"Grandfamily" is a relatively new term for what is also known as kinship care. A grandfamily can be a grandparent raising a grandchild, or any relative who is caring for a family member's child. For various reasons, such as mental health issues and addiction, grandfamilies are on the rise. As a family therapist for foster, kinship and adoptive families I saw first hand the toll this situation takes on the caregivers and the children they are trying to support. It is a very stressful transition for most families, and caregivers are often overwhelmed by the emotional reaction of the child to the loss of their every day life. I've compiled a list of tips and resources to help families who are struggling to cope when a child can no longer live with his/her parents. Of course, there is no magic wand, but if you keep trying eventually something will help! If you feel that you have tried your best, and you are still struggling to find effective solutions, reach out for help from a qualified psychotherapist or coach.
14 Tips for Grandfamilies and Kinship Caregivers
1. Raising your grandchild, or other family members will be a difficult transition for your entire family. If possible, line up extra support and trusted childcare during this time so that you can take breaks when needed. Talk to a social worker about respite care if necessary.
2. Find a grandfamily/kinship care support group online or in-person (see below for a list of resources).
3. Reach out to the child's teacher and school counselor to inform them about what the child is going through. If the school is aware of the situation, they can be more helpful to your family.
4. PTSD, anxiety, and grief can look very different in children than in adults. Some examples for children are:
Complaints of feeling sick to their stomach
Hyperactivity or Hypoactivity (Too fast/too slow physical activity)
Sleeping too much or not enough
Angry/aggressive/violent behavior towards toys, animals, or people
Regressed behavior (bedwetting, power struggles, wanting to be held or fed)
Withdrawal from caregivers/friends/family
Isolating themselves in their room or with video games
Extreme behavior such as hoarding food, stealing, verbal outbursts or setting fires.
Keep in mind there is always a reason for the child's behavior. For example, they might hoard or steal due to the scarcity of food and resources in their previous home.
5. "Where there is anger, there is pain." - Allison Davis Maxon. Children experiencing loss, grief, and trauma often misbehave for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that expressing anger can be easier than expressing sadness (and feeling vulnerable). Anger makes a child feel powerful in a situation where they feel completely helpless. This behavior is reasonable, given what they are going through. Some children seek negative attention out of fear of getting too close to others. They may do this because they are struggling with trusting adults as a result of abuse, rejection, and neglect. You can work on building trust with the child by being consistent, listening to them, using empathetic responses, and meeting their basic needs.
6. Work on building trust with the child before you expect the child to trust you. The child's primary attachment with their parent has been disrupted. This makes it difficult for them to trust other caregivers. Bonding activities can be a helpful way to ease tension and build trust. Be gentle and slow with bathing, hair brushing, changing clothes, toileting/diaper changes (especially if the child has a history of physical abuse). Always ask or tell them before touching their bodies. "I'm going to brush your hair now", or "Is it ok if I give you a hug?" Respect their response without guilting or shaming them.
7. Spend 10 minutes every day having a deliberate positive interaction with your grandchild. Sit down with the child and observe them playing. Try not to correct or scold during this time unless there is a safety issue. Have fun and get creative! Be accepting of all behaviors that happen during this time and remain calm as a way to build trust.
8. Read books with the child about how to cope with feelings.
9. Talk about their birth parents with them in a sensitive way. Do not speak negatively of the child's birth parents in front of them (as hard as this may be). Children internalize these messages, and some will believe "if my mom/dad is bad, that means I am bad too because I came from them." It will also erode trust between you and the child.
10. Take a step back and find ways to have fun together, even when things are really tough. This child is suffering from the most significant loss of their lives, and they need to know they can count on you.
11. Be an advocate for the child. Enroll them in counseling, represent them at school activities, take them to regular doctor appointments. You may be able to find free therapy through your local family and children services office.
12. Talk to a social worker or their supervisor, and ask for extra help with anything you need. There are resources available to support you, such as mentors, therapists and CASA workers.
13. Be as honest as possible with the child about their life, without providing unnecessary details that may harm the child. For example, "Your parents love you, but right now they can't keep you safe, and children need to be safe." If you don't tell them what is going on, they will create an answer in their minds, and it's usually more painful than the truth.
14. Seek parenting advice and support from the following websites:
www.allisondavismaxon.com - an expert in kinship, foster care, and adoption.
www.cwla.org - Child Welfare League of America