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A divorce affects everyone in a family. While it's wrenching for the couple, their parents also can be emotionally devastated.
Not only are parents grieving for their adult child's loss, but they also may be worrying about how the divorce will affect their relationship with grandchildren. And their lives may be thrown into upheaval if adult children ask for money for lawyers, want to move home or need day care for the kids.
"Parents are generally heartbroken and very frightened," says author Rosalind Sedacca, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network. "It's one of the most stressful experiences anyone can have."
While the natural instinct is to protect and advise, parents should respect boundaries, says Sedacca, whose son got divorced in his 30s. She offers advice for parents and grandparents.
React calmly. Often parents are blindsided and don't realize that trouble has been brewing for years. Don't place blame or ask a million questions. Simply listen.
Sidestep the emotional minefield. Don't give in to the temptation to berate the other spouse. Sometimes the couple reconciles, and you don't want to be the parent who ranted about how much you hated the son- or daughter-in-law. That can end up closing the door to a future relationship with the estranged parent, especially if there are grandchildren.
Protect yourself. Parents are often dragged into a divorce to provide money, child care or emotional support. "Make sure you are not letting your child exploit or take advantage of you and hurt your health, finances or future." Don't give financial help you can't afford. And if a child moves back home, set rules just as you would with a younger, boomerang kid. Don't allow yourself to become your child's emotional dumping ground."
Find a support group or counselor. An emotionally detached third party, even for just a few sessions, can give you guidance. "They can make sure that you are not manipulated, shamed or coerced into doing something that isn't reasonable for you."
Provide a haven for grandchildren. "Sometimes parents are so filled with rage and the drama runs so deep that they stop parenting," Sedacca says. "Grandparents can step in and make a huge difference." Don't turn children into confidants or discuss adult matters with them. "Provide a sense of security, and keep life as sane as possible. Let the child enjoy childhood." If grandchildren live far away, Sedacca recommends increasing contact through emails and texts that focus on fun topics such as movies, books, jokes and videos.
Finally, it's important to keep the door open to the former in-law and extended family. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue, says that after the wounds have healed, many families — including both sets of parents and grandparents — continue to vacation and spend holidays together. She also has witnessed instances where former daughters-in-law stay close and even care for the grandparents.
"Families come up with many complicated arrangements," Nemzoff says. "Just because it's not your fantasy of marriage and parenting, it doesn't mean it's not OK. Unless you want a lifetime of aggravation, make it work."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at Mothering21.com