No kidding, it's been millions of years of grandparenting. Since the days of the hominids who lived in caves, elder females have provided significant support to mothers who were so weak from birthing that they could not care for their other children or keep up with the traveling family group. Hello, Grandma!
And, historically, during difficult times such as the multiple and simultaneous crises in our own country, grandparents have quietly stepped up to the plate. They can't help themselves. They know the stressors of having a family and the need to do right by them. Just because they are older and the family is no longer their direct responsibility, they still feel the pain of it all.
Considering their important role, it's no wonder that, in 1978, President Carter made National Grandparents Day an official celebration to be held today, the first Sunday in September. So, Happy Grandparents Day!
The role of grandparents is probably much greater than you realize. Here are the latest stats:
- More than 2.5 million kids are being raised by the grands (they're not in the foster system!)
- 4.9 million kids 18 years and younger are living with grands
- Grands spend $52 billion a year on their grandchildren
- They spend $32 billion a year on educational support for their grandchildren
Grandparents provide consistency, stability, tradition and wisdom. They also have cool stories about what life was like during significant periods in our history such as watching Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon from their living rooms. The "teaching exchanges" between the younger "techno" generation and the older "I can fix it with duct tape and a wire hanger" generation are delightful to behold. The kids who come through my practice just light up when they share how they taught Grandma to use Facebook!
Grands not only shuttle kids around and bake them goodies, but they also have the time to truly observe kids. They search the internet looking for answers to "what" might be going on with a grandchild. I get calls. I get lots of calls from grands. Although I don't usually end up meeting with them, I am painfully aware of how important it is to give them guidance on how to approach potentially flammable topics such as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and developmental delays.
Here's what I recommend to them:
1. Get educated. You cannot prompt the conversation if you are not knowledgeable about what you are seeing. You will lose credibility right from the start.
- If you are not sure of "what" you are seeing, "google" the symptoms and learn about the potential disorders/symptoms associated with our observations and investigate from there. "Leap-frog" until you refine your search.
- Find support groups in the area and attend several meetings in order to learn first-hand about the issues and harvest the wisdom of those who have "been there, done that".
- Before you attend the meeting, write down your observations and questions so that your time can be as productive as possible.
- Ask about local professionals who can support your family. Don't ask the speaker publicly because there are ethics involved. Stand up and ask for help from the participants. This gives them an invitation to approach you with their knowledge and experience.
- Call several professionals and ask them about their credentials and fees. You'll know right away if you are a "good fit" with that person. You might ask them if you can see them for a problem-solving session so that you can get some basic understanding. They, of course, have not seen your grandchild, so they won't be able to address specifics, so don't ask them!
- Go online to resource sites and call for answers. There are organizations for ADHD, autism, dyslexia, bipolar, behavioral problems of all kinds as well as developmental and educational issues.
2. Learn some techniques to help your grandchild.
- If you can show your son/daughter and their spouse effective ways to help manage their child by minimizing disruptive behaviors and the related stress, it is much more powerful of a message than "talking at them" about what they "should be doing". Ugh.
- Diet can frequently be an issue for children with special needs. This is the easiest part of the plan. Grandparents may have more time to locate the "motherlode" of gluten-free and other speciality products.
- When your son/daughter sees a change in your child when he is at "your house", you can then explain, confidently, "Oh yeah, he really likes the gluten-free cereal for breakfast. He says it makes his tummy feel better". Then, the conversation starts as to "How do you know this stuff?"
3. The Conversation
- When their questions start coming, just describe the behaviors you see and the challenges YOU have (not the ones you've seen THEM have!). DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT make any diagnostic statements or give "labels" (autism, ADHD, etc.). Even I avoid making these statements early in the assessment process because the landscape can change depending on the data I collect. Kids who come in for ADHD symptoms may indeed, be bipolar, anxious, depressed, autistic, dyslexic or schizophrenic in addition to having attentional issues and impulsivity.
- Gently "spoon feed" your knowledge. Don't "feed" too fast or they'll choke.
- They are likely to be angry with you. It's part of the grieving process. Hold your feelings back and continue to move the parents toward problem-solving. Don't take their anger personally. They are flailing in pain and confusion and may immediately begin to feel like "bad parents" because "it" has suddenly become clear to them.
As you've seen in previous posts, I feel strongly that language either blows up situations or it facilitates their resolution. Here's some "neutral" language for these difficult conversations:
- "You're right. I'm not a professional. I spend a lot of time with Sam and I wanted to learn more about helping him feel comfortable when he is here with us."
- "I've learned some things about Sally and now, I can communicate more easily with her."
- "Yes, you asked that I babysit her. I'm lucky to be her grandmother and I want to do the best job I can."
- "I find that when we do (X and Y), he calms right down."
Don't defend yourself. You've got nothing to apologize for!
Stay with a "concrete" and unemotional response. I have never EVER had a parent come into my office with unfounded concerns. By the time they get to my door, they are pretty sure that "something is up". Grandparents, on the other hand, may be the first to "notice" something and you know what happens to the messenger. Uh huh, smack down.
When the "action plan" begins to unfold, just indicate your willingness to help in any way. Avoid offering specifics or they will feel "handled". Once parents get to the acknowledgement stage, you may want to share your experiences at a CHADD or other meeting (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder) and let them know it was helpful. Don't offer contact info unless they ask. MOM AND DAD LEAD, YOU FOLLOW!
"Let me help you."
"Tell me what you'd like me to do."
"He'll be fine."
"We'll learn about this and make smart choices."
Of course you are worried. You love Sam.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I have confidence you'll find the answers."
"I really respect your advocacy for Sally."
And, if you are a grandparent and your son/daughter is treating their child for a disorder or condition and you disagree with their approach, be supportive and withhold comments. Parents don't want their children medicated in the first place, but it may be the only reasonable choice at this time, so be supportive without getting out the pom-poms. Neutral language is "safe". ("It's a tough situation and I respect your choices".) You can love them up without being judgmental.
Yep, grandparenting these days...a piece of cake, right? No wonder they call you "grand"!
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