Advice for grandparents during a divorce

Although written with grandparents in mind, this section may be useful for anyone in the wider family.  

Supporting the family through a divorce or separation

When your child is going through a divorce or separation, it can be hard to know how to stay involved, while giving the separating couple space to resolve their issues.

“Listen and be guided by your child regarding any contact with your grandchildren in the immediate aftermath of the separation. Try not to undermine the efforts of either parent to resolve the situation.”

Supporting your son or daughter and keeping in touch with your grandchildren will be important to you and to them. You have a special relationship with your grandchildren that is special to them too. Be clear that you want to support your grandchildren and continue to see them.

If the split is causing problems with you seeing your grandchildren, you could ask to sit down with the separating couple to talk about how best you can support them. When talking, remember to give everyone a chance to say what they need. If you’re not able to meet up together, perhaps a short note to both parents explaining how you think you can help may be useful.

You could offer to look after the children more to give both the children and the couple some space. This may be particularly important if they cannot immediately physically separate and are continuing to live in the family home.

If you have been through a divorce or separation yourself, think about what you did well and what didn’t work too well. What did you do to ensure your children continued contact with their own grandparents? What caused the most unhappiness or conflict? This is your chance to avoid it for your own child and grandchildren.

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Your relationship with your child and their ex

“Try not to criticise either parent - children may be very interested in your reactions as a gauge to their own feelings or what you might expect from them.”

It is normal to feel angry towards your child’s partner and even towards your own son or daughter. It is tempting to blame their ex if you do not immediately have contact with your grandchildren. As hard as it may be, try not to blame either parent.

Blaming either parent might initially make you feel better, but it won’t help the situation. Conflict is not helpful for children, including conflict between you and their parents.

If your child’s former partner does not wish to speak to you or does not, initially, return any contact made by you, remember that they are probably struggling with their own emotions and may be wary of your views. Give them time.

If you are concerned that your child’s ex is a truly harmful presence, it is important that you seek help in regard to how you can best help your child cope and come to terms with that knowledge. They may still need to have some contact with their other parent, even indirectly, and it is important that this is handled in a way that keeps them – and you – safe and protected from further harm.

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Your relationship with your grandchildren

“Remember that conflict is very damaging for children. That includes conflict between you and their parents. Helping their parents to avoid conflict may be the most valuable and helpful thing you can do for your grandchildren.”

As a grandparent you are in a unique position of being part of the situation, yet apart. You can offer your grandchildren a listening ear. If your grandchildren are spending time with you and talking to you about their feelings, be careful not to criticise either of their parents. 

It is natural to want to defend your own child but remember your grandchildren have two parents whom they love. If they know you are not going to judge or criticise, they may feel more able to confide in you. If they hear you criticising either parent, they may be reluctant to speak to you in fear of ‘taking sides’.

If your grandchildren don’t want to talk about the divorce or separation, don’t force them to. You may find they appreciate not having to talk about it. Listen when they want to speak to you and let them know you are always there to listen when they need to talk.

You need to reassure your grandchildren that although things are difficult now, they will get better. They need to know that their parents love them and that will not change. They need to know that you are always available to them and will not take sides.

If there has been conflict between you and your grandchildren’s parent, try to heal the relationship. It may mean swallowing your pride and saying you are sorry for any past arguments. Although this may be hard to do, remember you are putting your grandchildren first over who’s right or wrong.

If your grandchildren don’t want to see you, don’t take it personally. They may be very upset, angry or just shocked. It may mean they don’t want to see other people, including you, for a while. Younger children may just want to be with their parents. Older children may be embarrassed and uncertain what to say to you. You could drop them a note saying that you are there for them whenever they are ready.

If the relationship between you, your child and their ex is causing difficulties, you could use an intermediary to speak to the parents on your behalf. This needs to be somebody completely neutral and diplomatic. If there isn’t a trusted family member or friend you can ask, you could try mediation.

As a grandparent, can I ask the court for contact?

As a grandparent you do not have an automatic legal right to contact with your grandchildren. This means you first have to ask the court for permission to apply for a Child Arrangements Order to see your grandchildren. Legal advice will be useful in this situation. A Resolution member will be able to talk to you about your situation and how to proceed. Find a Resolution member near you.

If you are not able to have direct contact with your grandchildren

If you can’t have direct contact with your grandchildren, there are other ways you can let them know you are there for them. If phoning is not an option, cards or letters are a useful way to keep in touch. You can email, text or even skype them.

If writing to them, keep it general and try not to be too emotional. They may also be missing you a great deal too and may feel guilty if they think that you are being made unhappy by not seeing them.

Support for you

There are approximately 14 million grandparents in the UK. So you are not alone. Talking with friends and other grandparents can help you to deal with what is happening. Some will have similar experiences and may be able to suggest something that you haven’t yet thought of trying. There are organisations there to support you as a grandparent.

Above all, don’t give up hope. Sometimes, it just takes time for the dust to settle and for parents to learn how to parent apart. Once that happens and things are calmer, you may find that contact with your grandchildren will resume. Keeping in contact in other ways in the interim will help keep the door open for you and your grandchildren.

The Family Life magazine from Grandparents plus has a useful article called ‘When parents part’ that you may find interesting.