When Can I Go Home?

Kathie Campbell Greer, custodial grandparent, counselor, writer has provided us with another great blog.

Grandparents raising their grandchildren face a multitude of challenges. In almost every case, it is a choice–and often a sacrifice–the grandparents have made in the best interest of the child.

All of the circumstances are unique to the family unit involved. Sometimes drug or alcohol abuse are the precipitating factor. In other cases the tragic death of one or both parents turns the family upside down. There are horrendous situations involving neglect or abandonment.

But regardless of the reason, commonalities do exist. The most significant may be grief. Very often any change in a child’s living arrangements can be a sad experience. The familiarity and perceived safety of a bedroom, the loss of friends, leaving a trusted teacher and a familiar school can all trigger a sense of profound sadness. That grief is difficult for children to understand and process, even when their parents make the move with them. But when the parents are part of what must be left behind, confusion is compounded and grief can be overwhelming. And while grandparents are helping their grandchildren adjust, they may be dealing with their own grief.

Denial has been established and documented as one of the stages of grief, and it’s an easy trap for custodial grandparents to step into. Much too often we don’t want to acknowledge the harsh realities that have brought our grandchildren to live in our homes. The children often create idolized versions of their parents. They certainly don’t want to hear or see hard truths about their parents. So sometimes it feels better to hold onto fantasies and pretend. The make-believe stories can be as varied as the children and adults who create them.

But a day of reckoning invariably arrives. It often begins with the question, “When can I go home?”

When Z first asked that question he’d been living with me more than three years. I felt like I had created a good, stable home for him. The question devastated me. His dismissal of our house as “home” landed on me like the mortar and bricks of a building that’s foundations had failed.

Z’s mother–my daughter–had neglected him. Worse than that, she had abandoned him on multiple occasions. The harsh reality was that he couldn’t go back to her, because she didn’t want him.

How on earth do you convey that horrible truth to a young boy without destroying him?

I’m not sure it can be done, or even that the path I chose was the best one. We talked about his mother’s mental illness. We talked about the limitations it placed on her. I shared my hope that someday she would get better. I did my best not to lie to him. And I repeatedly stressed my love for him and the things that made us a family and my house a home.

As he got older, Z began to see and understand the realities that had factored into his life. He came to a place close to acceptance, and he retained his love for his mother. But the wounds were deep and even though he’s an adult now, traces of the scars remain.

We can provide them with a safe and happy place to live, and we can bind their wounds to the best of our ability. But we must remember that we can never completely erase their grief. We can only nurture, encourage and support them with our love as they work through it.

 

We Are Not Normal!

Another excellent post by blogger Kathie Campbell Greer. Look for her book, Sliding for Home, coming soon. It is written for readers in grades 4-7 and will be published by Yellow City Publishing.

My husband and I divorced when our daughters were preschoolers, so when Z came to live with me I was familiar with the challenges of being a single parent. But that experience didn’t fully translate to being a single custodial grandparent.

Divorced parents were common among my daughters’ friends and mine. I developed a network with other single mothers to share babysitting and play dates. We built solid, supportive friendships and our shared experiences sustained us through the tough times.

According to Elder Options of Texas, more than six million children – approximately 1 in 12 – are living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. I knew I was not alone.

My friends provided ample support.

But Z didn’t have that. One other boy at his school lived with his grandparents. He and Z played sports together and became close friends. On weekends they would spend the night together at our house or his friend’s. I became acquainted with the grandparents, and we communicated often about the boys and the challenges their circumstances presented.

But they were a couple, and the grandfather was actively involved. There was also a younger sister and two dogs. From a distance, they looked like a normal family. We didn’t. And it bothered Z a lot.

“We aren’t normal,” he said one evening during dinner.

“What does normal look like?” I asked him.

He gave it some thought before answering. “It looks like a regular family.”

“Okay, what does a regular family look like?” I held my breath, fully expecting for him to jump on an endless merry-go-round by telling me “normal.”

He didn’t, but his reply was almost worse. “It’s a family with two parents.”

My heart sank, because between my professional life and my devotion to Z, there was no time for dating. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in another full-time relationship. At the same time, though, I wanted Z to see his life as normal. I felt like a fish trapped in an inescapable net.

Z and I talked a lot about “normal” over the following days and weeks. How do you explain to a child that it’s not a blanket term? How do you help them relate to being outside the box in the most positive way possible?

Superheroes became my unlikely allies. Batman was in orphan, essentially raised by a grandfatherly butler. He didn’t have a normal family, but he became a hero.

I made a significant investment in superhero action figures to supplement our discussions, but it paid off. Z finally became convinced that, although it didn’t look normal, we were a solid family unit. More importantly he discovered that he had the power in his own hands to create an amazing future for himself.

 

 

 

Do You Really Want Me?

Another great post by Kathie Campbell Greer–author, counselor, custodial grandparent. This one made my heart hurt.

It was my 50th birthday. I answered the doorbell to find my younger daughter, and her second son. Blonde, blue-eyed, he was wearing a cap, shorts, a t-shirt and carrying a small backpack.

My daughter, not yet diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was frantic and emotional. “I’ve tried, Mom, but I just can’t deal with him. His dad can’t take him. If you don’t want him, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The words squeezed my heart, sending a lump to my throat. I pushed aside the emotion that threatened to overcome me as I looked at my grandson. He’d seen and heard more than enough of that in his short eight years on this earth.

The boy’s domicile had changed more than a dozen times. The face of his primary caretaker had changed only slightly less. The counselor, whose sessions I paid for, had told me that there was no bond between my daughter and her son. Even worse, the constant changes had resulted in Z’s development of an attachment disorder.

But there he stood: a bright, innocent child who—for all practical purposes—was facing the world alone.

“Yes,” I said. “I want him. But this is his final stop.” And before the day’s end I had papers signed and notarized by both parents naming me as custodial guardian.

My life and Z’s changed that day. He was my new priority. I was at every school and recreational activity. We made meals together, shared chores and we talked. But when it came to affection, he wanted none of it.

Several months passed, and we settled into a routine. One afternoon when I picked him up after school he seemed unusually quiet. After a few failed attempts to get him to talk, I gave up.

We were through the front door and I was almost into the next room when he finally spoke. “Did you mean what you said,” he asked.

I stopped, slightly panicked. “I always try to mean what I say. Can you tell me what I said that you’re wondering about?”

“The day you said you wanted me. Did you mean it?”

Tears filled my eyes before I could halt them. “Yes. Beyond any doubt I wanted you then and I want you now.”

He ran toward me so fast that I was frightened, but the arms that locked me in a tight hug brought immediate relief. We cried, I covered him with kisses and we both laughed.

That day was a breakthrough–for both of us. I felt truly encouraged for the first time since he’d come to live with me. For him, the fears and worries he’d brought with him began to evaporate.

No, all the difficulties didn’t disappear. But we had a solid foundation of love that we could build upon.

Sometimes breakthroughs with grandchildren are huge, and sometimes so small they might be missed. But all of them are important to the children entrusted to our care. Celebrate every one of them.

If you or someone you know is interested in writing for Grandparents Chat Forum, please contact me at vickischoen@outlook.com

 

Walking a Tightrope

 

Kathie Campbell Greer is a professional writer with a master’s degree in counseling. She has done research on the topic of grandparents as custodial caretakers and presented to Texas Association of Counselors. She was the custodial caretaker for her grandson from the time he was eight-year-old until he was out of high school.

The most difficult challenge faced by grandparents caring full-time for grandchildren is maintaining their balance.

Most grandparents look forward to spending uncomplicated time with grandchildren. It’s an unspoken agreement that rules can usually be broken at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Grandparents have already done hard time as overseer of homework, hygiene and manners with their own children. The disciplinarian duties can be cast aside by typical grandparents, in favor of childish conspiracies and shared secrets.

But those fanciful dreams of being an incredible grandparent must take a backseat when a grandchild comes to live with them. Grandparents must walk a tricky tightrope between the relationship they want to have with their grandkids and the one they need to have.

The circumstances that require grandparents to become custodial caretakers are seldom positive. For whatever reason–and there many: drug abuse, mental illness, incarceration, divorce, death, a parent’s loss of employment, sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect to name just a few–the child is no longer in a place of safety. It usually doesn’t feel like an issue of choice for grandparents, but one of absolute necessity.

The transitions are tough. The most amazing and loved grandparents may suddenly be viewed as the villain by kids who don’t understand why they can’t be with their parent(s).

Z was only eight-years-old when he came to live with me. He drove the point home at dinner one night.
“Grammy, you used to be the best grandmother in the world.” I was about to bask in the warm glow of his affection when he finished his thought, “But as a parent you just suck.”

They were among the hardest words I’ve ever heard. And every part of my heart wanted to retain that title of “best grandmother.” My brain, though, focused on the undeniable fact that I was now required to be the parent. It was now my job to draw the boundaries, make the rules, assign chores, check homework and be sure showers were taken and teeth were brushed.

There was still time for reading stories, learning new games and having adventures, but they could no longer be done with the joyful abandonment that comes from knowing that time together is short and therefore more special.

The balancing act for grandparents who care for grandchildren full-time also requires balancing the harsh truth of the situation against the child’s sometimes fantasized view of the parents. That’s especially tough when grandparents want to assume the blame for the shortcomings of their adult children.

The thing that must be remembered is that those adult children made their own decisions, and when those choices put their children in danger, grandparents are not the villains. They are more like heroes working without a net.

If you would like to write a blog for the site, contact me at vickischoen@outlook.com.

Family Trips Are Supposed To Be Fun!

It’s nearly time for spring break, and some of you may be planning a trip. Family trips can be stressful, but with a little planning, they can be memorable—in a good way.

A couple of years ago, when Mary Ellen was in kindergarten, we took her to the Fossil Rim Wild Life Center near Glen Rose, Texas. The primary objective of the 1,700 acre conservation center is to save endangered species. They have over 1000 animals, approximately 50 species. You can drive through in your own car. However, we chose a guided tour in an open bus and were glad we did. The guide was outstanding, and we had our hands free to take photos and feed the animals—except the ostriches. They bite. We were fortunate that the Amarillo school district’s break that year didn’t coincide with most of the other districts in Texas. We hadn’t checked that but will next time. Apparently the roads were packed the week before. For more information you can go to www.fossilrim.com.

Here are a few ideas for traveling with a youngster. We drove, but some of these suggestions would also work for flying. Have available in the vehicle: a first aid kit, towels, water and healthy snacks, a trash bag, and entertainment. Depending on the child’s age, you might want to include a special doll or stuffed animal, a pillow, and a blanket.

Again, depending on the child’s age, road games can pass some of the time. When I was a kid, my family had fun looking for Burma Shave signs. I miss those. Mary Ellen taught us the car bingo game—bingo cars are yellow. You can vary that by making up your own rules to look for any number of colors. I spy with my little eye drove me crazy, but she loved it. And older kids can look for license plates.

Usborne, www.edcpub.com carries some great activity packs. We took along “Step-By-Step Drawing” and “100 Things To Do On A Trip.” The latter contained a marker and 50 two-sided heavy, wipe-off cards, each with a different activity. They also have a number of travel activity books for school-age children. Sticker books are also great. I’m not a fan of sharp objects in a car, but if you’re willing to risk pretty colors on the back seat, crayons and a pad of paper can entertain for a long time. Storage boxes with easy lock tops can be found in many sizes.
There are several websites that offer suggestions for family vacations. One is www.travelwithkids.about.com. Some—but not all—suggestions in many of these sites are quite expensive, so set a budget ahead of time. You can quickly weed out a lot of destinations.

If you have ideas for a reasonably-priced trip, preferably with a short travel time from your town, please post it in the comments. I would like to create a page dedicated to good, inexpensive, family vacations around the country. I need your help.

HELP!

From time to time, I will provide resources in this blog which might be helpful. Today I am going to concentrate on financial assistance.

Let’s start with TANF—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These programs differ from one state to another. They may include cash assistance, food stamps, child care, and health care (Medicaid and CHIPS). If your income is too high to qualify, ask if your state provides child-only grants, guardianship subsidies, non-parent grants, or kinship grants.

A word regarding heath care. When we got custody of Mary Ellen, she was on Medicaid, but when it needed to be renewed, she was no longer eligible. When I tried to change her to my insurance, I found out there was a fast-approaching deadline. The insurance company needed evidence from the state giving the reason for termination. The state wouldn’t give it to me because Mary Ellen’s mother was listed as the contact. Fortunately, she and I are on speaking terms. In spite of that, the time for getting the document was too long. Again, the gods were with us, and the supervisor for my company worked with me to get coverage. They said this was a common problem. Check way ahead of time, if you might be in this position.

Your child may be eligible for social security benefits. To find specific information, go to www.ssa.gov. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the people-like-me button.

Be sure to identify any tax breaks you are eligible to take. The child will need a social security number. The IRS website is www.irs.gov. I found it to be only marginally helpful. However, be sure to ask about the following: dependency exemption, earned income tax credit, child tax credit, dependent care credit, and education-related credit. If you adopt, you might be able to receive credit for the legal expenses you incur.

Finally, The National Council on Aging has a website that will search possible benefits by state. Their address is www.benefitscheckup.org. You fill out a form—go to the long one to include the child in the information—and they search the data base to provide you with the names of any programs for which you might qualify.

Please feel free to comment on these or add others.

So You Think You’re Good at Math

Will somebody please explain to me why children no longer memorize the basic math tables?

It seems to me that the easiest and quickest way to get an answer is to have tables memorized. Do children no longer need to be able to perform basic calculations because we have calculators? I hope that’s not the case.

A couple of weeks ago, Mary Ellen had a math worksheet for homework. She likes math and was even used in a training video made to teach teachers. I understand she could do everything expected of her. But this particular evening, she was tired and grumpy and perhaps given to a bit of laziness. She wanted my help. Now, I didn’t take a lot of advanced math courses in college because that wasn’t what interested me, but I’m good at the basics, can do a lot of problems in my head, and am a good estimator.

Mary Ellen’s second-grade work wasn’t difficult—two digit addition and subtraction. It took a long time, and her approach baffled me. I wrote her teacher and asked for a short course in how they were being taught so I could be more helpful. She said they work off doubles, fives, and tens. That seemed terribly inefficient to me.

Texas has not adopted Common Core Curriculum, but forty-five states have, so I searched the internet to find out exactly what Common Core math is. “Exactly” turned out to be elusive. I did find this answer at www.reference.com:“Common Core Math is a program that focuses on problem-solving, analytical and critical-thinking skills. The program promises to prepare students for college courses at the freshman level, workforce training classes and entry-level careers.” A worthy goal. Why did I think I’d been prepared?

I then looked at the second-grade standards and found 269 specific skills the students are expected to master including this one. “Write addition sentences for arrays: sums to 25.” I had to look up array as a math term. It is a set of numbers or objects that follow a specific pattern.

The Texas standards contain this expectation: recall basic facts to add and subtract within 20 with automaticity. Automaticity? Sounds like memorizing tables to me, so why don’t they do it?

I am beyond grateful that Mary Ellen likes math and rarely needs my assistance.

Heroes and Villains


Our children have role models all around them—good ones and bad ones. So, how do we be sure they internalized those behaviors exhibited by the good ones? Here are my thoughts on the subject.
Start with ourselves. We set the tone, the rules in the house, the expectations. We model the behavior they will mimic when responding to a rude person, a thorny situation, a compliment. If you don’t believe that, think of the last time you said, “I sound just like my mother.”
To do an adequate job of defining the models we want our children to follow, we have to be clear about our own values. If you are a religious person, try to state the primary values of your faith in terms a child can understand. This isn’t an attempt to convert anyone to my way of thinking on the subject, but as Unitarians we teach its seven principles to Mary Ellen. The children’s version, which they sing, is straightforward and simple. It contains values common to many faiths, and I present it here as one option.
• Each person is important.
• Be kind in all you do.
• Learn together.
• Search for what is true.
• All people need a voice.
• Be fair and peaceful too.
• Care for all the earth.

We have the obligation to set boundaries on media and electronic games—an issue I am coping with because I know so little about the current game apps. My jobs are to learn and to pay attention. I am distressed that so many of the games involve killing and being killed.

So what do we do if our child is watching, playing, observing behavior of which we disapprove? I remember when my son was about six, he loved the cartoon Speed Racer, which I knew he saw at his friend’s. So, knowing he would see it even if it was forbidden at our house, I watched it with him. I expressed dismay at the hero’s goal of killing an opponent. My son’s response was, “It’s okay. He’s the bad guy.” Not the value I wanted him to have, but it let me know his thinking and opened dialogue.

There are so many opportunities for children to observe bad models, it is extremely important to know what they see, what they play, who their friends are, and to point out those behaviors we don’t like. Of course, we constantly need to reinforce our own values by modeling. And, as always, keeping open the lines of communication is critical.

One last thought. Our children are often with us because of inappropriate behavior by their parents. When questions are asked, it’s time to be honest and not blaming. An example might be, “Daddy used illegal drugs. They have hurt him, so he can’t take care of you. And you are both sad about that. That’s why I want you to only use good medicine and only when you are sick.”

Contact With Parents

Whether or not to allow parents access to their children is a tricky issue, partly because each situation is different and partly because much of that decision is subjective. First let’s talk about the extremes. They are the easiest.
Parents who are known to abuse drugs or alcohol or who are physically or emotionally abusive should not be allow unsupervised access to their children.

Parents who have always been conscientious but who cannot care for their child because of job loss or health, for example, should be allowed to see the children when it is convenient and to the extent that it doesn’t make the child feel pulled in two directions. You can facilitate that by making the child aware that your relationship with the parents is a positive one.

If visitation is outlined by court order, follow it barring something negative not foreseen by the judge.

That leaves a whole range of possibilities. Chances are good that you and the child’s parents don’t parent alike. “But Daddy lets me,” is a good opportunity to remind the child (as well as yourself) that we all answer to different bosses. Teachers, scout leaders, coaches, church leaders all have different expectations. In your home, you’re the boss.

It is possible the child will return spoiled, mouthy, or angry. However, it seems to me that if the child’s behavior returns to your expectations shortly after coming home, there isn’t much cause for concern. If, however, you get indications that the parents are making the child feel guilty, or are undermining you, or that the visits trigger negative memories—whether or not the child is consciously aware of it—visitation might need to be shortened or supervised. I suggest you always ask open-ended questions when the child returns. Some examples might be: what did you do; who else did you see; how are you feeling. Then listen. Ask follow-up questions. If the child seems upset, expresses fear, or has nightmares ask questions—then listen.

There have been times when I wasn’t sure if Mary Ellen really was afraid, for example, or was manipulating because she wanted to put off going to sleep. I asked her school counselor how I could tell. She said, “Trust your gut.” My gut doesn’t always know the answer, but it’s the best barometer I have.

If these issues go unresolved for any length of time or get worse, I suggest seeking professional help. Your school counselor is a start. If the issues are beyond the scope of her job description, she can likely make a referral. Some mental health professionals take Medicaid.

What if the parent is in jail? Here’s my gut talking again. You and the child need to be realistic about the situation. Seeing the parent at least once would make the situation clear to the child. And he deserves an explanation as to why mommy or daddy is there. It should be factual—neither blaming nor excusing. The child needs to know there are consequences for breaking the law.

This is a thorny issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add information.

On Staying Healthy

sick-dog-large
One of the first things you hear when you become a custodial grandparent is “take care of your health.” When you are seventy and the child is five, the reasons are obvious. There are numerous websites with advice on how to do that. You can find what foods to eat, how much sleep to get, and which exercises are the most productive.

I have no intention of competing with the advice doctors give on how to take of your body. Here are a few practical ideas from this old, busy person that work for me.

Continue Doing Something You Love
I’ve cut out many activities since Mary Ellen came to live with us. I did that because she needed a lot of love and attention. But the one thing I told my husband I refused to give up was my writing. I write in the mornings when she is at school and have published my first novel. Being able to hang on to my dream of getting that book, which I had worked on for years, published kept the anger at bay. Yes, I still get angry occasionally, not at Mary Ellen, but at the fact that our retirement isn’t what we envisioned and saved for. I forgive myself and remember how much joy she brings to our lives.

Spend Time With Friends Every Week
Baby sitters are expensive, so my husband and I rarely go out together in the evenings. However, I manage an evening book club and a happy hour with the girls once a month. I attend Sunday services regularly, and we all, including Mary Ellen, join friends for lunch afterwards. And the weekends she spends with her parents give us the opportunity to rest or have a date. I have lunch occasionally with a couple of special friends, people I can vent with or just “catch up.” I have no concern about the conversations going any farther and know I will get honest, thoughtful responses to questions. Of course, communication with my spouse is more important than ever, especially since we’ve never reared a child together before.

Minimize The Stress
This is critical. When my sleep gets interrupted several times a night or I find myself staring at the computer screen unable to type a sentence, I know too much stress is affecting me. Here are some actions I have found useful in getting me back on track.
*Establish a routine; *Get organized; *Utilize premade dinners once or twice a week; *Plan meals a week at a time. *Keep the house clean. I don’t mean spotless, and most kids can help some. But filth breads depression.

We try to teach Mary Ellen good habits. In retirement, mine had become a bit lax. It was time to remember how to stuff too many things into too little time. You know how to do it because you’ve done it. I realize many of you are not retired, and this responsibility is one more in an already packed schedule. *Prioritize and eliminate!

*Carve out time each day for your spouse, if you have one–for yourself, if you don’t. Having a set bedtime for your grandchild helps here.

*Exercise. I’m not an exercise person, and I feel guilty every time I hear somebody say it’s the best way to keep your heart and brain healthy. But I believe it. My dad played tennis three times a week until he was ninety-four and lived to 102 still thinking clearly. So, how can I follow the advice and not spend too much time or thought on it? I walk—fifteen minutes in a hilly area. It works! I have more energy and ability to concentrate even after that minimal amount. I tell myself that eventually it will be thirty minutes and I’ll be jogging. Don’t hold your breath.

**And a hot bubble bath with a glass of wine never hurts.