Being a grandparent during separation or divorce

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

Many grandparents support their grandchildren’s families during separation or divorce.

Worried about your grandchildren during separation or divorce

You might be worried about how your grandchildren will cope with new family arrangements. It might help to know that children are usually OK if they have a secure emotional base, encouragement, routine, protection and the support of a loving parent.

There are also things you can do as a grandparent to support your grandchildren during separation and divorce:

  • Make your home a secure, safe place. You can do this by sticking with familiar routines for things like meals and bedtimes. You can also do it by making sure that your home is a place where people communicate calmly and respectfully.
  • Keep doing the activities that you and your grandchildren like to do together – for example, visiting the park, playing board games, going out for afternoon tea on Fridays and so on.
  • Actively listen when your grandchildren want to talk about their thoughts, feelings and fears. This can help you work out how best to comfort them.
  • Always speak respectfully about both of your grandchildren’s parents, and avoid taking sides. This can help your grandchildren feel OK about both their parents and maintain good relationships with them.
  • Try to maintain good relationships with your child’s ex-partner. For example, you could start by letting the ex-partner know that you share a common interest – the wellbeing of your grandchildren.
  • If you experience any conflict with your grandchildren’s parents, make sure that your grandchildren aren’t involved. This can mean discussing difficult issues when grandchildren aren’t around, not asking grandchildren to carry messages to parents for you, and so on.
  • Try to be positive with your grandchildren about the family’s future. You can talk about how change can be hard, but things will usually get better. You can also remind your grandchildren of good things that haven’t been affected by the divorce – for example, ‘We’re all looking forward to seeing your concert next month’.

If your grandchildren need to talk to someone other than you, they could try a confidential telephone counselling service for young people, like Kids Helpline – call 1800 551 800. Or they could visit Kids Helpline.

Supporting your grandchildren’s parents through separation or divorce

Support for your grandchildren’s parents can take many forms – encouraging words, a listening ear, or practical help with cooking meals and caring for grandchildren.

For example, your grandchildren’s parents will need to make co-parenting plans. You can encourage them to keep open minds, see things from their children’s points of view, and be ready to compromise. If there’s a lot of conflict or negative feelings, you could suggest or organise counselling to help them work through these feelings separately from the co-parenting negotiations.

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

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

Managing your own feelings about the separation or divorce

When your grandchildren’s parents separate, you’ll have feelings too – sadness, disappointment, anxiety, maybe even relief.

If you have negative feelings towards either or both of the divorcing parents, it’s best to keep the feelings under control if you want to be supportive. Airing these feelings can increase tension between your grandchildren and their parents.

But it’s still important to get support for yourself. It might help you to talk with a friend or counsellor – someone who’s less involved in the situation.

There are government-funded relationship counsellors at organisations like 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 131 114.

Managing family get-togethers

Just like before the separation, family get-togethers for holidays and birthdays will depend on what plans your grandchildren’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 grandchildren 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 grandchildren’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 grandchildren’s parents when you hear about the event. This will help them to make arrangements for your grandchildren to be there.

Losing contact with your grandchildren

You might be worried that your child’s separation or divorce could result in less contact with your grandchildren, or even loss of contact altogether.

You can make contact happen more easily by suggesting a specific time or activity. For example, you could offer to help with homework or do a school pick-up on a particular day each week.

If you’ve lost contact with your grandchildren and you’re concerned, talk with your grandchildren’s parents. If you can’t talk to them, you might want to seek further support – for example, from an Australian Government Family Relationship Centre for advice on mediation or legal issues.

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