Divorce and Grandson

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota.

Question: What can I do to help my eight-year-old grandson overcome a negative attitude? He loves to play games and draw pictures, yet he is unsure of himself and usually figures things will not turn out the way he wants. He is being raised by his mother, my ex-daughter-in-law, who comes from a negative family--always feeling they have been dealt the worst. I suspect that was one of the underlying reasons for the breakup.

Answer: Your question raises two important issues. Although your primary question is about how to help your grandson develop a more positive outlook, your description of the situation also suggests some underlying issues between your family and that of your son's ex-wife. It sounds as if you sometimes feel overwhelmed by what you see as the negative influence of his mother. Much is written about divorced parents, but less attention is paid to the role of extended family after a divorce. And yet the steady love and support of a grandmother can be just the thing to help a child thrive even in the face of the loss and confusion surrounding a divorce.

Here are suggestions that might help as you try to encourage your grandson toward a more positive, hopeful attitude:

Counteract his pessimistic outlook with your own realistically positive attitude. Example is the best teacher, so look for opportunities to demonstrate a positive attitude even in the face of challenges. Let him see that things don't always go perfectly, but will usually work out OK. For example, when you do an art project with him, let him see how you sometimes make a mistake but then laugh and use your creativity to turn it into something different ("making lemonade out of lemons").

When he expresses negative expectations, acknowledge those feelings by saying, "I can see that you're afraid it's not going to turn out well." Then encourage him to move forward anyway by saying, "I wonder what we could do so that it will be OK even if it's not exactly what we want?"

Real self-esteem comes from the experience of actually doing things well. So, work with your grandson to develop one special area of competence--whether it's in the arts, academics, sports, fixing things, cooking or playing chess.

Although your grandson is still very young, it's not too early to begin to help him focus on other people's needs. Engage him in helping you in the church nursery, choosing holiday gifts for people who can't afford them, or going with you and his dad to serve at a soup kitchen. As he matures, stepping outside of his own experience may help him develop a more balanced perspective.

Every chance you get, affirm for the boy how much both of his parents love him. Although you see things in your ex-in-laws that trouble you, your grandson will do best if you can approach his mother in a supportive, nonjudgmental way--and if you can encourage harmonious child-rearing even though the parents no longer are married. Recognize that there is much that is beyond your power to change, but that the most powerful thing you can do is to be a part of the network of adults who join together to guide, nurture and encourage your grandson through each stage of his development.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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