The sacred work of raising grandchildren

A growing group faces multiple challenges

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An increasing number of children in the United States are not being raised by their biological parents. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 4.9 million American children are being raised by their grandparents. This number is nearly double that of the 2000 Census, which indicated that 2.4 million children were being raised primarily by grandparents. According to 1998 statistics, only 11 percent of grandchildren living with a grandparent did so because of the death of one or both parent. Nearly 44 percent of the children lived with grandparents because of a parent’s substance abuse. Of that group, 28 percent were victims of child abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Elaine K. Williams, author of The Sacred Work of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren , has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan and has spent her career working with children, adolescents, and older adults. Her expertise is in the areas of trauma, loss, life transitions, and intergenerational communication. Learn more from her website.

I wrote my book to honor the many parenting grandparents and other family members who make enormous daily sacrifices to ensure that children have a meaningful life in which they feel loved, safe and secure.

An Awe-Inspiring Group

In a way, this book found me. I was walking across the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2005 when I saw at more than 1,000 people gathered in front of a Congressional office building. Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, was speaking to them about legislation to support parenting grandparents.

Sitting down among the group, I was in awe. I had no idea how many children were being raised by their grandparents, or what an incredible challenge it was to do so. Senator Clinton was followed at the podium by a 19-year-old girl about to enter college. She thanked her grandparents for giving her a life she never would have had without them. She thanked them for their love and sacrifices, and for making her realize how important her life was to the world. I don’t remember everything Senator Clinton said, but seven years later I remember exactly what the 19-year old granddaughter said.

As a social worker and author, I wanted to hear and share the stories of these grandparents. I interviewed more than 60 grandmothers and grandfathers, many of whose stories appear in my book. Trauma and loss can be so devastating to children, and many of the stories I heard reflect this phenomenon, such as the 10-year old boy who stopped talking after being abandoned by his parents; or Michael, now 14, who lives with multiple developmental delays after spending four years in an orphanage before his grandparents were able to adopt him.

A Complex Push and Pull

Grandparents are often shocked to learn that their adult children have committed crimes or refuse to raise their children. Wayne and Sheree were on a retirement cruise when they received word that their son was in jail and that their grandsons would be placed in foster care if they did not return immediately to take them. They abruptly ended their dream vacation and brought their grandsons home.

Self-care for grandparents raising grandchildren is crucial, not just for their own well-being but also because they are modeling for grandchildren how to take care of their own minds, bodies, and spirits. It is important that all of us empower our grandkids to create solutions for the problems that challenge them.

One of the biggest challenges parenting grandparents face is the push-and-pull relationships they have with their grandchildren’s biological parents. The parents may make false promises to visit or to give their children a gift but fail to follow through, leaving children disappointed and angry. The parents pull them in with promises, and when they’re broken, the children feel rejected, or pushed away and grandparents are left to deal with the children’s deep anger.

Setting strong boundaries for the interaction between grandchildren and their biological parents, then, is critical to their emotional well-being. Every adult’s ability to trust or mistrust begins with this primary relationship, between parent and child. Parenting grandparents must provide safety, security, love, and a trusting home environment. They can’t let biological parents threaten children’s ability to trust and feel consistently loved. You make enormous sacrifices to ensure your grandkids have predictability and security. Don’t let anyone threaten that.

The Right Things to Say

We know that there are intergenerational challenges when grandparents raise grandchildren. Communication and understanding are key to healing the wounds created by grief and loss, for both generations. Knowing the very specific language that opens communication and bridges the generations is vital to building strong relationships. Parenting grandparents need to be able to answer difficult questions, like, “Why aren’t my parents raising me?” “Why is my parent in jail?” “What do I say when other kids ask me why you are so old?”

Since my book was published, my sister became a parenting grandparent to her two grandchildren, and I began to understand on an even deeper level what it means to become a parent for a second time. My writing, my workshops, and my work are totally dedicated to honoring the sacred and noble work, and the sacrifices made, by every parenting grandparent.

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