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When You Have to Raise a Grandchild

By Chuck Yanikoski

In most cases, a grandparent steps in to raise a grandchild when something awful has happened, and both you and the grandchild have already suffered. This is not a good way to start. Both you and your grandchild may be needy, and both of you may be unable to supply what the other needs. There is an inevitable adjustment period, and you have to expect it to be hard, especially at the beginning. In addition, neither you nor your grandchild may want you to give up the benevolent grandparent role, but now you have to take on the tougher, parental role as well, requiring another big adjustment. On top of all this, your grandchild will be undergoing almost a complete change in the circumstances of his or her life.

Your grandchild needs a counselor to confide in - preferably a psychologist specializing in child or adolescent issues. You might want a counselor of your own, too. If you can't afford it, talk to the Social Services department in your city, county, or state, and to the guidance office at your child's school, for help, or find a therapist with a sliding fee scale.

Regarding your new, parental responsibilities, take care of these items quickly:

  • School arrangements. Make sure you understand your grandchild's academic standing in all subjects, and his or her schedule. Meet with each of your grandchild's teachers and with the guidance counselor (if your grandchild has had to change schools, talk to people in the old school first, so you understand any existing problems or strengths).
  • Other activities. What teams, clubs, church activities, and other groups does your grandchild participate in? Are there any private lessons or tutors?
  • Medical issues. Talk with the pediatrician or clinic your grandchild has most recently visited. Get as complete a medical history as possible.
  • Friends. Without being overly intrusive, try to get to know your grandchild's friends - this will tell you a lot about your grandchild, and help you identify which friends are more likely to improve, or obstruct, your grandchild's progress.

Clearly, your finances will change, perhaps drastically. And there are things you need to check into:

  • Some living expenses will increase. But your grandchild may also be eligible for food stamps, aid to dependent children, and other government programs. Your local welfare office can explain what he or she is entitled to. You may also be eligible for income tax exemptions, deductions, and credits that will help a bit.
  • You need to allow for additional medical expenses from time to time, and for the ongoing cost of health insurance for the grandchild(ren).
  • If the grandchild seems to be a candidate for college, you should think about putting something aside for that purpose, if you can.
  • Depending on the events that led to your caring for your grandchild, there may be life insurance proceeds, Social Security benefits, or other sources of income or assets from your child (the grandchild's parent). Perhaps the grandchild's other grandparents, or other relatives, can help financially, or by providing child care, clothes, toys, etc.
  • You may need new life insurance, or need to change the beneficiary on existing policies, to provide for your grandchild if you should die before his/her adulthood.
  • Review your will.
  • Consider legal guardianship or adoption. Talk with a lawyer -if you can't afford one, visit your local social services agency or legal aid office.

As important as your grandchild is, though, you should not mortgage your entire financial future to him or her. You need to take care of yourself, both now and later. If you don't, you won't be in a position to help your grandchild, either. If you need more income, you could look for a job with "mother's hours."

And you might need help with all this. You've been a parent before, but not to this child, and not in today's environment. Meanwhile, you may not be as physically robust and energetic as you used to be. If you can get help, take it. There are lots of possible sources:

  • Family, both your own and your child's in-laws. If people offer to help, let them. If they don't offer, ask.
  • Community, church, and school organizations. You probably aren't tied into the youth services and activities in your area - it's time to get educated about what's available.
  • Your grandchild's friends. Kids want to be with other kids, especially their friends. If you know and approve of your grandchild's friends, you can comfortably allow them to entertain one another without your help. Time that the child spends with friends' families is time you can use for your own needs.
  • Social service agencies. If your grandchild has problems of his own - delinquency, addiction, physical or mental disorders, etc. - you may already be in over your head. Get help from your local or state child services agency, and let them help you coordinate the support you need.
  • Grandparent support groups - look for one nearby, and if there isn't one, start one. Or at least seek out advice from others who have gotten into this ahead of you.
  • Your child. If your own child is still alive (which is the typical situation), try to stay in contact with him or her, even if the relationship is touchy. It's possible that the issues that led to your taking care of your grandchild will be resolved eventually. But even if that isn't in the cards, your child will know things about your grandchild that you don't, and you need that knowledge. Besides, whatever your own relationship with your child is, and whatever your grandchild's relationship with your child may currently be, at some point your grandchild may want to know his parent better. Keeping communication open, even if just a little bit, can be a big help down the road.