A study done on European family management trends further show that when couples with children sign a separation agreement, grandparents are stepping in often as counsellors in the UK. In the USA, an increasing number of children are shifting in to live with the grandparents in the post-separation agreement period. These children have been emotionally better fortified to deal with parental divorce than broken marriage ‘orphans’.
The Separation Agreement and its Effects
A divorce and a separation agreement are not the same thing. Once a decree absolute is granted, the marriage is nullified in totality. But the separation agreement is only a step towards this seal of finality. The worst time that a family goes through is this period that comes in between. It is a time of uncertainty and tension for all involved. If the children are mature enough to comprehend what is going on, they might be able to support their parents, or resent the situation even more. It is especially difficult where young children are involved. While they obviously have no idea of what is a separation agreement, and what it portents, they notice the changes in the household more acutely because they are home for a longer period of time. As for the grandparents, the usual feeling is that of a great helplessness. Being adults themselves, they can understand the implications of the separation agreement only too well, but realise that this is a problem beyond their domain. Since they cannot do anything directly for their own children, they try to help the grandchildren as an outlet of their affection, anguish and protective instincts.
The Usual Approaches
Grandparents can try to help out in many ways. Going into it all in full detail will mean a never-ending essay. So though it may look like oversimplification, some of the most usual approaches adopted by grandparents to help the couple and their children are noted below:
Counselling the parents: This is a good idea as long as they are not trying to press in their personal opinions, starting on the lines of ‘I told you so’, or making a desperate attempt to get things back to normal. The correct approach as counsellors would be to give that warmth and emotional support that a professional counsellor would be too distant to provide.
Filling the void: The separation agreement and the legal nitty-gritties that follow it understandably take up a lot of time for the couple. Even in their moments of leisure, they would be too exhausted to concentrate on anything else. Grandparents can provide the children with the ‘family time’ which is such an important part of growing up.
Confidante: Children want to talk about so many important things – the school bully, their report cards, the cat next door, or the new bicycle that should be bought immediately. Good parents are also good listeners, and children are prone to accept advice and suggestion only from someone who is a confidante. Unfortunately, after the separation agreement is signed, there might be ‘secrets’ they want to tell about their parents to someone older. Grandparents have a crucial diplomatic role here. It would be extremely tough to maintain a neutral viewpoint in this case, but that is exactly what the child wants to hear.
Mutual protection: While a sense of insecurity is a common problem of children of broken marriages, there is another side of it, too. Children do not only want protection, they also have a need to protect someone else. Single mothers often notice their child being strongly possessive and protective about them. Grandparents can both provide protection, and be an answer to the child’s instincts of a protector.
The Dark Side
There is a flip side of the coin too, which is rarely discussed. The involvement of grandparents in the post-separation agreement period can be damaging if one isn’t careful. Grandparents are willing to provide support, but a recent study shows that while more than 60% are willing to physically house their grandchild, many feel overburdened. The ground rule is that no one should dump all worries on to unwilling shoulders – be it parents or grandparents. Beyond that are personal discretion, affection and luck.