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Grandparents Affected by Adult Child Divorce

Responding to the trauma of grandparental alienation

The importance of grandparents in their grandchildren's lives is a subject now being studied widely and thoroughly. Although researchers point to a wide heterogeneity of grand-parenting roles, for many children and their grandparents, the grandparent-grandchild attachment bond is an important component of their self-identities and a significant factor in their everyday lives. For many kids, this bond is a critical ingredient to their optimal development. The salience of the grandparent-grandchild attachment does not diminish during and after divorce; indeed, grandparents often play a vital role in helping grandchildren adjust to the consequences of parental divorce, providing a sanctuary for the emotional needs of their grandchildren at a time when parents, faced by the multiple losses and transitions attendant to divorce, may be less emotionally available and responsive to their children.

One of the lesser-mentioned advantages of co-parenting after divorce is that it can strengthen children's relationships with both sets of grandparents. One subgroup of grandparents, however, those whose adult children have been affected by parental alienation, are highly at risk of having their relationship with their grandchildren drastically altered if not completely severed. Although prevalent in North American society, such “grand-parental alienation” is rarely a source of professional discussion or concern, even among those who study or practice in the realm of parental alienation. For grandparents and children alike, where the previous relationship involved a good deal of emotional investment and healthy attachment, its loss may eventuate a grief process containing all the major elements of bereavement or trauma which is likely to have profound consequences.

What are the responsibilities of divorce professionals in regard to the post-divorce grandparent-grandchild relationship? Many have suggested that family mediators and post-divorce family practitioners need to expand their definition of the post-divorce family system, widening their target system of intervention from the nuclear to the extended post-divorce family. Family mediators and practitioners may also strive to engage both sets of grandparents, adopting an inter-generational model of practice with the post-divorce family. Such a model assumes that given the opportunity to participate in the divorce and post-divorce therapeutic process, grandparents are more likely to become important resources in both in the therapeutic endeavor and as supports to children adjusting to the consequences of their parents’ divorce. Grandparent involvement needs to be reframed in a positive manner, particularly in those cases where residential parents view grandparent contact as a threat to their new post-divorce identity.

The new roles and relationships that need to be negotiated in the extended post-divorce family should also extend to grandparents and extended family members. This entails the recognition that grandparents are in a unique developmental stage with tasks that need to be addressed in conjunction with learning the new post divorce family rules. The therapist must assess the position of the grandparent in the family constellation both before the divorce and in light of the changes required in the post divorce family system. As well, factors such as the health status and age of the grandparents must be considered as they may limit the type and quantity of involvement with grandchildren. Grandparents and grandchildren must be given the right of self-determination in deciding how involved they wish to be with each other and other family members.

Family practitioners and mediators need to ensure that they provide assistance in helping grandparents negotiate their new roles as well as assisting them in regard to their ongoing relationship with their grandchildren. Excluding grandparents from mediation and post-divorce therapy may in fact exacerbate or even create intergenerational conflict. Family practitioners need to assist the entire kin system to develop new family guidelines as they learn to cope with the impact of divorce and subsequent impact on intergenerational relationships.

Family practitioner attitudes toward the involvement of grandparents vis-a-vis post-divorce family issues should be carefully examined, particularly in light of children’s needs and interests. It is only when mental health professionals begin to address the needs and advocate on behalf of the involvement of grandparents in divorce and post-divorce practice that we should begin to see increasing numbers of grandparents initiating requests for help. To date, the alienated grandparent population has remained largely invisible to post-divorce family practitioners and mediators.

An overriding concern of many grandparents today is that of access to their grandchildren. How can we begin to address their concerns? One approach is to empower grandparents in relation to access to their grandchildren. This can be done not only by therapeutic means but also by educating parents regarding the salience of grandparents to the child's emotional well-being during and after divorce. When adult children are divorcing it is imperative that the family be encouraged to seek out mediators who are sensitive to the needs of the extended post-divorce family system.

Family practitioners, mediators, and legal professionals are in a position to have considerable impact on post-divorce grandparent-grandchild relationships. By embracing the concept of the extended post-divorce family system and adopting a multi-generational approach in post-divorce work, these groups will serve to empower those grandparents whose relationship with their grandchildren is vital to both parties. As we recognize the salience of grandparents in their grandchildren's lives, both before and after divorce, the necessity of actively advocating on behalf of the grandparent population at the point of family divorce, particularly those grandparents who are most at risk of alienation, is critical.