By Sheryl Bruce
We invite all grandparents who are involved with their grandchildren because their adult child suffers from a mental illness, to join us at our monthly support group. At Friends we are seeing more and more grandparents involved with supporting their grandchildren. Some of our caregivers have been given custody of the grandchildren and many are providing financial support, babysitting and respite. This support group meets once a month to share both recent good news and the inevitable challenges. It is a place where grandparents can commiserate, celebrate and encourage each other. Grand parenting should be a time of joy and fulfillment but parenting grandchildren becomes a mixed blessing. Our grandparents represent a wide variety of situations and each offers help and support to the new attendees in the group. In our support group we acknowledge all our feelings. The common threat is that all group members love their children and their grandchildren and they readily express the joy watching them grow and develop. Of course, there is relief when the children are safe, and fear or worry when the parent gets ill or has a relapse. Grandparents experience many emotions. There is the resentment and anger when their autonomy is lost due to increased caregiving duties, and stress and worry surface when handling the responsibilities of care giving with reduced energy. Some grandparents feel guilty taking over the parenting job of their adult child. All feel that they want to compensate for their child’s inability to provide the love, support, time and money. Then, there are the parent’s feelings that come in to play; these include gratitude or resentment, dependency and self-focus. There are also emotions of grief and guilt for not being the parent they wanted to be. All these emotions contribute to tension or conflict in the grandparent child relationship and this in turn creates grief for the grandparent and the grandchildren. Grandparents experience the loss of their independence and retirement and they feel the loss of the relationship that they would have liked to have had with this adult child. Ultimately we highlight that grandparents need to practice taking care of themselves. Unfortunately, the children’s lives create chaos in everyone’s lives while their role is to create stability for the children and for themselves. Predictability is good for everyone, even the ill parent. If the ill adult child cannot find calm the grandparent might need to be the oasis for the grandchildren and the parent. The responsibility can be overwhelming if chaos is abundant. Being centered and focused can help the grandparent. If the grandchildren are living in unstable situations then the grandparent becomes a substitute parent dealing with rather foreign issues such as managing the children and their emotions, which is probably quite different parenting. It would be important for g r a n d p a r e n t s in this dilemma to rest, relax and have fun. This would be a good model for the children; they need these things too. These activities are necessary to avoid burnout. The kids can be asked to help out with cleanup and food preparation. Developing routines for the kids will help them to feel secure. We suggest that grandparents use all resources available:
- Develop a support network;
- Contact friends for support;
- Accept help from social workers assigned to the family;
- Talk to trusted friends;
- Develop new friends younger parents-they can help you get in touch with the new generation and their way of thinking and using communication tools.
The A.A. prayer can really help when we learn to recognize what we can change and what we cannot. Then learn to accept the situation and adapt to it. You need to expect that the children are also going through an adaptation process. They will also have mixed feelings. They might not want to betray their parent but need the stability that you provide. Unfortunately, they won’t like the change in the relationship from fun to a more work oriented attitude and they may resent the limits you set if the parent has not been a limit setter: It is important to have a balance between fun and getting the homework and house work done. The grandchildren still need their parents and maybe feeling abandoned by them. They will react in many ways and they may lash out in aggressive or inappropriate ways. Some may withdraw and push you away. Your grand kids will need your comfort and support. They might not be able to handle your anger or your being upset. Try to imagine what they have been through and the confusion, mistrust and fear they are probably feeling. Grandparents need to focus on creating a stable environment. Establishing routines help the children feel safe. You can create new rituals for meals or bedtime. You can encourage their input and creating space for them when spending time with them. Create loving boundaries by setting clear, age-appropriate house rules and enforce them consistently. Create a private space for each child. The most important is to give your time and attention at the beginning of the day, when they come home from school and before bed. Encouraging open and honest communication may be difficult but if you can plan regular times away from the distraction of tv and games ½ hour before bed time might help. We suggest that you try to listen to feelings (good and bad) without judging or dismissing them. They need to learn how to identify their emotions. It is ok if you don’t have all the answers and it is ok to say that you do not know something. Remember that some children are not able to process everything so following their lead is good. When they ask questions is the time to offer your simple answers. Your job is to avoid telling them too much and too little about their parents’ situation. We think it is better they learn from a family member directly than when overheard in bits and pieces by others. BE honest at the level of their understanding. Some of you might twist the facts to protect the children but that can backfire. You have the opportunity to teach the children the importance of trust and honesty in relationships. One thing is certain that as difficult as it may be the children need some relationship with their parents. In the case of emotional or physical abuse, it may not be in their best interest, you may need to work out the details with a social worker. You can encourage contact and do not alienate the child from the parent. This is difficult to do, so work hard not to put your grandchild in the middle between you and the ill person. Avoid venting or saying critical things about the parent in front of your grandchild. Be sensitive to your grandchild’s feelings. Help your grandchild deal with disappointment. Help you grandchild learn about the mental illness. When you have the courage to join a support group you will realize that you are not alone anymore!!!
These tips are from Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal from www.helpguide.org If you have custody of your grandchild I also suggest the following resources: Grandparenting- Helpguide.org www.helpguide.org/home-pages/grandparenting.htmCached