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Inheriting a Troubled Grandchild


by Sally Houtman, M.S.


Grandparents who are charged with raising their grandchildren already have enough on their minds without adding to the mix the inevitable onslaught of endless childhood demands and the agony of adolescent acting out. But let us not forget that children who are taken in by their grandparents have begun their life’s journey in a deficit situation. Feeling abandoned and cast aside before they reach their grandparents’ door, their defense systems are solidly in place at a very early age

Grandparents are the most likely safe targets for their grandchildren's ambivalent feelings toward their parents. If you can't pick on the one you want to target, just pick on whoever is available, right?

Depending on the age of the children at the time they're dropped off at their grandparent's door, they arrive already depressed, angry, resentful, frightened, mistrustful, or in overall emotional turmoil. The older the children, the more emotional baggage they'll have had a chance to collect and will no doubt pack for their journey to your home.

Children of alcohol- and drug-addicted parents, as well as children of parents who are unstable for other reasons, will bring with them more than their share of physical and emotional problems. Some have been born suffering the aftermath of parental chemical abuse, which can have a wide variety of long-lasting effects. These may take the form of physical disabilities, mental or emotional disturbances, or perceptual, learning, or attention deficits. So on top of becoming parents without preparation, the grandparents who inherit these children also inherit the legacy of the parent's poor judgments, negligence, impulsiveness, and indulgences.

Those children who escape physical damage often suffer emotional scars that are much deeper and more difficult to detect. Some emotional problems may be readily apparent, while others may not surface until later in the child's development. What all of these children have in common, however, is some form of simmering hostility toward what their parent has or has not done. This animosity may have many faces and may take many forms.

Some children trap their anger inside, blaming themselves for not being worthy of their parents' attention. These children will appear withdrawn, non-communicative, and forlorn. Others will channel their hostility outward in seemingly irrational and unpredictable ways. They may refuse to follow instructions, behave disrespectfully, or get in trouble for any number of rebellious or defiant acts. In any case, the grandparent inherits the challenge of striking a balance between flexibility and limit setting, between tolerance and discipline, and between psychology and good, old-fashioned common sense. But, how do you create a safe and nurturing environment when there's so much conflict in the air?

Children whose parents have not been around to listen or who have made it unsafe for them to express themselves openly often vent their bottled up feelings on the closest targets--their grandparents. In this case, it's the next in line who's held accountable for the parents' failure to provide. The children may accuse the grandparents of running the parents out of their lives, or even blame the grandparents for meddling and driving a wedge between the parents and their children. In short, they're angry with the grandparents simply for not being their parents. It's only human for us all to feel angry when we're being hurt in some way. You have now become the heir to the child's pain. Your best approach at this point is not to remove yourself from the line of fire but to suit up appropriately for battle. Uncomfortable as it my be, you can't discourage children from expressing their feelings, but you can help them fine-tune their communication skills so that they learn more appropriate ways of expressing them.

If you're a person who's uncomfortable with your own anger, it will be doubly difficult for you to tolerate your grandchildren's anger, especially when it's aimed directly at you. If you've bought into the idea that anger diminishes love, then you're likely to believe that it's disrespectful for children to show anger toward adults, most especially parent-type adults. The danger here is that you're then likely to make the mistake of interpreting your grandchildren's outbursts as a slap in the face.

Although no parent or parent figure should tolerate blatant disrespect, be aware that the open expression of anger is not in itself disrespectful. If you automatically equate a child showing anger with a child showing disrespect, you'll discourage such expressions, and you may even be tempted to go so far as to punish your grandchildren when they're rightfully angry. Your misunderstandings about the purpose of anger have now led you to feel attacked and demeaned by your unappreciative grandchildren who are merely confused, in pain, and desperately in need of your support.

Your misinterpretation of their behavior, in turn, causes you to shut them down, making them angrier and more resentful of you. By viewing their anger as a personal attack or a display of disrespect, you not only miss what they're really trying to tell you, but you also double the level of animosity in your home. Were you trying to make things better or worse?

Punishing children for expressing anger will only intensify it. When a child cries, "I hate you!" this kind of outburst should never be taken literally, because it doesn't have the same meaning to a child as it does to an adult. Offended by their child's blatant lack of consideration, a parent or grandparent's most common reflex is to reprimand the child with, "Don't ever say a thing like that!" Such rebuts close the lines of communication and rarely achieve the desired result. Feeling hit below the belt, the grandparent's aim in responding has shifted from hearing the child out to correcting the wrongdoing.

It's extraordinarily difficult in these situations to keep your cool and allow the lines of communication to stay open when your feelings are being hurt. But when we shout, "Don't ever say a thing like that," what we're really telling a child is that it's not okay to get angry at us.

By training yourself to listen more closely to the child's real message than to how it's being delivered, you can keep the lines of communication open by avoiding getting your feelings hurt in the first place. Becoming more comfortable with your own angry feelings, and learning that it's possible to express them in inoffensive ways, makes you more of a teacher than a disciplinarian. When you make the mistake of striking back, you lose an opportunity for more meaningful conversation or a chance to show the child that when we're angry at someone, it's important to tell the person and to do so in a nonthreatening way.

The most effective way to encourage openness without encouraging disrespect from angry children is to offer them a more appropriate way of expressing themselves. We are too quick to tell them when they're in the wrong without offering a more appropriate alternative. It's difficult for anyone at any age to stop doing something that's become comfortable and familiar without being shown another way of doing it. The most effective responses for (grand)parents are ones that acknowledge children's feelings, inform them that their way of expressing themselves could hurt someone else's feelings, and offer them a means of getting their point across in a way that would be easier for others to hear.


Example #1:
Child: "I hate you!"

Grandparent: "Don't ever say a terrible thing like that!"
Constructive Alternative Responses:

Grandparent: "I understand that you're upset, but saying what you said can hurt peoples' feelings. I'd like to know why you feel so mad at me, so let's talk about it rather than have a shouting match."
Grandparent: "You must be really upset to say that you hate me. Sometimes when we're really hurt we say things we don't mean. When you're calmer, I'd like to know what I did to make you so mad so we can find a way to make up."

Example #2:
Child: "Why don't you just go away... I wish you were dead!"
Grandparent: "Oh, really? Well, maybe I will die, and then you'll really be sorry!"
Constructive Alternative Responses:

Grandparent: "It would really hurt me to think you meant what you said. If I've upset you, I'd like you to tell me so, rather than saying something I know you don't really mean."
Grandparent: "It really hurts me to hear you say that. Sometimes when I feel that mad, what I really feel is scared. Maybe you're afraid I'll leave you someday, too, and you want me to just go away and get it over with. I can understand that."

If you're a grandparent raising grandchildren, fasten your emotional safety belt. Get accustomed to anger and all of its variations, and accept it as a part of the child's natural healing process. Make friends with it and learn to use its power to your advantage in constructive, rather than destructive, ways. Counterattacks certainly show children who's the boss, but they leave them with the feeling that you're yet another person they can't trust. Angry children are hurting children. Don't get so caught up in reprimanding them for their unpolished communication skills that you miss what they're really trying to say. Children who have been with a less-than-enthusiastic parent will in all likelihood have missed out on the experience of being taught how to express themselves more effectively. Not only will they be unpracticed at talking about what they feel, but they'll probably also have very little faith that anyone is really interested in hearing what they have to say. Remember, these are the same children who have had their parents' ineffective coping skills to use as their only guide. Keep your expectations realistic. Your job is not to admonish them for what they haven't yet learned, but to help them unlearn their old, defensive ways of coping and replace them with healthier, more effective alternatives.


The Best Defense...

Never respond to a child's anger by becoming angry or defensive in return. Understand that becoming defensive is our natural way of responding to a perceived attack. Because anger directed at us is perceived as an attack, it will naturally trigger our urge to defend ourselves. Our defense systems are automatic and will be set in motion whether an impending attack is physical or verbal, life-threatening, or merely annoying. Our defense systems aren't able to distinguish the kind of attack they sense--they're too busy protecting us to care. Whether verbal or physical, direct or implied, in the eyes of our defenses, a threat is a threat is a threat. We can't turn off our impulse to protect and defend ourselves--it's automatic. We can, however, choose whether or not we act on it.

It's human to want to defend ourselves when we're being attacked, but it takes skill to decide if the threat really warrants defensive action. When anyone (even a child) throws hostility at you, you'll be tempted to defend yourself with a counterattack. But, if there's any hope of establishing your grandchildren's trust in the face of confusion, you'll have to resist this temptation at all cost.

When two individuals of any age lash out at one another in anger, any communication will be hopelessly lost in the commotion. Once begun, this kind of warfare deteriorates into a game of win or lose where there's no real strategic advantage in hearing the other person's point of view. In this kind of confrontation, the goal is to win, not to understand.

When both parties are adults, each bears equal responsibility for either keeping the battle going or for calling it off. When one party is a child, we as the adult bear full responsibility for calling off the battle by flatly refusing to fight. Remember, no fight can continue unless both sides are willing to participate.

Initially, it takes patience and self-control to resist matching anger with anger in return. But once mastered, the results of your new approach will be much more rewarding. To avoid reacting on impulse requires more effort in that we have to tune in more to the message behind the words than to the words themselves. With children (and adults who occasionally act like children), you need to reach beneath the words they hurl at you to uncover what they're feeling but just don't have the savvy to say.

Anger is often a disguise for pain. By refusing to be detoured by the anger, and by responding directly to the pain, you show the children that you aren't fooled by their bluster because you're hip to what's really going on inside them. If you speak to the hurt and ignore the anger, the anger often goes away on its own. Anger is usually smoke from a deeper fire--blowing it away doesn't put out the flames.


Example #1:

Child: "You're not my mother!"

Grandparent: "I may not be your mother, but if it weren't for me, you'd be in a foster home."
Constructive Alternative Responses:

Grandparent: "It must hurt a lot not to have your mother and father here to help you with this." (Responds to the hurt, not the anger.)
Grandparent: "You really miss your mom, don't you?" (Addresses the loss.)
Example #2
Child: "What do you care? I'm only here because my mom dumped me on you!"

Grandparent: "Don't you think I know that? I obviously care more about you than she does."
Constructive Alternative Response:

Grandparent: "I'm sorry you've had to be shuffled around. It's hard not knowing where you belong or if anyone really cares, but you know I took you in because I love you, not because I had to." (Responds to the abandonment, not the accusation.)

There are no appropriate or inappropriate emotions, just appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing or dealing with them. You have to believe this first yourself in order to teach this to your grandchildren. Stay calm and objective, and avoid taking their outbursts to heart. When they shout, "You're not my mother!" they're not telling you anything you both don't already know. So maybe there's another reason for the remark. Was it intended to hurt you? I don't think so. It's more a comment about the conspicuous absence of a parent. More often than not, these statements are about what the children are missing, not what they got in exchange.

It's natural for children to test you in every possible way. They're checking to see if you'll throw them away, too. They also want to see how much you're willing to tolerate, particularly if there were no limits or restrictions put on them by their absent or permissive parent. By acting out in these ways, they're often searching for limits that will provide them with a sense of security. It may be difficult to understand why children seek out limits only to rebel against them, but for these children, lashing out is the only way they know of checking to see if anyone is paying attention. In pushing against your limits, they're testing to see if restrictions will be put on them, and if those restrictions will be consistently enforced.

By responding with love and reassurance, you can provide a sense of security and perhaps give your grandchildren, for the first time in their lives, the chance to experience that the limits surrounding them can be trusted and are not subject to change without notice. Troubled children are not bad children in search of discipline, but rather lost children in search of direction. The way you respond to them will determine if your role in their lives will be that of a warden or that of a teacher.

From To Grandma’s House, We...Stay, by Sally Houtman, M.S. Copyright 1999 by Studio 4 Productions. Excerpted by arrangement with Studio 4 Productions. $12.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 888-PUBLISH, or click here.