Grandparents are on tricky ground when their adult kids divorce. Emotions run high. The parents are in the thick of their conflict and may look to their own parents to validate and support their feelings and opinions. Grandparents may feel a need to protect grandchildren from fighting or to shield them from decisions that are being made. Meanwhile, their access to the grandchildren they love may be called into question. Just because they are related doesn't guarantee that a grandparent has legal rights for contact with grandchildren. The grandparent's relationship with grandchildren in the future depends in large part on their parents' feelings about the way the grandparent manages the present.
Here are the four most important things a grandparent can do during their adult children's divorce:
Don't escalate the conflict: As tempting as it may be, especially if you think your child has been done wrong, don't fan the flames. Don't join in criticizing, demonizing, or threatening the soon-to-be ex. At some point, things will simmer down and it will be difficult to take back negative things you said while in the thick of the fray. Furthermore, the person on the receiving end of your negativity (whether your own adult child or his or her spouse) isn't likely to want to support your relationship with her or his children.
Don't offer advice: The fact is that no one really knows what goes on in another person's relationship. Keep your advice to yourself. You don't want to be to blame if your advice backfires. You don't want to take responsibility for decisions that need to be your adult child's. He or she is an adult and needs to make his or her own decisions. By all means, lend an ear. Be sympathetic. But emphasize that you're confident that your adult child will make the right decisions for his or her own life.
Do maintain contact with grandkids: Don't change the rhythm and substance of your relationship with the grandkids. Continue to do whatever you normally do in terms of calls, texts, visits and presents. If one or the other parent puts up barriers, appeal to them on the basis of the needs of the child, not your rights. Reassure the parents that you will stay neutral about the situation when you are with the kids. Keep your relationship with the kids as just that -- your relationship with the kids. They need a safe harbor where life can go on as usual.
Do be there with love for all involved: Divorce is hard on everyone in a family. It comes in the wake of many disappointments and a great deal of turmoil. Grandparents are in a unique position to model tact, good judgment and balance during a difficult time. It's fine to let the various parties vent if they need to. But a grandparent's role is to then encourage the person doing the venting to get to a more balanced and positive place. When things settle down, you will be remembered as being a safe and supportive presence, not a part of the problem.
There is one exception. In the case where your adult child or a grandchild is clearly a victim of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse, the rules change. Get some help for yourself to learn how and when to intervene and what resources are available. Connect your adult child with appropriate legal and psychological help and social services. It usually takes many attempts before someone is emotionally ready and able to leave an abusive relationship. Offer consistent and clear support while they come to terms with the need to get out in order to stay safe.
Follow Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MHartwellWalker