Helping Grandchildren During Divorce
By Dr. Eleanor Hamilton

Fifty years ago children could pretty well count on living with both parents until they were old enough to make a home for themselves. But marriages are not as stable as they once were. Today, in fact, only 17 percent of American families are composed of a mother, father and their children. At least half of all our children have to learn to adapt to two or more sets of parents. Even more often, they must do with only a single parent, usually the mother.
Grandparents grieve over this. They have a hard time understanding the behavior of their children, and they wonder what they can do to ease the transition of a grandchild from one home to another, knowing how profoundly his or her life may be affected.

A concerned grandmother met me in a supermarket a while back and while checking out our purchases said, "I wish you'd write about what our role as grandparents should be in these situations. I know that my husband and I were the source of security for our grandchildren for quite a period of time when our daughter-in-law left her husband and children after ten years of marriage. But I just don't understand how parents can do such things to children. The children must be terribly confused."
I joked that maybe we had better adopt the European system of keeping families together while parents had their love affairs on the side, rather than upsetting a family every time Mother or Daddy falls in or out of love.

We both knew that that was no solution either, and I promised her I'd give some thought to what grandparents' roles could be. The first thought that struck me was that grandparents could be safe persons for children to talk to, to hear their bewilderment about why their parents couldn't learn to get along with each other. Of course this means that grandparents must refrain from laying blame on either parent. Instead they must help a child understand that grownups, like children, sometimes just can't get along with each other. Nearly every child can understand how one can have a close friend one day and the next can't even like him, let alone, love him.
Also, most children can understand how one person can have habits intolerable to another, yet both may be good persons. Children need a listening ear that won't take sides. Of course if the child says something like this, "I couldn't stand it either that Mommy was drunk all the time." Or, "I was scared of Daddy too when he hit Mama, and I'm glad she left him." Then is the time for grandparents to agree with the child and say "Yes, no one should have to live with a drunk person or with someone who hits another."

Many children suffer from the belief that they have caused their parents' divorce. Grandparents can reassure them that they are not responsible for the break-up and should themselves be especially careful to avoid placing guilt on anyone.
There may be a period of time while parents are wrangling over divorce settlements when the children would be better off living with grandparents until the emotional dust settled. I have known many a grandparent who was the saving grace in a child's life during such a period of tension. Children don't do well when they are feeling the hostilities of two persons, both of whom they love but who have ceased to love one another. No matter how carefully parents think they have disguised such feelings, the children, nevertheless, pick up the vibes and suffer from them.
Here, grandparents can provide a steadying world of warm relationship that the child feels will not disappear. Youngsters like to know that there is a safe place in the world they can always come to, that there are people who will not desert them, who are "on their side."

Grandparents, by the very fact of being grand-parents, have learned some coping skills they can pass on to grandchildren. Many times adults tell me that a grandparent was closer to them than either of their own parents. After all, grandparents generally have more time to be available to a child. On the other hand, many parents have such pressured lives just coping with the economics of the outside world that they rarely can give their children the precious gift of time.

About the author: Dr. Hamilton, a retired psychologist and sex therapist, is the author of five books and a recipient of the American Library Association award. Her television appearances include, "The Phil Donahue Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," and the "Tonight Show."