There is no cookie-cutter answer to this question. I have read sound advice that can be incorporated. However everyone, including children, process differently. Approaches vary according to personality and circumstances such as when the child came to live with you, the trauma that preceded their arrival, and how receptive they are to discuss this sensitive subject.
Where we are versus where we thought we’d be.
Raising grandchildren is both challenging and rewarding. Our roles have changed from occasional babysitting, spending an exhausting weekend with our grandchildren, chatting on the phone, or online face time, to once again, full-time parental responsibilities.
Our living rooms are turned into playrooms, the floor in your entrance are covered in tennis shoes, snow boots, and backpacks, and your perfect guest room now hosts a crib or bunk bed, the closets filled with baby, toddler, or teen clothes.
Grandparents have traded what should have been leisure time to full-time parenthood scheduling appointments, attending T-ball games and dance recitals, preparing meals, and disciplining the grandchildren we’d hoped to spoil. There are times life is so overwhelming we need to take in a breath and remind ourselves that taking in our grandchildren was a choice, not a sentence.
A generation ago we told our now adult children where babies came from or maybe why their parents were getting a divorce. And now we are faced with a question that is not only complicated but has the power to mold a grandchild’s life.
Make no mistake, how you connect the pieces will have a powerful effect on their lives.
Now, why is this topic included in this particular blog?
Because I've met and spoken with grandparents who are not only disillusioned but boiling mad with their adult children. "How could they do this to me?' they ask and continue with, "after all I've done for them and this is how they treat me?"
I'll go back to the statement that caring for grandchildren is a volunteer position. No one was forced. And, I do respect those who feel they can't handle the responsibility.
If you think you can hide anger from children, you're only fooling yourself. A simple lift of an eyebrow or an blow out of an anxious breath when a name is mentioned and your secret is out.
If you're going to raise grandchildren, come to terms with your anger and, believe me, I do this almost on a daily basis. If you can't do this on your own, and many of us can't, take yourself to Al-Anon or a counselor. As we know anger breeds contempt. I've know of grandchildren who have been given a one-sided story who turn on the grandparents who raised them.
I invite you to join the recently established private Facebook page entitled Grandparents United at https://www.facebook.com/groups/grandsunite/ where we discuss, share, give and ask for advice in a safe, caring and supportive environment.
THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK.
T, is it thoughtful? H, is it honest?
I, is it necessary? K, is it kind?
I memorized this years ago and it's saved me many times from saying
what I would never be able to take back.
Everyone deserves to know their roots.
I have friends who were adopted and have no clue as to who their birth parents are and more than likely will never know. This is a wound that can never be healed. Even if a parent is incarcerated for murder or died from an overdose the truth can help heal a broken heart.
A novel I wrote entitled HUSH explores not only father’s rights but delves deep into why every child deserves to know not only who their parents are but any full or half-siblings.
You may have lost a child to addiction and are not only dealing with your grandchild’s grief but your own. In this circumstance it’s just as important your grandchild gets to know their parents through you and other relatives; the good, the bad, and the ugly, as there is in all of us. The overall outcome of stressing the positive and sharing laughable or poignant moments you shared with your grandchild’s parent will help achieve our number one goal which is to raise a child with a positive self-image.
Clingy or shut you out?
From the time we are very young and throughout our lives, we are told that the two people who will always stand beside and behind us are our parents. In every cartoon and every Disney movie parents are portrayed as saints who do no wrong.
And then a child is given up or removed from their home. I can't imagine the devastation of thinking everyone’s parents are perfect but yours.
And then a grandchild clings to you with all their might; not wanting to go to school, not allowing private time-out for a bath. You’re pulling out your hair trying to catch a moment to breathe but it makes no difference. No matter how you try to explain that you need time alone your grandchild is stuck to you like glue.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have a grandchild who will barely talk to you and not only closes the door to their room but locks it.
What are you doing wrong?
Animals have instincts that protect themselves. Turtles retreat into their shells when they sense danger; a chameleon changes colors to protect themselves. But there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide when you’re a child and feel that the two people they should have been able to count on have either left their lives or show up occasionally.
If parents can leave so can grandparents. In survival mode, they cling to you because they're afraid you might leave or shut you out to protect themselves from being hurt again.
So what can you do? Clinging is a stage children usually grow out of as they become more independent and confident you’re here to stay. Shutting down emotions is complicated and takes patience and understanding. To get fed up and shout, “What won’t you talk to me? I do everything for you and you won’t give me the time of day,” will not bring you closer together.
But saying, “Hey, I just want you to know I love you to pieces,” or starting conversations that begin with, “I know you had a math test today, how’d that go?” or “I’m making your favorite meal tonight,” is a better approach to get your foot in the door. As simplistic as this sounds letting a grandchild know you are not going to push but you’re absolutely going to remind them often how important and special they are to you.
As difficult it is to wait the payoff is worth it.
When is the right time to talk about to our adult child’s children about why they live with us?
Sooner than later is best. It’s not possible for a child to not have questions.
You will not only gain but keep their trust if you are the one who explains the circumstances that led to living with you.
Many of us know that even if the parents gave up their rights, or a child was removed from the home, their faces light up whenever mom or dad appears. There is, and always will be, an innate bond. As the child grows older they will either learn to respect their bio parent depending on if they keep promises and show up, or accept there will never be a mom/dad relationship. It isn’t up to us to issue warnings based on what has happened in the past.
If disappointment comes their way we will be there to assure them they are loved, needed, and safe.
Why didn’t my parents want me?
This question is heartbreaking and difficult to keep our composure when it's asked.
There are many reasons why grandparents assume the responsibility of parenting a grandchild. From addiction to mental illness, emotional immaturity, or the incarceration of one or both parents is the common denominator that decides if a parent is capable of parenting their child.
Initial questions can begin as early as four when children begin to think they are different from all the other kids who have a young mom and dad. If a child doesn’t ask questions it doesn’t mean they don’t have them, it could mean they’re afraid of the answers. Trying to figure everything out on their own could leave a negative, long-lasting impact if they start to believe Mom and Dad didn’t want them, especially if Mom or Dad now have other children who live with them.
Instilling hey did nothing wrong and it’s not their fault their biological parents were unable to care for should be the message. Remind them they are not alone as many children live with grandparents or have been adopted. No one wants to think of themselves as “a black sheep,” or “the kid without a mommy and daddy.”
Use age-appropriate answers to try and satisfy any questions. Too much information for a younger child can cause confusion.
How do you know what age-appropriate is? For a younger child telling them their parents love them but were unable to take care of them so you stepped in is probably the only info they want or need.
One of the most difficult situations is when a child lives with you because of a son or daughter’s death. Not only are you dealing with your grief but trying to console your grandchild. A grief counselor is an alternative to work through the agonizing process of losing a loved one.
Are you Grandma, Nana, Grandpa, Papa, or Mom and Dad?
The answer: it’s not up to you or the biological parents.
From the time I brought Lukas home from NICU three weeks after his birth, I referred to myself as Nana. He called me Nana that turned into Lala and now it’s mostly Mom. At first, I was apprehensive and Luke’s father and mother were upset. Then the question became whether I should correct Luke. My decision was that it was Luke’s decision on what he wanted to call anyone, including me.
I have three sons. At this time two live with me. Luke’s Uncle Anthony, or Papa, has lived with us most of Luke’s life as I invited him into my home for support. Luke was on oxygen for several months after being released from the hospital. That, along with other scary circumstances that could happen in the first two years of his life, made me somewhat apprehensive and I asked for help.
And now, Luke’s father is living with us as he begins his life of sobriety or so we hope and pray. As long as he is sober he is welcome in my home anytime or all the time. Luke calls his father Daddy and his Uncle, Papa. The only time it feels a bit uncomfortable is when when we are in public and Luke calls me Mom and his father Daddy or his Uncle Papa. But when our eyes meet we end up laughing.
My eldest son visits often and all three boys call me “Mom.” Whether Luke picked up I’m Mom from his Uncles or PBS videos that always have a mom on the scene, it’s HIS choice to call me Mom and I will respect his decision. Allowing a child to choose what they want to eat or who they want to call someone at an early age will generate confidence in their decisions.
How does this affect my relationship with Luke’s mom? She is not happy because as any mother she wants to be called Mommy but Luke has seen just a handful of times. If/when she does become involved in his life and yes, If she is sober I will absolutely allow her to be a part of Luke’s life and when Luke is old enough to understand he will be told she is his biological mom. If at any time, Lukas decides to call his bio mom “Mom” then I am prepared. Does it feel good to be called Mom by a child I’ve nurtured since birth? Of course. Yet the reality is I am his biological grandmother. My name is on his birth certificate as his mother but in this situation where the parent and grandparent are still on good terms a title is not even close to being a priority. What is important is our family work together and keep ego at bay for my grandchild's benefit.
Accentuate the positive.
Grandparents are riddled with mixed feelings. Anger, blame, fear, along with an overwhelming sense of sadness for their adult child, mix into one huge ball of emotion. At the forefront of all the chaos, we need to focus on leading the path for an innocent child who trusts and depends on our wisdom and guidance.
It wasn’t our choice for our child to become addicted to drugs, mentally ill, or locked behind prison walls, but neither was it our adult child’s vision for themselves.
Questions such as, “Why does he/she hurt everyone around them? I didn’t raise my child to be this way,” play through our minds like a broken record. We can’t train our brains to filter out questions that have no answers.
There are those who firmly believe addiction is a choice and yet I’ve never heard an addict say, “I've always wanted to become addicted to drugs or alcohol,” or a mentally ill person say there are pleased they were born with an affliction that led to losing their children.
A simple explanation for staying positive about birth parents is that a grandchild may think they will “be just like them." If only the negative is pointed out then we set the stage for bitterness. Allow your grandchild to come to their own conclusions by offering truths that include optimistic input.
Maybe the birth father is artistic, or the birth mother athletic, or Dad had a great sense of humor or mom made the best cookies. Sometimes it’s a challenge—but we need to give our grandchildren the best of their parents.
It's important to consider the children’s age and level of understanding with our explanations. Children will likely have more in-depth questions as they grow older, so prepare yourself in advance.
We were given this challenge for a reason. We knew we could raise our grandchildren when we opened our doors. So remind yourself, in spite of the exhaustion and dwindling bank account, that you've got this.
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