example, saying, “Yes, you’re right. He’s a dirt bag and you should divorce him.”
Rather, say, “What do you see as possible options and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each option?” In this way you can be helpful by keeping the parent in the divorce focused on making good decisions as opposed to getting stuck in non-productive bad-mouthing – which can come back to haunt you, as when, for example, the couple reunites.
Stay as neutral as possible. Of course it is heart wrenching for a grandparent to learn his/her son or daughter is on either the giving or the receiving end of some hurtful, destructive, or even just plan stupid behaviors that are instrumental in the divorce. It is understandable that a grandparent will be tempted to share his/her thoughts on what they see as who’s in the right vs. who’s in the wrong.
Even when they believe the circumstances leading up to the divorce seem clear, grandparents must resist the urge to directly criticize, disparage, or malign either of the parents getting the divorce. (This is why it is important to have a support network of other family and friends with whom a grandparent can vent.) Saying negative things about the grown children in their presence is an example of a bell that cannot be unrung: the kind of situation that has the potential to be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Your grandchildren may need to share with you feelings about their parents’ divorce that they don’t feel they can easily share with anyone else. When your grandchild says, “I hate my father for what he did. I never want to talk to him again,” don’t try to talk her out of these feelings by saying, “Oh, you don’t really mean that.” At that moment, she means it!
Rather, empathize and say something that lets your grandchild know her feelings are valid and you hear what she’s expressing: “You are really angry with your father; in fact, you are so angry you do not want to be around him.” In other words, feed back the sentiments and emotions as your grandchild expresses them, as raw as they may be, without trying to spin them in some way that negates them, for example, by saying, “Oh, you won’t always feel that way.” That is not helpful and may distance your grandchild from you because she may feel you are not hearing her. And you wouldn’t be. Listen and accept. Don’t sermonize.
Your main job is to stay connected with your grandchildren. Help with all transitions by doing what you are asked to do. Do not take any related actions on behalf of your grandchildren without talking with your grandchildren’s parents first.
In short, put your own feelings and needs on the back burner when communicating with your grown children and the grandchildren. Do not give your grandchildren’s parents any reason whatsoever to find you uncooperative or adversarial. You want to retain access to your grandchildren under any new circumstances and relationships that may emerge after the divorce. Do whatever it takes to make that happen. Your goal is to keep you in your grandchildren’s lives.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues
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