Grandparents can be the glue that binds families together or they can be a divisive and destructive force. No where does this apply more poignantly than where there is breakdown or strife in their children’s matrimonial or family relationship. In my experience when grandparents take up the cudgels for their individual adult children or take sides in a family dispute, it never ends well for the grandparents particularly. After the dust has settled the vast majority of parents have to rub together somehow for the sake of their children, but estranged spouses specifically if the estranged non-relative spouse is the custodial parent can retain animosity for a very long time towards their in laws now outlaws so to speak.
Just as tact and diplomacy is required in negotiating the parenting relationship from a grandparenting perspective so to is it required in the breakdown of such relationships. Being supportive of your son or daughter in such situations is not something that should include alienating the other party to the point where you will not have contact with your grandchildren. Reaching out to the grandchildren through the parent with whom they reside whether that be your adult child or not, is key to maintaining those vital relationships. Of course, you should do so with your adult child’s full knowledge and consent.
When a relationship breaks down, children can be forgotten in the conflict. Of course, everyone pays lip service to the importance of the children but reality is somewhat different 9 times out of 10. Parents argue in front of their children or in earshot of them. Parents have inappropriate conversations about the other party with friends and relatives in the children’s presence or in earshot. Parents deny access for no good reason or are in mean and spiteful to each other for no good reason. They refuse to give one another passports to take the children on holidays and play brinkmanship up to the last minute all but ruining the holiday for all concerned. They play hurtful games with each other not responding to texts about where they are taking the children on holidays, allowing the children to have phone contact and not advising of their plans on time or at all. These are only some of the behaviours I can name – there many more. Whether or not such parents have any conscious awareness that in seeking to hurt one another, they are also hurting and wounding their children is not entirely clear but the grandparents being a little more distant can see it clearly. Parents locked into this sort of dynamic often view the world through a black and white lense, you are either on their side or not. The children sit on the sidelines watching getting upset and confused. It is in this situation that the grandparents both paternal and maternal particularly if they have been close to their grandchildren, can play a vital emotionally supportive role for their grandchildren.
Research here and abroad shows that grandparents of the noncustodial parent can often be sidelined post divorce/separation. It is important not to allow this to happy for the sake of the grandchildren as well as your own. A willingness to help will go a long way. Being a single parent is very difficult even if that is all you have ever been however, growing into that role when you have had another parent is very hard indeed so help with child care enabling parents to continue to work at a vulnerable time, taking children after school or collecting them from school, having them for some of the holidays so that a parent can get a break, would all be most welcome. Having an open door policy for the grandchildren themselves particularly if you live close by or are on the way home from school, would give the children much needed continuity in a changing environment and provide them with the unconditional consistent love they need. Grandparents who develop early emotional bonds with grandchildren will find they last. The middle generation is of vital importance in determining closeness. When grandparents and their adult children are close then closeness with grandchildren comes naturally and easily.
One of the things that I have found most interesting in my reading on the role of grandparents and reflection on it, is that there is a whole language around this that I was not aware of. The Grandmother Hypothesis for example is a fascinating theory that women often live a lengthy live post menopause because of the important nurturing role they play in grandchildren’s lives. Another one is Intergenerational Solidarity which refers to the broad reasons why some grandparents manage to get close to their grandchildren and others do not – things such as geographical closeness, flexibility when it comes to technology and using it for communication, frequency of contact and grandparents function within the extended family. It is important to note however, that caring for your grandchildren as a childminder does not determine closeness. In this area, it is the relationship itself that determines the closeness rather than any function as such. Another great phrase is “Ex-Kin Keeper Role”. This refers to the non-relative custodial parent. Grandparents can be a conciliatory and stabilising force if they have the wellbeing of their grandchildren to the fore and the wish to stay in contact with them. Their role can be summed up in Distract and Reassure.
I have long thought that in collaborative family law practise we should extend our role to provide a communication forum for grandparents with the separating parents and indeed extended family (ie aunts uncles etc) as to how they can help and be a bridge for future communication ensuring the transition for all the family to the benefit of the children.