Divorce triggers an outpouring of deep emotions: sympathy for the couple whose marriage has failed and concern for the welfare of their children.
But what about the parents of the divorcing couple? Often, their devastation goes unseen. And yet, these family elders mourn the loss of the marriage, and many fear that bitter custody battles or a faraway move will cut them off from their grandchildren.
"You're struggling with a ton of emotions and questions. You're confused, disbelieving, saddened," writes Marsha Temlock, MA, author of Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect - What You Can Do.
Fred and Cheryl Waller of Rialto, Calif., have seen two very different sides to a child's divorce. When one son divorced amicably, the Wallers remained in touch with their ex-daughter-in-law and grandson. "There was no fighting or arguing with any of us," says Cheryl Waller, a 61-year-old homemaker. "The mother was friendly with us and we've always been friendly with her, and it goes to this day."
But when another son divorced, a bitter court battle ended in a nightmare for the Wallers. Their son lost custody, and they have not seen the two grandchildren from that marriage for a decade. At first, says Waller, "You're on an emotional wringer. For four months, I couldn't think straight." But, she adds, "I had to get on with my life. I had other grandchildren, and I had to concentrate on them."
Temlock, also the mother of two divorced children, likens the pain of divorce to that of a death. "Like their divorcing children, parents have to grieve. Following the initial shock and denial, there is a healthy period of mourning, leading to acceptance and recovery."
Right after the news breaks, though, parents of divorcing children often make common mistakes, Temlock tells WebMD. They badmouth the son-in-law or daughter-in-law, jump to conclusions about what soured the marriage, or immediately try to seize control of the crisis and end up making their own child too dependent on them in the long run.
How parents behave initially sets the tone for the future, Temlock says. "The way in which you react to your child's announcement will pave the way for your future relationship with your child, your grandchildren, and soon to be ex-in-law."
Fortunately, parents can be a strong source of support to their divorcing children, enabling them to rebuild their lives, Temlock says. They can also provide their grandchildren with a sense of security and stability.
Show Your Support for the Divorcing Child
Some parents are relieved that a divorce allows their child to escape a bad relationship. But many feel depressed, angry, fearful, and even guilty if they believe that they haven't done enough to prevent the split. Despite such powerful emotions, Temlock urges parents of a divorcing child to maintain perspective and keep feelings under control.
"Be very understanding that you don't come first and that there's a lot of stress going on right now," she says. "You're the role model. I advise grandparents to try to provide a measure of support to their wounded child and the wounded grandchildren.
"Your child is your child forever, and you need to show some loyalty," she says.
"Now, showing loyalty is not the same as, 'I agree with what you've done,'" she adds. Perhaps a child has damaged the marriage through affairs or other behavior. "In such cases, it is a good strategy to rally around the in-law in hopes of helping the spouse and grandchildren who have already suffered the abuses of that parent. But in most instances, when it is your child with whom you have developed trust and affection, you will want to be all you can be for that child," she says.
What does a son or daughter in the throes of divorce need to hear from a parent? "I know that you're hurting. What can I do to help you?" Temlock says. "You can't take away their pain, but you can give them your strength."
Try Not to Alienate Your Child's Ex
Parents must maintain a balancing act: Support your child, but don't alienate your son- or daughter-in-law. Avoid badmouthing the ex. "You may think you are consoling your daughter when you say, 'You were right to get rid of the lazy bum' or you remind your son, 'She was never top-drawer,'" Temlock writes. "No one wants to hear that she wasted all that time, money, and energy building a relationship that was doomed from the get-go. Instead, acknowledge how hard your child tried to make the marriage work."
Besides, the couple might reunite someday or stay connected after the divorce, and your words could come back to haunt you, Temlock says. And remember, no matter what happens, having a respectful relationship with your ex-in-law helps to keep open the gateway to your grandchildren.
Don't alienate the in-law's extended family, either, Temlock advises. She recalls one grandfather who refused to stand by their ex-in-laws at their grandson's bar mitzvah. "He was so angry at the in-laws -- and this was many years after his daughter's divorce -- that he refused to stand next to them and receive the Torah," she says. "Can you imagine this beautiful occasion and this grandfather was so set in his anger that he couldn't even make a public display of conciliation?"
Take the high road, Temlock advises. Behave civilly, even if for no other reason than to protect your grandchildren's feelings.
Home In on Your Grandchildren's Needs
Grandparents can't replace parents, but they can give grandchildren a sense that they belong to a larger family network, Temlock says. That matters a lot because children often fear abandonment after a divorce. They feel insecure and worry about the future, she writes: "Who will take care of me? Where will I live, go to school? Where will we get money? Where are my parents going to live? Will the other parent leave, too?"
"This is your time to really be the stabilizer," Temlock says. "You need to remove the grandchild from stressful situations, and one of the things you can do is provide some stability in your own home."
For example, routine becomes important to give grandchildren a sense of comfort and consistency when their lives are in great flux. Keeping their toys in the same spot, keeping overnight sleeping arrangements the same, doing familiar cooking projects, adhering to a weekly ritual of going out for pizza -- all of these things help calm children during the turbulence of divorce.
In contrast, some grandparents, like the Wallers, lose contact with grandchildren and worry about being portrayed as part of the "enemy camp." Tracee Crawford, 49, of Boise, Idaho, enjoyed a close relationship with her grandson, Adam, until he was 6. But when Adam's mother, who was Crawford's oldest daughter, died of cancer a few years after her divorce, the boy moved away to live with his father and stepmother.
Crawford's relationship with the couple deteriorated. Despite taking legal action for visitation, she has not been able to see Adam, now age 13, since 2001. "What makes me so sad is that our daughter wanted him to know how much she loved him and cared for him, and she wished she could have been there for him," Crawford says. "She wanted to make sure that her son stayed in our lives."
When grandparents are denied visitation, experts advise mediation as a first step. If that fails, grandparents who decide to go to court for visitation rights should know that states do not give them a legal right to see the child, but rather, the right to petition the court for visitation, says Brigitte Castellano, executive director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights. But court action should be a last resort, she says. "It creates a lot of hard feelings."
Offer Divorcing Children Financial and Practical Help -- Carefully
It's common for divorcing adults to "run home to Mama," especially if grandchildren are involved, Temlock says. "You're going to see a certain amount of regression. Your child may feel very, very needy."
Divorce can shake up grandparents' finances and daily schedules, too, especially if a child needs to borrow money or move back into their home. "They are looking forward to retirement and they're still supporting their child," Temlock says. Some grandparents will postpone retirement or give up travel and leisure activities to provide childcare -- and many end up exhausted.
When their two sons divorced, the Wallers helped with rent payments, bought home appliances, and spent roughly $10,000 on attorney's fees on behalf of one son, who also moved in with them temporarily.
Gestures of love and support are appropriate, but parents must take care not to engender long-term, unhealthy dependency, Temlock says. Negotiating flexible repayment schedules or a target date for a child to move into their own place again can encourage renewed independence after divorce.
Consider, too, how help affects other family members, Temlock says. She once heard a young woman complain that they resented having to attend a community college. But they had little choice because their parents had spent their college funds on an older sister's mortgage payments for several years after their divorce.
"You need to know when to diplomatically withdraw your support so that you are not in a position that you have really taken on too much and it becomes a burden," Temlock says. "Your role is not to provide long-term financial support. Your goal is to point your child toward financial independence. Doing too much is as bad as doing too little."