Frequently Asked Questions

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren - Legal Issues

Parenting Issues

What parenting resources exist to help grandparents become better parents?

Many communities offer local parenting classes. These can usually be found through different therapy or counseling organizations, hospitals, youth and family centers. Many of them follow specific curriculums. Some programs to check out in your area are Second Time Around: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and Grandparents as Parents (GAP). Many other curriculums and programs exist. Contact your local CSU Extension Office for more information on parenting classes in your community.

I was recently given my grandchildren to care for because their parents are incarcerated. What should I tell the children?

When a child is dealing with their parents being incarcerated it is always best to tell the truth and to be as honest as possible. The older the child is, the more detail can be given. Making up a story to tell you grandchildren could backfire. Right now they are probably going through some trust issues and therefore, if they find out you have not been honest with them; they could lose trust in you as well. Children also have the tendency to image far worse scenarios than the truth, so being honest with them could help them tremendously. The most important thing children of incarcerated parents need is stability. A good place to start when talking to younger children is to tell them that their parents have done something wrong and they are being punished. Most children can understand this concept and you can help them by relating it to time out for grownups. Explaining to your grandchildren in terms of safety can also be helpful. For example, "Mommy and Daddy were not keeping themselves safe and they need to learn how to be safe with themselves and safe with you." Older children can handle the whole story. If the parent will be returning home and regaining care of their children, ongoing communication between the parents and the children is important. If possible, visit the prison with the children. Studies show that this is generally helpful. Children usually picture jail as much worse than it actually is, so visiting can help put their minds at ease.

I recently found out my four grandchildren are coming to live with me. Help! Do you have any special recommendations or considerations?

Moving your grandchildren to a new home will bring both rewards and challenges for the whole family. Moving to a new home brings a variety of emotions to a child. Be patient with your grandchildren and gentle with any emotional reactions they might be giving you. This transition will most likely be complicated by the feelings of loss your grandchildren will have for their birth parents and their current home. Even young children who may or may not realize or understand what is happening will pick up on everyone else's stress and will show signs of stress themselves.

Additional time with you everyday will help reassure them that they are safe. Also, keep in mind that children, especially young children, need routine. Try to immediately have some routines for them that are very predictable- keep familiar toys or books nearby, stick to a schedule for meals and bedtimes, set a few clear and age-appropriate rules for their behavior and try to be as consistent as possible in enforcing these rules. Be patient with your grandchildren as they will need time to learn and adjust to the new rules of their new home. The older the child, generally the more they will understand.

Try to be as honest as possible with your grandchildren. Teenagers will have increased understanding that moving means leaving things behind and therefore may have heightened emotional reactions and responses. Give your grandchildren some extra time and attention during this transition. Try to involve and engage your grandchildren in the moving process and set up routines for their new home. Help your grandchildren to find activities to do and groups to be involved in their new community. Accept your grandchildren's feelings and give them time and space in their grieving and coping processes.

Additional information on this topic can be found in the publication, "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Moving Your Grandchildren into Your Home"

Why does my teenage granddaughter take such risks?

Teenagers today are experimenting with things such as alcohol and drugs at earlier ages than past generations. Why are adolescents entering into such risky behavior? Adolescents use alcohol and drugs for the same reasons adults do, to lower stress, to relax, socially, and because they see everyone else doing it. Research shows that alcohol and drug use also leads to sexual activity. The first step is recognizing the stresses going on in your granddaughter's life and acknowledging that teenagers have easy access to alcohol and drugs. Approximately 90 percent of teenagers say that alcohol, pot, and cigarettes are easy to get. Second, monitor your granddaughter's behavior and let her know that you understand that she is under a lot of pressure and that she is surrounded by things such as alcohol, drugs and sex. Let her know that you are working to build an even better relationship with her. The biggest fear for teenagers in using drugs and alcohol is getting caught by their caretakers. Research shows that when adults have a good relationship with teens and monitor teens' behaviors, they are less likely to get involved in problem behaviors and are more likely to choose friends who participate in positive behaviors.

I am a grandparent raising grandchildren and this will be our first holiday season together. I am worried about our family gathering. Should I invite the children's biological parents? How do I make this as less awkward as possible?

Holidays can be very stressful times for all families. Try to make decisions based on what will be best for the children. Resist not inviting the children's biological parents because of tension between you and them or any other adults. Try to plan not for what will be the least awkward, but what will benefit the children the most. It is possible to be kind to people we are in disagreement with, especially if it benefits the children. However, don't go overboard the other way with phony kindness. Weigh the positives and negatives of every decision and do what is best for the child.

You might also want to use this holiday season as an opportunity to start new family traditions. Making new traditions and involving the children in this process can help offset feelings of loss that often resurface during the holidays. Involve the children in making new memories that can carry on for years to come. Honor past traditions if the children would like to keep them going and make new ones to celebrate your new family!

My grandson is being bullied. What do I do?

Bullying is a topic that has changed rapidly over the past few decades. Bullying used to be viewed as "kids will be kids" and "it's a part of growing up- let them work it out." However, many schools now see bullying as a serious issue and have zero tolerance policies towards it. Many schools also have anti-bullying programs. Because times have changed on this issue, the way we support our children through this issue must also change. The first step is to know the difference between bullying and normal conflict and help your grandson know the difference. The difference between bullying and conflict is power. In conflict, usually both parties hold equal power and while they are having a conflict, the intent is not to hurt one another. In conflict situations, the two parties often play together and both try to solve the problem. In a bullying situation, the perpetrator exerts control over a victim. The bully tries to physically or emotionally intimidate or injure the victim, and these incidents happen repeatedly. The two never play together and never try to solve the problem. The bully enjoys taking power from the victim and the victim is scared. The book, Bully-Proofing Your Child: A Parents Guide, by Carla Garrity, Mitchell Baris, and William Porter recommends six strategies for helping your child deal with a bully:

  1. Get help: Help your grandchild identify adults and kids who can help.
  2. Assert yourself: Help your grandchild know when to and not to stand up to a bully. If there is a chance the victim may be physically injured, do not use this strategy.
  3. Use humor: When a child turns a difficult situation into a funny one, the bully is caught off guard. Make sure to tell your grandchildren that they should give a quick comeback versus "put-down" the bully as this will only escalate the situation.
  4. Avoid the bully: Every child needs to know when and how to walk away.
  5. Self talk: Coaching your grandson to say positive statements to himself when a bully teases or taunts to counter the negativity of the bully.
  6. Own it: Coach your child to agree with the put-down to lighten up the situation and laugh at himself. This strategy works well when a child is teased about things like clothing, hairstyle, or a bike they ride to school. This strategy does not work if the teasing revolves around an identity, such as ethnicity, disability, or religion.

Last school year, my grandchildren were constantly asking me for help with their homework and it has been so long since I learned the material, I couldn't help them with lots of it. What can I do to help them this school year?

Even very young parents struggle with this; however, there is a lot any parent can do without having to know the answers! Help your grandchildren to be organized, practical, and to know when to ask for help. Set up a specific homework area and keep it stocked with supplies such as pens/pencils, paper, erasers, markers, etc. Coach your grandchildren to write down one name and phone number from at least one person in every class that they can call for help if needed. Help your grandkids keep track of homework with a weekly assignment sheet that can be put in a folder or binder. Try these tips for making homework less stressful:

  • Do homework at the same time each day – whether it's right after school or in the evening. Let the children have some input on setting the time.
  • If your grandkids need help with an assignment, complete one or two examples together. But, don't help them with every problem. If children don't do their own work, they won't do well on tests and other assignments.
  • Help children manage big homework projects. Divide large projects into smaller chunks that can be done over a few days or a week. This helps children learn how to pace their work.
  • Limit outside activities to avoid burnout. Children can only do so much. If they have too many extra-curricular activities, they may be too tired to do homework.
  • Support the teachers. If you think teachers are assigning too much homework, make an appointment to discuss the matter – without the children. If you complain to the teacher in front of the children, it encourages them to question the teacher's authority — and that can lead to discipline problems.

You can do a lot to help your grandchildren even if you do not know the subject material well enough to help them answer their homework questions. If they are struggling in a subject, help them to talk to their teacher or set up meetings with you, your grandchild, and their teacher. Many schools have tutoring programs or can help you get contacts for tutors within the community. Remember to get help as soon as the problem arises as teachers may not be as understanding if you are coming to them at the end of the semester.

Additional information on this topic can be found in the publication, "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Helping Your Grandchild Succeed in School"

I am a grandparent who is raising a teenager. I feel like times are too different from when I was a teenager until now and I do not understand my teen. Help!

Don't worry; you don't need to completely alter your parenting style once your grandchildren reach adolescence. A style that is warm yet firm works just as well for teens as it does with younger children. It is important to begin to expand limits as your grandchildren come into teenage years. Give teens more choices and let your grandchildren know that you are there to listen and answer their questions. Give them this message both by what you say to them and what you do around them. Try to be as open-minded as possible and really listen when they talk. It is important to discuss difficult topics such as puberty, body changes, sex, drugs, and alcohol. A popular misconception is that all teenagers disagree with their parents, however, most teenagers actually agree with their parents on topics such as religion, education, and values. Teenagers often carry family values through adolescence and into adulthood. It is important for your adolescent to have accurate information about sex, drugs, and drinking. Give them accurate information about laws surrounding these issues. These discussions can also be a time for you to impart your own values or wisdom; however, it is important that these discussions do not turn into arguments. When adolescents do not feel comfortable going to parents to talk about things like sex, drugs, and drinking, they often turn to peers who give them incorrect information.

Additional information on this topic can be found in the publication "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: The Teenage Years"

My 5-year-old grandchild has lived with me for about a year now after a stressful family life with his biological parents. He is about to start school. Do you have suggestions for how I can help him deal with another transition?

There are many things you can do as a parent to ease any child's transition into going to school. First of all help your grandchild learn social skills by introducing him to other children his age. Some good places to find other children are through church, at the park, in the neighborhood, or at the mall. Also, "playing school" with your grandchild may give him a chance to act out his feelings about the upcoming transition. Make sure to talk to your grandson about what school is and what will be happening.

Talk about what a day at school might be like and tell him what to expect. If you know any older children who have already had their first day of school (and it has been a positive experience) ask them in front of your grandson what their first day of school was like. If his school provides opportunities to visit before hand and/or meet his teacher, this will help him start to form some ideas about school in his mind. Make this day of touring his new school a special one!

Once school starts, keep talking to your grandson about how it is going, what he is learning and be an open listener for him to express any feelings he is having.

Additional information can be found in the publication "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Helping Your Preschooler Be Ready for School."

My grandchildren are constantly arguing and getting into sibling battles! Why are they fighting so much and what can I do?

Siblings quarrel for four general reasons: basic needs, attention, company, and power. Determining which of these four reasons is contributing to your grandchildren quarrelling will help in determining what you can do.

Basic needs fights come about because at least one of the children is tired, hungry, thirsty, or bored. In these situations, taking a quick break, eating a quick snack, getting a drink, or spending a few minutes playing can do wonders to curb the arguments.

Attention fights come about because at least one of the children wants your attention. If you feel this is going on in your house, reprogram your children by showing them that only positive behavior will be rewarded. Do this by ignoring small conflicts and remaining calm during all conflicts. You can also do this by making sure to reward positive behavior! 15-20 minutes of one-on-one attention with a child per day dramatically reduces negative behavior such as wining and bickering.

Company quarrels arise because some children are not skilled at getting others to play with them. These children struggle with how to get their siblings to engage with them but know that starting a fight with them is a quick way to pull them in. In these situations, teach your grandchildren some basic skills such as teaching them how to ask, "Will you play with me?" You can help too by providing activities that appeal to multiple age groups. Also teaching compromise and sharing skills will prove helpful.

Power struggles arise because of competition among siblings. Children know when their sibling can do something they cannot and can have a very difficult time dealing with competitive or insecure feelings. You can help by encouraging personal goals for each of your grandchildren and by not comparing them to one another. You can also teach them win-win deals and how to talk about their frustrations and arguments by each speaking from their feelings versus blaming each other.

Additional information can be found in the publication, "Getting Along: Sibling Fights."

What resources are there for the grandchildren so they know they are not so different?

A great resource for children is books. Most libraries have a children's section and children's librarians. At most libraries, you can approach a librarian and ask for a list of books on a topic. Librarians can direct you toward several books for children on grandparents raising grandchildren. Another great resource is to look for support groups in your area for grandparents raising grandchildren. Although most of these groups are for the grandparent caregivers, many of them have free or built-in childcare arrangements. This can be a great opportunity for your grandchildren to meet with other children who live with their grandparents. Another great option is to search out other grandparents in your situation and form play groups with them. You can also be a great resource to your grandchildren through normalizing their feelings and answering their questions.

How can children deal with their feelings associated with their stress over feeling they were disowned?

There are several dimensions to the concerns over emotional stress and coping. Since grandparenting (as primary caregivers) is a relatively new phenomenon, we need to pull from related literature for some clues. We can turn to some information about foster care, to divorcing families, and step families for some advice. First, we need to look at the developmental level of the child in question. Emotional responses develop in stages just like cognitive development does. The combination of what a child can or cannot understand will help any caring adult determine how to support the child.

What we know is that even for children who have been abused, there is a great desire to try again and again with their biological parents. Young children in particular want very much to please the adults in their lives. They are also ego-centric and they will feel as if they are the cause and may try to act more angelic trying to "be with their parents." In other cases, children who have been passed from home to home will have their trust chiseled away and they will have great difficulty "trusting" any adult. This must be built. Trust is the first emotional development stage. Trust building comes through relationship building and consistency. Stick to your word, if you make promises, keep them, pick the child up on time, come back to them, and establish a routine they can count on. These are strategies to start with.

How can school system and child care providers help children who are experiencing stress related to losing their sense of family and their biological parents?

School systems have been known to establish support groups for children whose parents are going through a divorce. If there is a critical mass of children (particularly late elementary age and older) who are experiencing loss of parents for whatever reason, they will have similar feelings and may benefit from a group support effort where they can read together, talk together and be guided by a sensitive, caring adult with a counseling background to help them deal with their feelings. Coping strategies can be taught.

The grandparents should keep the school informed. Teachers who know what is going on in a child's life can be more informed and not blame the child needlessly for potential negative behavior and instead work with the child with a sensitive understanding.

Professionals must also pull from the resiliency literature in understanding what factors are SUPPORTIVE or PROTECTIVE factors for children. The Children, Youth and Families Education and Research Network provides a search feature to locate information on this topic and many others.

How can grandparents feel successful in raising a second generation when they failed with their own children who left them in this new predicament?

Parenting is not the only factor in influencing the adult children's poor choices. Many grandparents raising grandchildren have parented other children who have made different choices. Here are a few thoughts from related literature...

  • Parents do the best they can but life circumstances often change. At the time they were raising their child, they may have been immature, irresponsible, and have many additional life stressors. Maybe with age, they have learned to deal with these.
  • Placements for children who need foster care are scarce. There are always campaigns to recruit new homes. A family or home setting is optimal as compared to placing children in a group home. If there is a relative willing to take on this responsibility, this option is certainly considered in the best interest of the child as opposed to a group home or unrelated foster placement if the home is deemed acceptable. Social workers are looking for a stable environment.
  • Sometimes parents (and grandparents) do not see the value or need for parenting education. But what parent educators see over and over again is that when parents do attend parenting education, there is an overwhelming positive response to the wealth of information and strategies that are gained.

Should children be allowed to spend time with the parents who may be substance abusers or worse?

In general, Yes. This relationship is important to nurture unless there is some danger involved to the child. Visits with supervision are also an option. The bond between a parent and child is important and should not be ignored. The child quite often wants to see and be with his/her parent. The parent generally has a strong desire to be with and build a relationship with the child. If there is a gap in the relationship, there will always be questions and these questions may contribute to emotional distress.

There is a recent rise in parenting education programs offered in prisons. Parents who enroll in these programs want to have a presence in their child's lives and may want to be able to influence the parenting that is occurring with their children. They are receiving information about parenting and are anxious to see their children. Recording books on tape or other activities may be available for parents so that a connection can be maintained.

One web site, the Family and Corrections Network, provides helpful information to support grandparents and others related to incarcerated parents.

How do children's peers respond to them living with their grandparents?

Children are getting used to many different sorts of living arrangements. Children are more accustomed than their parents to a heterogeneous world in many ways. Many children today are used to their friends having two homes, two sets of parents, same sex parents, and many other family forms. This is just one of the other family forms.

What can be done to prepare the child under the sole custody of the grandparent's for the potential of their death?

Unless there is an illness, this may not be necessary. Dying is a fact of life. We can never really predict when we will die. There are many older parents in fact who certainly know they may never see their children as adults, but talking about dying should not be a focus in the relationship—however it can be addressed as a topic along with many topics parents and children can and should explore--like what is a family? What is lying? What is war about? Why do we work? And why do people we love die? In these conversation be sensitive to the child's cognitive and emotional developmental level.

If there is a problem due to illness, then there are certainly ways to approach the topic of death and make advance plans for where the child will be placed and again, while taking their developmental level into consideration, inform them appropriately. Remember our adult worries are different from their worries. Again, consider their developmental stage and don't overwhelm them, but do keep communication open. A helpful publication on this topic is "Dealing with Sadness and Loss."