In New Zealand, in 2021, almost 7,707 marriages ended in divorce. That equates to 5,973 children under 17 years of age whose lives were impacted because their parents had formally gone their separate ways. It doesn’t even take into account breakups within civil unions and de facto couple relationships. So, if you’re a grandparent of children who are currently experiencing a parental breakup – and all that it entails – you’re not alone. The good news, though, is while you’re not in a position to control the foundering relationship, you can make an important difference in your grandchildren’s lives at a time when they most need you. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Rather than focus on the relationship breaking down (that of the parents), put your energy into building up an even stronger relationship with your grandchildren. That doesn’t mean being ever more generous with material gifts or outings; it means being as emotionally available and present as you can be. This can be as simple as getting down on the carpet with littlies and their toys as they take the lead in imaginary games (no one is suggesting you be their psychotherapist, but there is real value in simply being present while children process their experiences via child-led play). Make even more opportunities to go for walks with tweenies (they are more likely to talk to you while you’re on the move), and make a point of calling or texting young adult grandchildren with an invitation to meet up for coffee. Strengthen the relationships you have with your grandchildren, and remind them you care about what’s going on in their lives.
Children love their parents no matter what, and they will soon sense if you are berating Mum or Dad, however subtly. You may be angry, disappointed, or even appalled by your adult child or their partner’s behaviour, but it will only hurt your grandchildren if you give voice to this. Instead, remain neutral, criticising neither parent. If a grandchild approaches you with their own concerns about Mum or Dad, listen with your full attention, but comment on your grandchild’s feelings rather than the parents actions. For example, if your grandchild says “Dad is mean because he shouts at Mum”, reply with, “That’s sounds very upsetting for you,’ rather than “That’s very wrong of him.” That way, your grandchildren will come to rely on you as someone they can turn to for comfort without being disloyal to their parents.
It can be so tempting to take sides in relationship breakups, but remember, as a grandparent, you will be interacting with both Mum and Dad where grandchildren are concerned. In fact, if you want to keep up with your grandchildren’s lives, it’s very likely you’ll be at school sports day with your daughter one week, and kapa haka the next week with your son-in-law. You can’t afford to fall out with either parent, so keep your comments neutral by focusing on the grandchildren, not the adults.
Tact and tolerance
It’s almost always the case, in family breakups, that grandparents end up seeing less of their grandchildren, at least initially. With Mum and Dad living apart, and custody shared between two homes, grandparents become third in line for visits. Try to be tolerant of this new situation, especially as the tide will almost certainly turn when either parent finds a new partner, and suddenly grandparents are in demand for babysitting gigs. Initially, though, make yourself available and be prepared to change your timetable in order to see grandies when they are free.
Change is hard
Change is inevitable as parents separate and divorce. Suddenly, grandchildren find themselves living in two homes (often with toys and pets left behind for periods). Or they may have to adapt to being in the company of Mum and Dad’s new partner, and even having to fit into blended family situations. Change is difficult, but as a grandparent, you can provide the one home where things are always the same. In fact, you can reinforce this even more by turning the routines you already have with your grandchildren, into traditions. Turn your regular ‘Friday night takeaways’ into something special where you always eat at the table with the same tablecloth and a posy of flowers collected by your grandchild. Let ‘watching a movie together’ become ‘movie night with home made popcorn’. Even taking the dog for a walk can become an anticipated routine when you take a ball with you and always stop at the same park to throw it for the pouch. Children will remember happy routines long after they’ve forgotten discord at home.
Whatever you do, the special love you show your grandchildren during difficult times, will be remembered long after family discord is forgotten.