How to help your child through a toxic and contentious divorce

Divorce isn't just painful for the couple involved - but their parents, too.

Watching your child marry and become happy and settled in a marriage is a reassuring feeling for any parent. 

So what happens when that marriage crumbles and your child becomes locked in a fierce battle with the son or daughter-in-law you’ve grown to love?

Should you step in and defend your child, or act as a calm go-between? Or disassociate yourself entirely, leaving your adult kid to sort their own relationship situation out? And while some couples make a mutual decision to separate, keeping things friendly for the sake of their children, others may suffer a more toxic divorce. What to do in that situation?

Marcia Watts, relationship psychotherapist counsellor for Brisbane-based counselling service Transform2Lead, says it’s important for a parent to draw on past experience of the couple’s relationship to help guide your future actions. She told Starts at 60 that a more harmonious relationship can mean you remain close to your son-in -law or daughter-in-law even after the divorce, but that it’s important to offer your full support to your biological child first, before re-building bridges with their now-partner.

Read more: Surviving divorce at 60

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However, many contentious divorces can follow a previously difficult marriage, and things may be much more hostile. In that case, Watts suggests keeping boundaries firmly in place to ensure you’re there solely for your own child.

First and foremost, it’s about reigning in the (often deserved) anger a parent may feel toward their adult chid’s spouse. “It doesn’t have to be this way forever. When a marriage breaks down it’s a crisis, and you can’t predict where the chips are going to fall in 12 months, two-years time. Don’t say or do something you may regret down the line,” Watts says.

Rachael Scharrer, the founder of DivorceAnswered.com.au, agrees that it’s best to avoid becoming closely involved in the split.

“When your child’s marriage is failing or falling apart, it can be difficult to fight the impulse to step in and ‘make everything better’. As a parent watching your hurt child, you feel a sense of powerlessness. But as your parenting instincts kick into overdrive, you need to be the voice of sanity, reason and understanding,” she says.

One huge worry for parents is the possibility of losing contact with grandkids, particularly if the divorce turns nasty.

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Watts advises people in this situation to “make a calm response and say ‘we’re here for the kids and you’. That way, the likelihood of you losing contact reduces greatly”. She warns that the risk of being refused access to grandchildren usually rises when a parent becomes too defensive of their adult child.

“Try to underreact,” she said. “You don’t have to hide your feelings, but just be aware of how you’re communicating them. It has to be a long-term view.”

Read more: The bright side of divorce in your 60s

Juggling a child’s partner is one thing, but some parents struggle with how to react to their own child too. Watts suggests taking time to calm down and ensure you’re in a position to offer support, rather than “lose it” and regret it later.

“First and foremost, the message should be that you care about them, and want to know they’re OK,” she says. “Ask them what support they need, don’t just assume to know.

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“Sometimes as parents we think we know,” she went on. “Ask if they want some support with the logistical stuff like the school run, and more practicalities. They can take a lot of mental burden off a couple who are stuck in a toxic divorce.”

Scharrer says it’s key to listen, and “as the saying goes, ‘don’t add fuel to the fire’. Your child doesn’t need you to get them more worked-up, depressed or infuriated by the situation”.

She agreed with Watts that it’s important to remain as civil as possible with a child’s spouse, and try not to take sides, as it can lead to regret down the line. Finally, if you have grandchildren, your key role can be as a support to them, as they’re undoubtedly confused by their parents splitting up.

Has your child had a contentious divorce? How did you handle it? Has a family split meant you’ve lost touch with grandchildren?

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