What to Do When Your Child Divorces
Your Son or Daughter Is Getting a Divorce
Your son or daughter has just announced that he/she is getting a divorce. How do you handle it? What if there are grandchildren involved? What if accusations of abuse are involved? What is your role in the changing landscape of the family after divorce? In this article, I will offer you some practical suggestions on how to help.
All too often this common family crisis is handled badly. Bridges are burned. Relationships are forever negatively altered or completely destroyed. Grandparents are alienated from grandchildren - often by their own behavior towards the son/daughter-in-law. Being the elders in the family, we have a unique perspective and an opportunity to help smooth what is otherwise a very rough road for the family to navigate. It behooves us to remain as neutral as possible to everyone involved even though we may be experiencing a great deal of pain ourselves over the breakup. This is a situation where a cool, thoughtful head is desperately needed and generally in short supply. We need to control and not act on our emotions. We can be supportive without taking sides. We can recognize this is a situation that affects the whole extended family but only the married couple can navigate. We are spectators on the sidelines and our feelings about it really shouldn’t factor into it.
Everyone May Go Through the Grieving Process
First, recognize that everyone, including you, may go through a grieving process after the initial shock of the news sets in. This can be every bit as intense as a death in the family. For some, there may be more a sense of relief rather than grief - especially if the relationship has been troubled for a long time or any type of abuse occurred. If this is your experience, try to have compassion and understanding for everyone else who might view it differently and experience a sense of profound loss. They may not have the same information that you do on the matter and their grief can cause them to do and say very inappropriate things. Try to be patient as they work through their grief. The grieving process will include one or more of the five stages of grief and loss, and not necessarily in any order. These stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Do not make hasty judgments or take sides at this point. You can burn bridges that will be difficult if not impossible to repair later. Understand that you will usually get only one side of the story and it will most likely be favorable towards the one telling the story. This is human nature. The version may be truthful and correct or it might leave some important details out that could alter your view. It could also be the total opposite of the truth. We humans tend to hide the ugly parts of ourselves fearing rejection by those we love if we reveal ourselves too much. Accept that you do not have all the information. You did not live in their shoes and experience life from their perspective. You cannot make an accurate judgment so don’t even try. Remain neutral and loving to everyone.
If there are allegations of abuse involved and it is your child’s spouse who stands accused, keep in mind that abusers tend to be good at hiding their actions from their birth family. Abusers will lie and spin things to make it sound like it is they who have been wronged. Their birth family may have no idea of what has been going on and will be quick to defend their loved one. Additionally, abuse may be generational and the abuser’s birth family may be in heavy denial of the historical family issues. They will often go to great lengths to keep it covered up. Tread carefully if this is your child’s situation. A lot is at stake both legally and emotionally.
If your child is the one who is accused of abuse, try to keep an open mind. Relationships are tricky and you may not have all the information. Is it possible your child has anger or substance abuse issues? Is it possible your child has been emotionally and/or physically abusive? Now may be a good time to do some investigating, get to the heart of it, and possibly intervene. This effort can help your child change negative behavior for the sake of their future happiness and the well-being of the grandchildren if there are any. You might also do some serious soul searching to see if this is a family pattern. If so, and with the help of a competent therapist, you can be the one to help stop the abuse cycle and initiate the healing of your family wounds. At any rate, do your best to remain neutral and understanding. The family needs your solid guidance right now—not hasty judgments that may later prove false.
Help Your Child Gather Resources
Help your child gather the resources he/she will need to get through the emotional, financial, and legal matters ahead. Encourage your child to seek counseling. A counselor can be a much-needed helper and safe place to vent. Your child will have issues to work through, as a breakup of a marriage can be complex and have many layers. You may need to seek counseling yourself if you experience emotions you are unable to cope with. Perhaps on some level, you know your child has problems that contributed to the dissolution of the marriage but you are having trouble facing it. Maybe there are family patterns that need to be dealt with—such as the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. Denial will get you nowhere. This crisis may be an opportunity to shed light on what has confounded you and your family relationships for so long. This isn’t always the case and it could be as simple as two people deciding things are not working out and they weren’t right for each other. There is myriad reasons people divorce. Counseling can be helpful no matter the reason.
Will an attorney be needed or can the couple do this amicably and fairly? If needed, help your child find a good attorney. This will take a bit of research. Check on-line ratings such as yelp.com for reviews of attorneys. There are a lot out there and not all of them are good. Help your child organize paperwork and lists of assets and things they want in the division of property. If your child cannot afford an attorney, look into legal aid in the community your child resides in. Most communities have resources for this.
Will your child need financial support? Can you help or can you help find resources for your child? They might need to apply for state assistance and have no clue how to go about it. You can help them research the steps and help them fill out forms. If needed, you can help them find a financial advisor to guide them through that part of the divorce. If you are able to help them financially yourself, be sure to discuss the expectations of repayment if you cannot afford to give the money outright. Communication is very important. It will be helpful to write it all out because memory can change over the course of time and the stresses of the situation. You each may have differing recollections on agreements made. A written document can prevent many hard feelings.
What If Grandchildren Are Involved?
Are there grandchildren involved? If so, they will need your calm, stabilizing presence more than ever. Sometimes, grandparents are the only stability young children have at this time. Make yourself available as much as you can. The worst thing you can do is alienate their parent - your son-in-law or daughter-in-law. (See above about not making hasty judgments.) The children love both their parents and extended family members. They will sense it if you harbor ill feelings towards one of their parents or other loved ones. No child should ever have to deal with one side of the family hating the other. The children love everyone and they need to just be kids and grow up with the most positive support possible. They do not need to deal with the confusion over conflicting feelings and their lack of understanding of why one side of the family hates the other. We’d do much better if we all followed their example and approach the situation with loving hearts.
As they grow older and gain more perspective and life experience, children will be able to figure things out for themselves and the “mean family” (my grandchildren's term) may just bring about the very thing they fear - loss of affection and time with the children. Kids know how they feel when they are around happy, peaceful people and unhappy, angry people. Which do you think they prefer being around? Think through all of this before you cause irreparable harm that might alienate them forever. Set an example for the children of how loving, compassionate people behave and can overcome adversity in life.
Neutrality, Kindness, and Compassion Will Help Maintain Loving Ties With Grandchildren
I have heard and read stories of successes and failures on this issue and experienced both myself. In my own extended family, there have been a couple of divorces. We reached out to the in-laws and expressed our sympathy for the breakup and concern for the well-being of everyone. Our gesture was greeted warmly. To this day, though they are no longer a legal part of our family, they are still treated with love and respect because of their children who are blood-related and because of the affection we had for them when they were married to our relative. We keep in touch and invite them to family functions that are appropriate for them to attend. They get holiday cards. We still love them. Yes, things are different, but being divorced from our family member does not mean we should not treat them with kindness and respect. This perspective helped smooth the road for their transition out of the family and into their new life while still maintaining some ties and offering a support system.
In another divorce in our family, the in-laws wanted nothing to do with us or anyone associated with our loved one who initiated the divorce. False accusations were made and bridges burned. They refused to speak or interact at all. There isn't a lot you can do about something like this except to continue setting an example of kindness and compassion for all involved. It isn't easy to do in the face of such hatred and we don't always do it perfectly. It's a process.
One mother I know of whose son and daughter-in-law divorced invited her daughter-in-law and the grandchildren to come live with her until they got on their feet financially. Mom was aware that her son had problems with responsibility and anger and he was not going to do right by his ex and children. He was vengeful and punishing them for leaving. His mom stepped in and helped support her daughter-in-law and kids while encouraging her son to get some counseling and do what was honorable by his family. She remained neutral. The story ended with her daughter-in-law getting her needed schooling and job so she could support the kids on her own. This mother and her ex-daughter-in-law are still vital parts of each other's life. They have found a way to maintain peaceful ties through kindness and compassion and their common bond of the children. There is a great deal of love and respect between them. They are a wonderful divorce success story.
My own mother-in-law modeled something similar when one of her children divorced. There were hard feelings between the couple and allegations of neglect and abuse. My mother-in-law remained neutral for the sake of the grandchild and often invited the child’s other grandparents to birthdays and holidays that the grandchild attended. She understood that the other grandparents were not at fault and the child loved them all equally. She made sure THE CHILD came first. She respected the child’s love for both parents and both sides of the family. This is how it’s done! It can be difficult when dealing with the raw emotions divorce can expose. The best way of moving forward is to behave with neutrality, kindness, and compassion if you want to maintain loving ties with your grandchildren into the future.