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Helping Grandchildren
Through Parents' Divorce

QUESTION: My son is going through a divorce. He and his wife have a three-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter together. I am so distraught about what will happen to them. And I am worried about how this will affect my relationship with them and how often I will see them. I see them almost every week now. What can I do to help?

ANSWER: Divorce is a dissolution of the marriage between your son and his wife, but it is not a dissolution of family. Although changes will occur as their parents separate, it is crucial that children maintain ongoing family relationships with relatives from both sides. Your ongoing relationship will help stabilize their situation while things are in flux. Consider the following steps:

  1. Establish a consistent visiting schedule with your grandchildren. Talk with your son about your desire to remain in consistent contact with your grandchildren and let him know that you want to talk with his wife, too, about maintaining your relationship with the children. Work to set up a regular (in your case, weekly) time for seeing them.

  2. Establish a neutral and independent relationship with your son's "ex." Contact your daughter-in-law and let her know that you want to be helpful with the children in any way that works for both of you. Reaching out to her in a neutral or friendly manner at this time will let her know that you are capable of and desire ongoing contact with your grandchildren, regardless of the fact that she will no longer be married to your son.

  3. Keep your grandchildren out of the middle of their parents' conflict. Keep your feelings about the divorce away from your grandchildren's ears. Support their relationships with both parents. Keep in mind that they need to hear that although their parents' love for one another has changed, their parents' love for each of them does not change. Be prepared for a greater number of tears or tantrums, as they adapt to the changes in their family. Let them know that their relationship with you will remain unchanged, and that your love for them is as strong as ever!

  4. Read books and make room for feelings. Consult with their parents about the possibility of having a book such as The Dinosaur Divorce Book on hand. In general, follow parental wishes and respect the manner in which they instruct you to deal with your grandchildren's feelings. Accept the children's sadness and anger about the divorce by simply reflecting their feelings, such as, "Yes, I know it makes you sad that your parents will not be living together" or ""Yes, it does make you angry to have to spend the night in a new house." But do reassure them that they will both be taken care of and continue to be very much loved.

    Expression of feelings through art and physical activity can help kids let off steam. Structure time with them that can allow for a release of pent-up energy, if necessary. Going to the park, swimming, or other active play can help children adapt. But if they appear more quiet or withdrawn, honor this space with quieter activities or crafts that engage their minds but rest their bodies. It is also possible that they may NOT want to talk about their parents' divorce, instead using the time with you as a therapeutic escape into normalcy amidst times of change. Make yourself available to them emotionally, but follow their lead, rather than force any discussions about their situation.

  5. Answer their questions in a non-judgmental manner. When questions arise -- "Why don't my parents love each other?" or "Why can't my parents stay together?" -- consider answering in a manner that does not malign either parent. For children of this age, a useful metaphor might be in reference to animals. Some animals go together, but some do not. A cat may not get along with a dog or a goat, but will likely get along with another cat. Use examples from your children's experiences. If there are two kitties that get along well, but run away from the neighbor's dog, this is the perfect metaphor! The children can like the dog and the kitties, but understand that they "do not go together."

Metaphors based on life experience can go a long way in helping children adjust. It allows children to normalize their experience of mommy and daddy's disaffection for one another, while allowing them to feel good about their own relationship with each parent.

And finally, take care of yourself! Your son's divorce may bring up emotions for you that need special attention. Some parents may blame themselves for their children's' failures or want to blame either spouse, instead of simply grieving. In addition to serving as a support to your son and to your grandchildren, you will likely have your own mourning process. You may experience your own anger or upset as the divorce unfolds. Be sure you have a sounding board for your feelings through this family transition. After all, grandparents are people, too!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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