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Family & Relationships

5 Pieces of Advice for Parenting the Second Time Around – As a Grandparent

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Many grandparents dream of doting on their grandchildren well into their golden years. But that dream may be upended by a crisis in the family that places them back in the parental role of their own grandchildren.

According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 7.3 million grandparents have grandchildren under age 18 living in their household; 2.6 million of those grandparents are responsible for the basic needs of those children.

Sylvie de Toledo works with some of those grandparents and other relatives who are in what’s called a “kinship care” role. A licensed clinical social worker, de Toledo is program coordinator for Alliance of Relative Caregivers (ARC), a non-profit based in Southern California that supports family members navigating the new family dynamic. She’s been working in a similar role since the 1980s, when her sister passed away, leaving behind a 7 year-old son that de Toledo’s parents raised. As de Toledo saw her parents and nephew struggle with the same kinds of issues as her clients, she saw the need for support.

She says that one of the things she’s learned along the way – contrary to myth – is that a kinship care scenario can happen to anyone. “We have every denomination and every ethnicity and every socio-economic level. We have lawyers and we have people who clean hotels,” says de Toledo, who is also co-author with Deborah Edler Brown of the book, Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family. “This is something that can hit anyone at any time.”

De Toledo shared the following advice to help grandparents and other relatives who find themselves unexpectedly in a parental role.

  1. Know that you’re not alone. There are organizations like ARC across the country that connect families going through similar situations, offering services and support and providing advice on navigating the system. “There’s help out there, and they don’t have to do it by themselves,” says de Toledo.
  2. Feel the feelings. De Toledo says that family members often feel as though they’re on an emotional roller coaster, and that is entirely normal. “One day, you think I can’t take another minute of this, and the next day, you feel you can handle whatever comes your way,” she says. It’s important to ask for help and express those feelings, she says, whether it’s with a support group, a partner, or a non-judgmental friend. “If you keep everything bottled up, at some point it’s going to explode within you, and it might not come out in a constructive way,” she says.
  3. Find support for the child, as well. Every kinship care scenario involves a loss. The most common reasons that de Toledo sees relatives take in children are parental alcohol and/or drug abuse. Additional reasons might revolve around mental illness, death by suicide or accidents, murder, and other scenarios. After experiencing such trauma, the grandchildren may face new sets of challenges that come as a surprise to the grandparent. “Many times, the kids come with multiple medical, mental health, educational, and psychological issues, and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” says de Toledo. “They come to you and you have to figure out a way to sort of put the pieces together to make a whole happy healthy child so that they can become a thriving productive member of society as they get older,” she says. Getting the child proper support and counseling, she says, is imperative.
  4. Always put the child first. Grandparents acting as parents may find themselves in a difficult position, particularly if the parent has issues with addiction and frequently asks for help, themselves. The parent may show up needing money or a place to stay. De Toledo says that the grandparents must be sure and follow any court orders – which may place restrictions on the parent visiting the child – and prioritize the needs of the child. “You always have to choose a child because the child is helpless and can’t take care of themselves, and you’ve likely already given [the parent] millions of chances before it got to this point,” she says.
  5. Be honest with the child. If the child asks questions about their parent, de Toledo says it’s important to answer truthfully. If the parent is struggling with addiction issues, for example, she says that grandparents will often explain to the child that their parent is sick. She cautions people not to share too much information, however. “You only want to answer the questions that the kids ask,” she says. “You don’t need to elaborate.”

When grandparents become parents, their worlds change. It may impact their relationships, their retirement plans, their finances – everything. But de Toledo hears from clients frequently that the sacrifices are worth it. “What caregivers have said in the past is that even though it’s changed their lives and turned it inside out and upside down, it’s kept them young at heart,” she says.

And while children often cannot fully appreciate the sacrifices at the time, as they get older, she says they often express a deep sense of gratitude that they were able to stay together as a family.

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