When Grandparents Divorce

Grandparents may well be a rock in a family, the solid foundations, there whenever child care is needed, present at holidays, family festivities, school events, perhaps providing support through tough times like illness or their parent’s divorce. They could well have been a constant source of love, support and reassurance over the years.    

But, if their situation changes and they decide to end their own marriage it can be an unsettling experience for the whole family. Even grown-up children can be devastated when their parents, their children’s grandparent’s divorce. This experience can be a major shock for younger children too, especially if it means the relationship with the family changes.

Grandparents divorcing may result in divided loyalties, family tension, a third party being involved, one grandparent deciding to move away, or being less accessible than before through working, or being so badly affected that time away is needed to heal and recover.

Children typically are resilient. Most of us will have had the heart-rending experience of seeing a child terribly upset, crying inconsolably, only to find them, thirty minutes later, happily playing, without a care in the world!    

As adults, hearing of other couples divorcing is such a familiar occurrence that we probably commiserate, then move on with our lives without too much reflection.  Friends, family, most people’s lives have been impacted in some way by divorce. But when it’s nearer to home it prompts a myriad of emotions and opinions.  

For children, whatever they’ve experienced at home has been their norm. If home has been filled with ongoing tension and rows, their parents divorcing could offer relief all round. But, often those in the household get used to the drama and the decision to divorce can prompt unanticipated grief, requiring time to readjust.

But, when grandparents divorce it can bring a different kind of shock. Much-loved, familiar people who’ve always been in their lives, there at momentous times in life, if suddenly removed or acting rather differently can be unsettling and require sensitive handling.

How to support children when grandparents divorce;

The impact of grandparents divorcing will largely depend on the level of involvement in their grandchildren’s lives. Will a similar level of closeness continue to be maintained, is there another trusted person who can offer support, who the children can confide in? The relationship children have with their grandparents is unique and different from the one they have with their parents. It’s often more doting, with time, money and attention quite freely available.  

As a parent, start with a serious conversation with the divorcing grandparents, either separately or together, where you clarify what their ongoing involvement in your children’s lives will be from now on. Provide reassurance to both grandparents that they’ll be treated fairly regarding their grandchildren, that neither will be criticised or discussed in front of them. A blanket, ‘grandma and grandpa don’t live together anymore’ could well suffice for young children. Divorce is common enough these days for children to accept that and not find it too surprising.  

It’s best if both parents tell younger children together. It lets them know that something serious is happening, gives them an opportunity to discuss any immediate concerns and provide reassurance that their parents are there to calm any anxiety they may have about being in some way responsible for their grandparents divorce. Children can sometimes feel that they’re partly to blame because they’re not good, smart, helpful or pretty enough.

Age appropriate information is often all that’s required. Young children don’t need to take sides and form opinions about a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ grandparent and anyway, it’s rare for a situation to be that clear cut. There’s usually a background story to support both points of view.        

Try to avoid one set of grandparents becoming side-lined whilst the other becomes more heavily relied upon or relevant after their divorce. It may be through proximity, a desire to show them support or because they need to be occupied, but be wary of any significant out of balance that may begin to occur.

It’s important not to rely excessively on one grandparent for help and childcare. Start the new situation as you mean to go on, and try to ensure that grandparents are included in fun times too, not just the chores and duties. No matter how keen they are to please or be busy it’s important to let them enjoy the family with meals out and social events too.   

Notice if one grandparent or set of grandparents seems inclined to cut themselves off from their grandchildren. They may feel embarrassed, unwelcome, ashamed. Their relationship with their grandchildren should be a separate matter from their newly divorced status. If they’re living some distance away, maintain contact online, on the phone or by sending drawings and photographs through the mail. 

Be clear with both grandparents that they must behave appropriately with your children; no tales, questioning or bribing to lobby for their affections. And if new partners are to be included at future events, insist that sensitivity and restraint are exercised whilst the new ‘friend’ is gradually introduced to the family.     

There are reports of grandparents needing to go to court to gain access to their grandchildren. How sad is that! It’s far better to try to negotiate a mutually acceptable outcome which considers the emotional wellbeing of the children after their grandparent’s divorce.  


Susan Leigh, Counsellor & Hypnotherapist             www.lifestyletherapy.net