Being a grandparent during separation or divorce

With one in three marriages ending in divorce in Australia, many grandparents are supporting their grandchild’s families during separation or divorce.

When a family breakdown happens, it takes time for the whole family to adjust. For your grandchild, there’ll probably be new living and parenting arrangements. This means it can be a confusing time, both emotionally and practically.

Common concerns

Your grandchild
You might be worried about how your grandchild will cope with different living arrangements. What really matters is how children are parented, not the type of household they live in. If your grandchild still has a secure emotional base, encouragement, routine, protection and the support of a loving parent, his needs are probably being met.

Your grandkids might want to talk to you about what’s happening, especially if they’re younger. But you might also find your teenage grandchild needs to talk to someone other than you. If so, she could try a confidential telephone counselling service for young people such as Kids Helpline (1800 551 800), or she could visit the Kids Helpline website.

It’s natural to be concerned about your grandchild in this situation. But before you raise your concerns with your grandchild’s parents, it might be worth thinking about whether you really need to worry.

Your grandchild’s parents
Your grandchild’s parents will be going through a lot of changes and making decisions about how they’ll parent after the separation. If there’s a lot of conflict, counselling can help them work through the issues.

If you’ve got a good relationship with your grandchild’s parents, you might talk over some of the problems together. It can help to practise what you want to say so that you’re positive and supportive.

Providing support
Providing support at a difficult time can bring the family closer, but it’s not always possible. Support can be a listening ear or more practical day-to-day help, such as cooking meals and caring for your grandchild.

But in this situation, you’ll have feelings too – sadness, disappointment, anxiety, maybe even relief. So you’ll need to balance your natural desire to support your grandchild and his parents with your own needs.

Your grandchild’s parents can also look for other types of help and support for single parents. If you’re not available, they can still manage.

Unfortunately, the pending divorce and the shuffling of the children back and forth has been devastating.
– Jean, grandmother of two

Managing family get-togethers
Just like before the separation, family get-togethers for holidays and birthdays will depend on what plans your grandchild’s parents have made.

If you’re organising a family event, you might need to plan ahead and be flexible with timing – for example, by celebrating your birthday the week before so that your grandchild can attend. Or you could celebrate your birthday at two separate events – for example, afternoon tea and dinner. If it’s OK, you can let your grandchild’s parents know that they’re both welcome.

For special events – for example, a family wedding that you’ll all be invited to – talk with your grandchild’s parents when you hear about the event. This will help them to make arrangements for your grandchild to be there.

Losing contact with your grandchild
One Australian study found that 80% of children had contact with one set of grandparents either weekly or monthly, several years after their parents divorced or separated. Less than 5% of children in the study rarely or never had contact with their grandparents. For those grandparents who do lose contact with their grandchild, research shows that it’s source of stress and grief.

Most of the time contact between grandparents and grandchildren is worked out within the family. Sometimes it even increases as grandparents provide extra support.

It was grandparents day at his camp. He didn’t know I was coming. When he saw me, the look of utter joy and love that radiated from his eyes and smile was ... priceless!
– Jean, grandmother of two

Staying in touch
If you’ve lost contact with your grandchild and you’re concerned, talk with your grandchild’s parents. If you can’t talk to them, you can contact an Australian Government family relationship centre for advice on mediation or legal issues.

Tips for helping your grandchild

  • It can help to keep doing the activities that you and your grandchild like to do together – for example, visiting the park, playing board games or phoning regularly to keep in touch.
  • Talking with your grandchild can help her to deal with difficult emotions and fears. Whenever your grandchild is ready to talk, listening to her thoughts and feelings about the situation can help you work out how best to comfort her.
  • Having a respectful relationship with both of your grandchild’s parents is likely to make seeing your grandchild easier. You’ll also be modelling the important life skill of dealing with change.
  • Your grandchild doesn’t need to get involved in any issues between you and his parents. If you need to talk to someone, you could try talking to a friend, support group or forum to chat with others who are grandparenting during separation or divorce.
If you’re having difficulty with your own feelings about the separation or divorce, you might like to consider counselling. There are government-funded relationship counsellors available at organisations such as Relationships Australia and Lifeworks. Your GP should also be able to refer you to a private psychologist or relationship counsellor. If you need to talk to someone urgently, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.