When Grandparents Divorce

Divorce may be common, but that doesn't make it any easier to tell grandchildren about yours.

By Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Since the 1960s, we’ve all watched divorce "morph," as Newsweek put it in a 2008 cover story, "from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life." In other words, the stigma is gone.

Today, half of all American grandchildren have at least one set of divorced grandparents, reports Merril Silverstein, a University of Southern California sociologist who specializes in family and intergenerational relations.

If you and your spouse are getting divorced, and have already completed the wrenching task of telling your adult children, then it's time to sit down for a talk with your grandchildren. You need to break the news that the grandparents they've always known as a twosome are splitting up. Since the odds are that your grandchildren probably already have friends with divorced parents or grandparents, the news might not be devastating to them. But it may still come as a shock. And as much as you may be tempted to pass the job of telling the kids to your son or daughter, your grandchildren deserve to hear the news directly from you — and ideally, from both you and your estranged spouse, if at all possible.

Do’s and Don’ts

* Choose a calm, unrushed time to talk with the children, preferably on a day when you have a few hours to spare with them.

* When you have your talk, don’t try to gloss over the situation or pretend there won’t be changes in their lives. Children can tell when something is not “right" — and when you're not being entirely honest with them.

* It’s a good idea to have the children's parents in the room with you to show family solidarity and to help you answer whatever questions the children might have.

* Be prepared for older grandchildren to ask questions about the possibility of grandma or grandpa having new relationships. Always give honest responses, without going into details you're not comfortable discussing.

* Don't bash your ex, or soon-to-be ex, no matter how furious you may be. That person is still your grandchild’s grandparent and your son or daughter’s parent, and you should want to preserve those relationships — as well as your own — by avoiding negativity.

* Try to keep your emotions in check. If a grandchild asks if you are unhappy, admit that you are, but avoid expressing bitterness or anger. Let your son or daughter take over the conversation if it becomes too difficult for you.

What to Say

Keep your explanations as brief and simple as possible, and put them in terms appropriate for your grandchildren's ages:

Grandpa/grandma and I have decided to live apart. It’s no one’s fault. We both love you dearly, and we will always be your grandparents. You can call either one of us anytime if you need to, just like before.

Grandchildren may be worried that they are going to lose one or both of you because of the divorce. Address those concerns — whether or not they raise them — by reassuring them that, "You will see both of us as much as always," if that's the truth, "but we won’t visit you together." Or if your former spouse is moving away, tell the children, "Grandpa/grandma is moving, so you will see him/her a little less. But you and I will continue to do all the fun things we have always done."

Ask your grandchildren if they have questions for you, but be prepared in advance to answer some of the most likely ones, such as:

Why did you divorce?
What does it mean for me?
Will Mommy and Daddy get divorced too?

When you're finished talking, remind the children that they can ask you other questions whenever they need to.

Moving On

Stay out of your ex’s relationship with the grandchildren. If you ever interfere at all, it should only be to encourage your ex to be more involved with his or her grandchildren. Similarly, you should always accept invitations to family gatherings even if your ex is going to be there. Drum up the fortitude to keep things as close to “normal," at least for an afternoon, if that’s what your adult children request of you. It may be difficult initially to be at the same celebrations, but you’ll find ways to enjoy yourself with your grandchildren.

The bottom line is that your bond with your grandchildren remains unchanged. You will still be the doting relative and backup support system they've always known. You’ll continue to make the pancakes they love or work with them in the yard or complete puzzles together. And by remaining as present as ever in the lives of your children and grandchildren, you reinforce your love, encouragement, and enthusiasm for everything they do. Some things simply don’t change, no matter what.

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