“I’m sorry. I understand. I’m a good listener. I don’t know what to say but I’m worried about you. I know you’ve got a lot on your mind but it’s seriously jeopardizing your job performance. We need to talk dad.” All good phrases to let a struggling parenting grandparent know that you are there for them.
Your words aren’t as important as letting a friend, family member, co-worker or employee know that you are listening and want to help. Some grandparents will cry, some will discuss their worries or vent, while others will continue to deny there is a problem, or shut down. Take their lead and respond accordingly unless you need to take action–then tell them what you are, or will be, doing and why.
“I will call Children Services next week if you continue to leave Jose and Sophia alone before school or all night. It is not safe for a first and second grader. Is there a neighbor or schoolmate’s parents who can help?”
Or, “I don’t want to lose you as an employee. I know you are raising two teenagers, but you’ve had two tickets and an accident in the company truck the last six months and if there is another incident I have to let you go. If you want I can make an appointment for you to talk to someone in Human Resources. Everything you say to HR is confidential, and they can help you with family counseling benefits, resources for community services, or transferring to a job with no travel and less overtime if that’s what’s best right now.”
I won’t let “sis” keep getting food stamps while you struggle to feed her kids and pay rent. I’m calling her caseworker today.”
No ‘one size’ solutions.
With families and addictions there is always a tug-of-war of emotions and a tangle of legal and day-to-day issues. There are no quick fixes, but there is hope. I adopted my grandson, and twenty years later finally (tried before but always eventually relented) cut all ties with my daughter. Life has a way of hurting and humbling and healing. You may not have had personal experience in this area–but compassion and common sense tell you that it’s demeaning, to say, “just walk away,” or “just do it”. Family love is strong and complicated. Drugs rip apart families and laws put parental rights over the kids–unless it’s proven that the parent is an immediate safety risk to them.
Don’t assume and don’t lecture. Ask questions, offer experiences, suggest resources. Try to get the grandparent to see what in their situation is fact, and what is emotion. Guide them in identifying what they can control; what they cannot. The choices they face–seeking custody of their grandchildren, breaking off or limiting contact with their grown son/daughter, or sharing information with the police or child services are life-changing. I always ask God to give me the words to help, not hurt, others.
Tough situations and choices.
Below are a few paraphrased real-life examples of conversations I’ve had:
Grandmother: “My social security check barely pays for food and rent but my daughter says she’ll take her kids back so she can continue to get food stamps and housing vouchers if I tell anyone.”
My response: “Your daughter isn’t going to change while you take care of her kids and she has money for drugs. I won’t lie, there are risks with going to Family Services (FS) but I think the risks of not doing so are greater. Right now your daughter can walk into your home, or their school, and take them at anytime. You aren’t legally able to stop her. In an emergency you can’t even authorize medical treatment, and your grandkids probably feel the same insecurities you do about their future.
I would talk to an attorney first if I were you to find out about your rights, the grandkids’ rights and your daughter’s rights based on your individual case and state laws. You do not want to be complicit in your daughter’s fraud, but more importantly your lawyer can guide you on the best way to proceed with obtaining legal custody and/or guardianship/adoption. You can always ask if they have a “first visit free” program or if they could suggest where you could go for reduced-fee legal help. You can also call FS anonymously to ask ‘hypothetical’ questions to gather information and learn your options.”
Grandpa: “My teenage grandson is in a group home and it is tearing my wife apart, while draining our savings. We tried counseling after his mom, our daughter, died but he is out of control, refusing to go to school and causing all kinds of problems. I don’t want the state involved in my personal finances, so I’ll just keep on working until I’m eighty to pay for his care.”
My response: “I’m sure it was a hard to put your grandson in a group home, but good for you for recognizing he needs help. Have you checked into Social Security death benefits to help pay for his care? The only drawback is if something happens to you, his receiving social security might make him ineligible for other programs. Talk to your accountant and attorney. Estate and long-term planning is crucial. You and your wife need to protect your future while you can.”
Grandparent: “Our three grandsons have two different fathers. Our son, and father of the two oldest, is in prison. The younger grandson’s dad works but frequently doesn’t pay any support. I’m afraid that if I take him to court he’ll stop altogether, or take the boy because we just have a power of attorney.”
My response: “Don’t let “what ifs” or fear stop you…and power of attorney can be rescinded at anytime just by dad tearing up the paper or changing his mind. Call your state support enforcement office for help getting court-ordered support for youngest grandson. Simultaneously, call an attorney to find out how to get legal custody/guardianship.
When your incarcerated son gets out of prison, ask him what he can contribute short, interim and long term to help you in raising his sons while making a future for himself. You didn’t mention your relationship but it’s critical to know what role you want him to play in the future before starting any dialog.”
Life changing conversations are never easy…and the thing is we don’t know they are life-changing until long after they are over.