As much as grandparents adore their grandchildren, chances are if you’re raising your grandchild it’s because of circumstances rather than choice. There may have been trauma in the family, their parents may have abused or neglected the child, or drugs and alcohol may have played a part. Whatever the reason, your grandchild needed a safe loving place to call home, and you stepped up to the mark. That makes you incredibly special!
Raising grandchildren brings with it enormous challenges that didn’t exist when you parented the first time round. There are emotional challenges behind the reasons your grandchild is in your care, plus physical challenges of being older, and having less energy. While we might believe that love conquers all, if you have taken on responsibility of your grandchild (or are considering it), then you need and deserve all the help you can get.
Surprisingly, you are not alone, and there are likely to be grandparents in your situation living just around the corner. There are ‘Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’ support groups in just about every centre in New Zealand, and these can help you with advice, guidance, and practical support. You can get hold of a support group in your area by visiting www.raisinggrandchildren.org.nz or contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.
While every situation will come with its own set of benefits and challenges, there are many issues which will be common for all grandparents raising grandchildren. This article will help you address those issues, and point you in the right direction for help.
As much as you love your grandchildren, if you are in a position of having to raise them, then it’s likely there’s some emotionally charged issues to deal with. Most grandparents are raising their grandchildren because the child’s parents are unable or unwilling to. This alone causes emotional stress – after all THEIR parents are YOUR children.
Both you and your grandchild will be dealing with grief, sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, disappointment and worry. These emotions skew how you look at everyday concerns, so small problems become big problems really fast. You will be able to access counselling for your grandchild fairly easily through agencies such as Presbyterian Support; Child, Youth and Family; or the Family Court, but this type of counselling may not always be on offer for you. Contact your local ‘Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’ support group and ask them to recommend a counsellor in your area. Many churches offer free counselling services or request a donation of whatever you can afford.
Relationship with the Child’s Parent/s (Your child)
Given that you are caring for your grandchild because their parent/s is unable to, you may have all sorts of issues to work around in maintaining a healthy relationship with them. No matter how you feel about your child and their behaviour, it is important to portray them as positively as you can to your grandchild.
If the child’s parent is able to visit, you should encourage this. Even short visits help to maintain a positive connection, and will make transition easier if your grandchild is to eventually return home. If drugs or abuse are a part of the reason your grandchild is in care, then make sure you have rules in place to ensure a safe visit. Some common sense rules include not turning up drunk or high, not turning up unannounced, and no verbal abuse.
If the child’s parent is unable to visit, encourage positive contact through letters or emails. Make sure you acknowledge any positive behaviour your grandchild’s parent presents, and be prepared to accept small improvements over time.
Relationships with Other Family Members
When you take on the responsibility of raising your grandchildren, you are likely to have various reactions from other family members. Some family members will be supportive and offer to help out where they can, while others may be resentful of the attention you give one grandchild over another. Some siblings may feel like their brother or sister doesn’t deserve your help, and they may take it out on you.
Whatever their reactions, it’s a good idea to include the whole family in your decision to raise your grandchild. If possible, organise a family conference so you can set up support networks right from the start. If reactions from other family members are not supportive, try to understand their point of view and accept their decision. Starting a family feud right now will not be helpful!
Depending on your situation you may be able to get help in setting up a family conference through Child, Youth and Family Services.
Often grandparents end up raising their grandchildren almost accidentally. They may agree to give the parents a week or two of time out, and then one week becomes one month, and before you know it your grandchild is permanently in your care. While this may work for a while, it provides little stability for you, and more importantly little stability for the child. At any stage the parent can walk back in and take them away, regardless of whether they are fit to parent or not.
While seeking legal guardianship of your grandchild may seem like a drastic step, it does help protect the child, and gives you more flexibility in making decisions in their upbringing. Without legal guardianship you can not enroll your grandchild at school, see medical records, approve immunisations, or receive the Unsupported Child Benefit without written proof that you are their primary caregiver. In a legal sense, you should be running even the most basic of decisions past the child’s parent first.
There are several types of guardianship, and which type is right for your grandchild will depend on the circumstances. Talk to your family lawyer about your situation. If you don’t have a family lawyer, ask your ‘Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’ support group to recommend one in your area, or visit www.familylaw.org.nz to find one that specialises in your situation.
If you are not working or are on a low income, you may be eligible for Legal Aid which helps towards some, if not all, of your legal costs. For more information about how this works, ask your lawyer’s secretary or the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Given that your grandchild is in your care because of a traumatic situation, it is likely that they have difficulties at school, both with behaviour and learning. It’s a good idea to visit the teacher or guidance counsellor and explain a little of what’s going on. It is important to respect your grandchild’s privacy, so only tell the teacher what they need to know. If you believe your grandchild needs specialist help at school, ask the teacher how your child can be referred to Special Education Services.
The education system is not like it used to be (especially maths!), so don’t be surprised if your grandchild’s homework looks like a foreign language. Try to keep a regular time for doing homework when both you and your grandchild are not too tired. If their work seems totally confusing, ask a ‘younger’ family member for some help.
When your grandchild first comes to live with you, it’s a good idea to take them for a thorough health check. If they have been living in an unstable environment, you may find injuries or health problems that have gone untreated. This is obviously beneficial for the child, but it also protects you against any claims of abuse if old injuries have been documented early on.
If you can, find out who your grandchild’s usual GP was, and request their files be sent to your doctor. If you do not have legal guardianship, you may have to ask the child’s parent to do this for you.
Raising a child at any stage can be hard on the wallet, but doing it in your later years can be even harder. Working or not, talk to Work and Income about receiving an Unsupported Child Benefit. If you do not have legal guardianship you will need written proof that you are the primary caregiver.
The Unsupported Child Benefit is not much, but it does help out towards he cost of feeding and clothing your grandchild. Depending on your situation you may be eligible for further assistance in the form of a disability allowance, accommodation supplement or child care subsidy. This is not a time to be proud – make an appointment with WINZ and discuss all your options.
Where can you find more information?
See our Support Group article on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren for how to obtain information and support.