(Crystal A. Proxmire, 4/19/2011)
The grandmothers who met on April 11, 2011to hear from Dr. Donald Deering may not fit into the stereotypical role of grandparent, but their stories of frustration (and ultimately of love) are more common than people might think. Throughout Oakland County there are grandparents who have taken on responsibility of raising their grandchildren.
So many, in fact, that OLHSA (Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency) has organized the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group. The group started in 2008 with a primary focus on social connection and support for grandparents who are the primary caregiver for young people. They’ve gone on excursions like to the park and the zoo. But now they are adding an educational element to the group, by hosting forums and bringing in guest speakers.
Dr. Deering is a Clinical Psychologist and Behavior Modification Specialist with Oakland Psychiatric Associates, affiliated with St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Deering presented “Understanding Teenage Adolescent Behaviors,” and took time to give troubled care-givers advice for their specific situations.
The stories shared by women in the audience were variations on a common theme – neglect on the part of parents who have left youngsters in the older generation’s hands. “I have a 16 year old grandson. He and his mom have moved in with me because they lost everything in a fire,” said one woman. “The son is acting up. His mother is an alcoholic. We don’t know what to do.”
Another aging woman is caring for four children. “We have a 7 year old, a 9 year old, a 10 year old and a 13 year old, who we’ve had for seven years legal custody because of their mother’s substance abuse. I always wonder what is in their mind when they know their parents kicked them to the curb and chose drugs over them,” she said.
And another came to the workshop with worries about letting the mother visit the grandchildren. “My daughter is bipolar and the worst of everything that comes with it. When she’s manic she’s poking and pushing to see the kids. …She babies the kids when she does come around, and the kids cry and act up when she leaves. …It makes everything unsettled,” she said.
“Perspective is everything,” he said. “The best thing you can do with a child, or anyone, is to try and look at the world through their eyes. It’s a lot easier to understand what they see, than to try and get them to understand what you do.” Deering explained that teenagers, by nature, are very ego centric. “They think the world revolves around them. Until you’re dealing with an adult then you’re not dealing with a rational person. …You’re bashing your head against the wall trying to get them to understand, when they can’t.”
Fundamentally human beings are trying to get their needs met. “Children and young adults do not have these skills,” Deering said. “When you’re going back to your reality, you’ll be able to pull back and say ‘What am I seeing? Is this a child who just doesn’t know how to have their needs met?”
He said that children crave things that produce a feeling of security, and that having firm boundaries is one way that kids can feel protected. It’s their job to grow and push boundaries, and even though they may not seem to like it, it’s what they need in order to gain confidence and a feeling of safety. “All the things you do, you do for a reason,” Deering said. “They present a sense of control and order in our lives. …We need four things: boundaries, predictability, structure and consistency.”
That advice tied into the experience of the woman whose daughter only comes around sporadically to see the children. Deering was firm in his suggestion that guardians protect developing children from instability. “Before we get to the point that we talk about parents and visitation, we need to know if they can understand and meet those basic needs for the children,” he said. “If they have no desire to have structure in their lives, then they are only going to be toxic to the children. Parents are very influential on a child. If mom or dad comes in and introduces unstructured behavior, the child quickly picks it up.”
He suggested that until parents can demonstrate a basic level of stability, they can write letters to the children. This way they can vent their own needs to communicate with the child, but so that the caregiver can filter that attention in such a way that it won’t create unrest in the child’s routines. Parents who can come routinely and behave in a structured way can be good influences on their children, and Deering said that caregivers should focus on the present and the future in their relationships with the struggling parents. “Tell parents ‘I want you to be a part of the child’s life, but I need these things from you…”
“Be careful about what you say about the parents around the children because it can really affect them,” he added. “Try to find positive things to say about their parents even if they aren’t around.”
Deering also gave suggestions for establishing boundaries in the home. He said that having a schedule and giving kids a visual aid to go along with it can help them feel secure. He also said that house rules are a great way to create order. He suggested coming up with the minimum requirements you would expect from someone living in your home, such as no hitting, no raising your voice, no stealing etc. Then he suggests sitting down with everyone in the house and discussing rules and consequences. Letting the child have a say in the punishment system gives it more validity in their mind, and kids are likely to pick punishments that are on the harsh side. The key, Deering said, is to make punishments that are small and incremental. Kids make a lot of mistakes just because they’re young and not so bright. They need room to make those mistakes without being overwhelmed with punishment.
He gave the example of taking ten minutes of video game time away from a child that does something disrespectful. That way they are losing out on something they care about, but they still have other options to make the rest of the day count.
One problem families have with rule-making is that they aren’t clear enough. “You can say ‘don’t disrespect me,’ but what does that really mean to a child? You need to give them concrete rules…. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t raise your hand. Don’t roll your eyes. Etc.”
Apart from the rules and structure, there is one thing that caregivers in any situation can do to help children grow up with positive life skills, and that is to be a good example. “Take care of yourself and show that young person how you do it. …They say that in the unlikely event that a plane goes down, they tell you to put on your oxygen first because you can’t help anyone if you can’t help yourself first.”
The OLHSA Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group is organized by Bette Thomas out of the agency’s Pontiac office, though they hold events and meet ups throughout Oakland County. The April 11 presentation brought over twenty struggling seniors together at the Kulick Community Center. Thomas provided more resources for seniors and in particular Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. For those who would like to learn more about the OLHSA GRG group or any of their other programs/resources contact Bette Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (248)396-8236.