Grandparents raising grandchildren: Part five

Understanding and responding to strong emotions.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that it is common for most children to ‘act out’ or misbehave when under stress or expressing strong emotions. However, children who are living with grandparents have to adjust to a completely new living situation than those experienced by most children. As their custodial grandparent, it is important to recognize some of the difficult emotions your grandchildren may be experiencing which can help you be responsive and give them the extra support they may need.

According to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, from Western Michigan University, there are some common feelings children experience when living with their grandparents.

  • Grief – A double loss. Not only are children experiencing losing their parents, in essence when grandparents step into the parenting role, children lose their special relationship with their grandparents. All children, like adults, grieve in their own way and in their own time even though it may look like they are just going about their everyday activities and play. This is a critical time to be observant of acting out behaviors. Grandparents can help by being attentive, nurturing and consistent.
  • Guilt – Children tend to blame themselves for the situation. They are developmentally egocentric, meaning they only see things from their own point of view. This can be even more challenging when faced with difficult life events. Grandparents can help by reassuring children that, “This is not your fault. These are adult problems. We all love you. I am here for you if you need to talk or just need a hug.”
  • Anger – Being removed from parents, no matter what the situation, can cause children to feel angry. Unfortunately, usually the grandparents are on the receiving end of the expression of that anger. Grandparents can help by teaching and guiding children to learn to express their emotions, even anger, inappropriate ways. Encourage children to use their words. Let them know that anger is a normal emotion, and that you are there to listen to them.
  • Insecurity – Children need to feel safe, secure and know that their needs are going to be met. It is common for children going through a stressful situation to feel insecure. This is especially true if they are coming from living situations where their needs were not being met. Grandparents can help by setting up consistent routines and providing kind, nurturing care.
  • Embarrassment – Children do not like to be different from their peers. They may be embarrassed because their grandparents look and act differently from their friend’s parents. They may feel some shame and embarrassment because of their own parent’s situation. Grandparents can help by understanding and not taking it personally. It may help to talk about how families come in all shapes and sizes.
  • Hope and fantasy – Even children from the most destructive family environments will hang onto the thought of returning to live with their parents someday. The parent-child bond is a strong one. It is important for grandparents to acknowledge and honor these feelings. Say, “I understand it must be hard for you to be without mommy or daddy, and I know you must really miss them.” 

If you are worried about your grandchild or if you feel overwhelmed by their behavior and emotions there are many ways of finding some support. Reach out to your grandchild’s teacher or school counselor. Talk to their pediatrician. You may also consider some family counseling for you and your grandchild. Sometimes having someone not directly related to the situation can provide some guidance and support. Take a family education class. Michigan State University Extension has many resources regarding family life and healthy relationships. You might also consider joining a support group. You are not alone. There are many grandparents raising grandchildren, just like you.

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