When Divorce Happens

Grandparents can ease family upheaval when parents split up.

By Susan Stiffelman

How can I help my 10-year-grandson whose parents are going through a divorce? And what do you think about the fact that my son-in-law takes my grandson along to his girlfriend’s house? 

I'm sorry to hear about your daughter’s divorce. Watching your child — and grandchild — go through that turmoil is one of the most difficult things you’ve had to endure. Your grandson is lucky to have a caring grandparent to lean on for love and support.

One of the biggest challenges your daughter will face as she shares parenting with her former spouse is letting go of how he parents their son. While there are activities and behaviors that are bad form — like talking negatively about the other parent — the fact that he takes his son to his girlfriend’s house, though upsetting to you and maybe premature, is not criminal, nor necessarily a bad thing. Divorces can take years, and the fact that the papers haven't been finalized isn't reason enough to forbid a man from taking his son to his girlfriend’s house. You may find it distasteful, and it may offend your beliefs, but it is not a compelling enough violation of parental responsibility for you to get involved. Unless the child is complaining about it to you, my advice would be to stay out of the fray and don't weigh in with any, ahem, well-meaning comments.

Here is what I know for sure. What your grandson needs from you is understanding, and the kind of encouragement that lets him know he’ll get through this tough time. What he doesn’t need is to hear negative judgments about his father. Be careful about how you react when you hear things about his dad that don't sit well with your own sensibilities. Never forget, 50 percent of your grandson comes from his Daddy. Any bad-mouthing he overhears from his mother or from you — including the fact that his dad shouldn’t be taking him to his girlfriend’s house — will be harmful and lead to scary confusion.

If your grandson mentions his unhappiness about visiting the girlfriend, allow him to express his feelings or discomfort without criticizing his dad. Offer a sympathetic ear. Don't rush in with advice or solutions. Listen and empathize. If you hear something that troubles you, discuss it with his mother.

Do your best to avoid fueling your grandson's confusion, even if you're tempted to fan the flames of his anger against his dad. Your job is to remain someone he can confide in who will help him navigate this minefield.

Grandparents can be exceptionally helpful to their grandchildren when parents are divorcing. Sometimes children need to offload painful feelings but are afraid of upsetting their troubled parents, so they hold in their feelings. If you stay calmly supportive, you’ll help your grandson safely vent his frustration, anger, and sadness.

Divorce is a loss, and as such, your grandson needs to travel through the five stages of grief: Denial ("I’m sure Mommy and Daddy will get back together"); Anger ("I hate Mommy"  or "I hate Daddy!"); Bargaining ("If I behave, maybe they'll get back together"); Depression ("It’s all my fault, and we’ll never be happy again"); and Acceptance ("I guess it'll be okay, if I can still be with Mommy and Daddy, even though we don't live together”).

The best way to help your grandson is to be a steady, safe presence beside him as he journeys through these stages. Avoid focusing on what his Dad is or isn’t doing right, and do all you can to support your daughter and her son as they find their way through this dark night to the light of day.


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