When parents are locked in dispute and/or separating the support of extended family can provide enormous comfort to the children and support for the parents. Grandparents, in particular, can be a great resource in this situation especially for children who are close to them. Children caught in parental conflict can be extremely disturbed by the withdrawal of their parents from them. This can happen simply because the parents are locked in their own misery and cannot see beyond it. From the child’s point of view this can sometimes mean that not only do they lose a parent to some extent when that parent moves out but the other parent may be so preoccupied in their own emotional trauma that they are virtually lost to the child as well. Often the parents themselves have no conscious awareness of this and can be overcome with guilt in later years when they realise that is what happened. Parents who are aware that this is a possibility can put in place certain safeguards such as the support and help of valued extended family to bring the children safely through this period.
For grandparents to be truly effective in such circumstances, it is important that they do not lock themselves into the conflict on one side or the other. This is difficult but not impossible. The reality is that the less invested they are in the marital or relationship breakdown the more likely it is that their role as grandparents will continue uninterrupted. Support does not have to involve taking sides. It is amazing the number of people, particularly women, who comment to me that they never so much as received a call from the partner’s parents to ask how they were doing or to enquire about taking out the children or otherwise. The hurt that this causes , especially where there has been a long relationship, is immense. A simple phone call of enquiry and support does not amount to betrayal of the other party and is a long term investment in the welfare of grandchildren.
Many grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren as a result of separation and divorce. This does not need to happen. Grandparents have the right to go to court and seek contact with their grandchildren if they are not being allowed to see them. However, going to court to assert their rights as grandparents is an answer but not necessarily the best one. Sometimes, it may be the only option but mostly, that is not the case. If you have to go to court relations are most likely broken down with the custodial parent and any future relationships are going to be too strained for any except the most determined grandparents to sustain. Fights about children can be the most bitter and poignant all at the same time and tear everyone apart. Far better if you are a family member or grandparent to think carefully before getting stuck into the row and that is so whether you are the grandparent of the custodial parent or the non-custodial parent. Parents reconcile and if you have gone in for one side over the other, guess who will wind up losing? Sometimes, children vote with their feet and change where they live, sometimes courts make different orders than the ones originally made, sometimes people move away or decide to return to work or study and either share or change custody. All or any of the above could wrong foot you. Apart from those realities though there is the reality that all relationships if they are to be of any use are founded on trust and once lost it is very hard to regain. If you take a side you will lose the trust of the other parent. Realising how important trust is you should encourage everyone to try and resolve their issues with dignity and fairness and lead by example. Remember, the children won’t know why you have stopped calling or visiting or remembering their special occasions, they will just feel the gap in their lives and the attendant hurt. Think what you can do to help, focus on how you can be of use and concentrate on the most vulnerable people in a family breakup, the children. Doing this will keep you on the right side of everyone and don’t leave it too long to offer to help!