Few would dispute that the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is a special one. Not only are grandparents normally an integral part of children’s lives, but they are increasingly being relied upon to provide (usually unpaid) childcare in families where both parents have to work to make ends meet. According to a survey earlier this year (the “21st Century Grandparenting Report” from specialist insurer RIAS), 5.8 million grandparents in the UK (47%) regularly provide childcare for their grandchildren. On overage they spend 10 hours per week with their grandchildren and the cost saving to families exceeds the Child Benefit paid by the state to parents (RIAS calculated the saving to be £1,830 each per year). Many grandparents also contribute financially to their grandchildren’s upbringing.
Many grandparents clearly provide crucial benefits, both financial and emotional, which makes their situations in the event of divorce or separation of the children’s parents a difficult one. They sometimes feel pushed aside in the turmoil of family breakdown, when emotions are high and it feels all too easy to say “the wrong thing”. Later on, where children are sharing their time between two homes and parental time with children can feel limited, it can seem difficult to find time for the wider family.
Although thankfully it is rare for us at CFLP to see cases where children have no relationship with the parent with whom they do not live, across the UK it is still relatively common. If the parental relationship is fractured, there is almost always a corresponding loss of the grandparental relationship, which can be devastating both for the children and for the grandparents. Anecdotally, it is thought that up to half of grandparents lose touch with their grandchildren after a divorce, which is dreadfully sad when grandparents can be an essential source of stability, sanctuary and fun for children whose day-to-day life may be in confusing flux.
So if you’re a grandparent, and you find yourself facing a situation where your son or daughter has separated from their spouse or partner, what is the best approach?
In our opinion, the first move might be talking to your own adult child and encouraging them to see the whole rearrangement of family circumstances from the children’s perspective. There are some fantastic resources available to help with this process, especially www.theparentconnection.org.uk, which is an approved programme for assisting parents to put their children first and reduce conflict between them. If your son/daughter and their former partner can manage to agree the grandchildren’s arrangements early on, your relationship with the grandchildren – and, more importantly, theirs with you – is more likely to continue as part and parcel of your son/daughter’s co-parenting arrangements in both the short and longer term.
Mediation can be a really helpful process for working out children’s future arrangements, so pointing your adult child in the direction of mediation rather than the court if things get sticky is a positive thing to do. The process is very flexible, and isn’t just confined to parents: mediation can include any wider family members, so long as everyone agrees. If you are finding it difficult to speak to your grandchildren’s parents (one or both of them), a mediator can help you to explain your position and also to understand the other side of the story. Mediators understand that sometimes it’s not possible to work out difficult family issues without any outside help, and are trained to help you come to decisions for the benefit of the children that also work for the grown-ups involved.
We also suggest trying to keep on good terms with both parents. It is understandable to want to support your adult child through the process of family breakdown, but the children will not gain anything if you cannot hold on to a relationship with their other parent too. This may mean doing your best to stay neutral and be kind to both parties. However difficult it is, it is important to remember that relationships break down for all sorts of reasons and you are unlikely ever to find out the whole truth about what has gone on in someone else’s private life. Early on, you could explain that you wish to support both parents in their parenting of the grandchildren during this very difficult time, and that whatever else is going on between the two of them, your primary wish is to help the children get through the process in whatever way you can. Often parents can need extra practical help with childcare and household management at this time: if you can offer that, without judgment or strings, it could make a big difference. If handled well, this conversation can set a positive tone for your ongoing relationship with the whole family in its new, separated, form.
Thankfully it’s very rare that grandparents feel the need to go to court about their grandchildren, but it is possible for grandparents to apply for orders for contact with grandchildren, and even for residence orders in extreme cases. In order to do so, grandparents need the permission of the court in advance, but for any grandparent honestly concerned for the welfare of grandchildren who feels the arrangements they want are in their grandchildren’s best interests, this is not a high hurdle. Courts do take grandparents’ positions seriously and there are several reported cases where grandparents have been successful in their bids for contact with their grandchildren, and in some particularly difficult circumstances, to have grandchildren come and live with them.
As with all court proceedings about children, the courts will try to determine what arrangements are in the children’s best interest. The courts do recognise that a continuing relationship with their grandparents is generally good for children, providing continuity in a tumultuous period of family breakdown. However, unless there are questions of harm being caused to children, keeping matters out of court is almost always a better option for preserving those complex and fragile family relationships upon which children’s happiness depends. As the most grown-up of the grown-ups during family breakdown, grandparents should do what they can to smooth the waters and ensure that everyone’s focus remains in the right place: on the kids.