What About the Grandparents?

08/30/2011 12:37 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2011

In 2004, Kids' Turn made a decision to develop a Grandparent Seminar helping grandparents support their grandchildren during parental separation. We were fielding regular inquiries from grandparents who were helping their adult children financially by paying for school expenses, childcare, transportation, tennis shoes, sports lessons and other kid-related expenses when parents split. As with all Kids' Turn programs, we were clear in our intention to stay out of the legal complexities over custody and visitation issues. Our goal was to focus on empowering grandparents to be a safety net for their grandchildren.

We set about our planning by conducting a grandparent focus group and we were confident we could build on our existing programs for children and parents. We came together in a comfortable home in the East Bay hills of San Francisco, and we made every effort to have an economic cross section of families represented. What we learned was astounding.

The well-meaning grandparents were still carrying old wounds and hurts from their divorces. They felt completely helpless when they watched their children file for divorce or separate from spouses, imposing family turbulence on their grandchildren. Why, the grandparents wondered, didn't my children learn from my experience?

Additionally, the grandparents had no idea where they fit in the restructured family. Because families don't have roadmaps to navigate new family configurations, it was clear most of the grandparents took a 'wait and see' attitude before stepping into their grandchildren's rearranged lives. In order to not rock the family boat, many grandparents evolved to a reactive role rather than an active one.

In a 2008 study by Oxford University, Dr Eirini Flouri of the Institute of Education, said: "We found that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren buffered the effects of adverse life events."

All of these realities are helping Kids' Turn reshape its Grandparent Program in 2011 so we can be responsive to younger, contemporary grandparents who are pressed to help their children and grandchildren during divorce or separation.

Here are some elements of the program as we restructure it:
If you are a grandparent who went through a divorce, recognize that living through your kids' divorce will likely touch some old wounds. When that happens, find a friend to talk to (or even a therapist) so you are not confusing your experience with that of your child.

Stay out of the marital dispute. You may think your former son- or daughter-in-law is the offending party, but (s)he is still your grandchild's parent. If possible, keep a connection with BOTH parents even if it seems uncomfortable or difficult. This will help facilitate contact with your grandchild at either home.

Be careful with advice. Offer it when asked; keep quiet when you are not asked. Remember, you have the benefit of age and knowing life goes on in spite of temporary difficulties or setbacks.

Be cautious with money. If you are asked for money to help with various expenses, remember that throwing money at a problem doesn't solve it. You can clearly set limits on what you can provide within your budget. Target something specific you can pay for: swim lessons; those special shoes; school expenses; a new coat. We all want to help ease pain in our families, but it makes no sense to create problems in your own life to do so.

Keep predictable dates with your grandchildren. This is a turbulent, uncertain time for them. Coming to grandma or grandpa's house as before can be part of the unchanging, stable fabric of their lives. Depending on the age or stage of the child, the connection to grandparents can be a consistent comfort. As the adult, it is on you to initiate contact.

Tell your grandchildren your 'story'. Grandparents today have a wealth of knowledge based on vibrant life experiences, including riding out difficulties. Affirm who your grandchildren are and where they come from. Demonstrate you understand and empathize with their situation, but also let them know life offers ups and downs and you are there to help ease them through this unpleasant time.

Take every opportunity to remind your grandchild how special (s)he is to you. This unwavering validation can offer a child a lifeline when things are rocky.

We know divorce is intergenerational in the United States, and since elders pass on important skills and kinships, grandparents can also offer a well-modulated response to this life transition. It's a valuable legacy.