Life is unpredictable and can change in an instant. Right as you are planning your retirement and preparing to enjoy a rest that has been well earned – life changes! You suddenly find yourself taking on the ultimate responsibility - a child’s life. For grandparents who are unexpectedly faced with raising their grandchildren – the change can be rewarding, overwhelming, emotional, and complicated.
It is becoming increasingly common for grandparents to act as the primary custodians of their grandchildren. Whether through a tragic event, financial issues, or legal problems, grandparents raising their grandchildren is a rising trend in America. The 2000 census found that 2.4 millions grandparents have stepped up and are raising their grandchildren. Across the U.S. as many as 6 million children are living under the primary care of their grandparents.
Yes, you have raised your own children, but this doesn’t mean that you are ready to raise your grandchildren. You are in a different spot in life: physically, financially, and emotionally.
The following are some tips to help grandparents who are taking the brave and honorable step of raising their grandchildren, and of helping them grow and thrive in a difficult situation.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Acknowledge Your Feelings
Often, if you are being asked to raise your grandchildren, something bad has happened. Most likely, you don’t have cause for celebration, parties, or “welcome home baby” posters. Usually you are involved with law enforcement, a legal battle, or even dealing with funeral arrangements.
Most likely you are feeling conflicted, worried, sad, unsure, and even resentful or angry. It is important to recognize these feelings, understand that they are normal, and that you are allowed to feel what you want. Not wanting to take on the enormous reasonability of starting over with a child or children does not make you a bad person – it makes you normal.
Acknowledge what you feel, talk with friends, seek the support of a counselor, etc. Don’t bottle these emotions up, don’t feel guilty or self deprecating, and give yourself a break! You are dealing with a lot. Most of all, don’t take these powerful emotions out on your grandchildren – they are dealing with huge emotions as well!
2. Maintain Your Own Health
In the face of great stress it is normal to let your own care become the last item on your to-do list. As much as it may seem counterproductive to your busy day, it is crucial that you find the time to tend to your own health and needs. You are now the last line of defense, and lack of self-care will lead to physical and mental health declines.
It is a different and difficult task to be raising children when you are older. You may have less energy, be facing medical complications, or have mobility concerns. Ignore the guilt you may feel about taking time for you, and realize that you have to be healthy and strong to be an effective caretaker for your grandchildren.
3. Seek Out Proper Health Insurance
Kids are incredibly expensive, and a large part of that cost is healthcare. Children frequently visit the doctor’s office. They get sick, they experience injuries on the playground, and they need regular checkups. Even with health insurance, these costs add up quickly.
Free or reduced cost health insurance is available through the state, with many other additional programs, like Medicaid, available to help cover the costs of keeping your grandchildren healthy. Assistance programs vary per state, but every grandparent should seek out any help and assistance that is available.
4. Consult a Lawyer About Your Legal Status
You’ll find that nothing is simple when it comes to assuming guardianship over your grandchildren. Grandparents are not granted presumed rights to their grandchildren the way a parent is. It is highly recommended that you consult a lawyer and take necessary steps to protect yourself and your grandchildren.
If your grandchild has been left with you in an informal capacity you will have difficulties enrolling them in school, obtaining healthcare, having the authority to sign paperwork for them, or maintaining custodianship. A lawyer will help you understand your rights and what steps you need to take to keep your grandchildren safe.
5. Make Smart Financial Decisions
This unexpected situation will most likely cause financial strain. You may find yourself generally unprepared and not financially ready to take on one or more children.
It is not uncommon for grandparents to want try and heal the emotional wounds of their grandchildren with expensive gifts. Though understandable, this isn’t what your grandchildren really need. You need to stay financially responsible, and they need to feel safe and secure.
It is a good idea to talk with a financial planner about your future. Between 401Ks, social security, reverse mortgages, and more – the financial landscape can be difficult to navigate, especially when adding in the complication of raising more children.
6. Seek Support
You are not alone! You don’t have to battle through this difficult situation by yourself. In fact, seeking support is the healthy and intelligent choice.
Beyond local support groups, the AARP and the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights offer numerous resources and areas of support for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Reach out and be willing to accept help – it will be beneficial to you and your grandchildren.
7. Stay Positive
Never underestimate the power of positivity. Most likely this is not a positive development in your life – but still face it with your “glass half full attitude.”
Avoid complaining or feeling sorry for yourself – this accomplishes nothing and just leads down a darker and more difficult path. Avoid badmouthing the children’s parents or sharing your frustrations with your grandchildren. They may already be confused, scared, and upset. They need positivity in their life, and you can give it to them - and yourself, at the same time!
8. Creating a Loving, Safe, and Stable Environment
Probably more important than any other tip, your main focus should be on creating a loving, safe, and stable environment for your grandchildren. Switching homes, losing a parent, feeling abandoned, or dealing with death – these are all incredibly traumatic experiences, especially for young children. Though they may be acting out, pretending not to care, or being tough – your grandchildren need to feel safe!
Give your grandkids the space to feel their emotions, while offering your support or the support of a therapist.
Don’t be afraid to create boundaries, rules, and schedules. Children thrive among routines and expected activities. Your home is now their permanent home, and having their own space, chores, and expectations can help make your home feel more familiar. Let your grandkids know, daily, that they have somewhere to be and that they have someone who loves them and will care for them. Children cannot make progress until they feel safe, and they will get that from you.