08/12/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

When Helping Hurts

American parents are more involved in their children's lives than ever before. According to a review in the American Sociological Review (February, 2013), a study led by sociologist Laura T. Hamilton of the University of California, parents today are willing to endure great financial and personal sacrifices, such as depleting their bank balances on their children's education and spending endless hours helping with homework, to insure their happiness -- often with negative outcomes.

The story does not end there. Many parents find themselves in the awkward position of becoming helicopter parents when their child gets separated or divorced. There is no question that parents walk a slippery slope when their son or daughter gets divorced, especially if they are pulled into the fray. Parents face many challenges such as accepting the end of the marriage, waving the family banner, delaying retirement, putting out the welcome mat, and, potentially, losing access to their grandchildren.

When does helping become hindering when a child gets divorced?

In my book Your Child's Divorce ... What to Expect, What You Can Do, (Impact Publishers, 2006), I offer a five-stage guide for parents to help them achieve their goals of healing the family while respecting boundaries.

I suggest that after accepting the news, parents can be most helpful by being a safe harbor. The first weeks or months after the breakup, the adult child will feel emotionally and physically adrift. The disequilibrium can last three to six months. This is the appropriate time for parents to provide emotional and/or emergency assistance to make sure the child and grandchildren have basic needs met and feel connected to the extended family. At this time parents may offer financial assistance, housing, help with childcare, and assist with pressing legal needs. Be aware that rushing in too soon and exaggerating their role by taking over or assigning blame can damage their future relationship with their child and ex-law.

Once the initial crisis period has passed, the divorcing couple needs to reorganize their lives. Everyone is responding to change, and parents can help their single-again child form a new identity by encouraging him or her to set goals and by conveying optimism about the future. If possible, this is a good time for parents to build bridges with the ex-in-laws for the sake of the grandchildren. But dole out help conservatively -- being "too helpful" can be misinterpreted as going to the other side.

After the divorce is finalized and the son or daughter has moved on, parents can now return to their life by investing in their own physical and emotional well-being. The goal here is to be a child's backup, not a lifeline.

Refocusing and rebuilding, the last stage, occurs when the divorced child remarries or commits to a new relationship. Parents will face new challenges if they assume the role of step-grandparents. Here the role is to become the family historian, to accept differences and build new bonds. Some parents complain they are only getting the crumbs as the demands on their child increases. Happily, while the family is branching out, parents who were once at the forefront, can now resume their own life.

The authors of the article "When Helping Hurts" pose the question, How can we help our children achieve their goals without undermining their sense of personal accountability and motivation to achieve them? Their response: be responsive to circumstances, balance a need for competence, and restrain the urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it. This holds true when adult children get divorced. It is not the time to revert to helicopter parenting. Pulling back is a good thing.

"When Helping Hurts" Eli J. Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, NYT, 5-12-2013