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Grandparenting Special Needs Children

Coping With Challenges Is a Family Affair


grandparenting special needs children
Photo George Doyle / Getty

Some children are clearly special needs children from their birth; sometimes their condition was known before birth. Other conditions only manifest themselves as the child becomes older. In both cases, grandparents face the challenge of coming to terms with the fact that their loved and longed-for grandchild has special needs.

Arthur Kornhaber, the author of The Grandparents’ Guide, details the following stages in dealing with a special needs child: Shock and disbelief; blame and disappointment, sadness and depression; acceptance; reality; and action. For the sake of the family, the first three stages need to be as private and as brief as possible. As soon as possible, grandparents need to move on to accepting and dealing with their grandchild’s situation.

Here are some guidelines to help you in dealing with a special needs grandchild:

  • Follow your children’s lead. The advent of a special needs child requires some adjustment on everyone’s part. Grandparents should follow the lead of the child’s parents. If the parents are open and sharing about their situation, the grandparents can be also. If the parents are still suffering through the shame and guilt phase, they may prefer that the grandparents keep their situation somewhat private for the time being.
  • Inform yourself. Find out everything that you can about your grandchild’s condition. Use the Internet, by all means, but stick to sites that are clearly authoritative. Don’t get caught up in a lot of personal accounts and blogs; you don’t need that kind of personal narrative at this point. Do check the library or bookstore also. Grandparenting a Child With Special Needs is one title to consider.
  • Make learning about your grandchild’s condition a family affair. If feasible, attend a conference with other members of your family. Or volunteer to babysit so that other members of the family can attend. However you end up working it out, the message is that the whole family is in this situation together.
  • Don't place blame. Never suggest that something that the parents did or did not do might have caused the situation. The parents have already had these thoughts and do not need any additional guilt. If the mother used alcohol or abused drugs during her pregnancy, someone needs to intervene before her next pregnancy. In other cases, do not speculate about what might have caused your grandchild’s condition. You will only cause pain.
  • Spend time with your grandchild. You may have some hesitancy about caring for and interacting with a special needs child, but the best remedy for that is to jump right in. Follow all instructions that are given by the child’s parents or doctors, but don’t be intimidated. Your special needs child needs you and the love you have to offer.
  • Relieve the parents whenever possible. Once you have gotten to know your grandchild, you can offer the parents a respite from their duties. Try to get them to spend some time together. A special needs child benefits most from two parents who are committed to the marriage and to the child.
  • Be more understanding about other's behavior. Realize that the stresses of dealing with a special needs child may cause family members to be more volatile or more sensitive than they would otherwise be. Cut them some slack.
  • Take care of you. Letting yourself become physically rundown or emotionally strung-out won’t help anyone. Let the housework go or opt out of volunteer work, but don’t give up those activities that keep you strong and well-balanced. If you have a fitness regimen, be certain to keep up the routine. You will need to be at the top of your form to meet the challenges ahead. If you are a sociable person, keep up your contacts with your friends. They will keep you from obsessing over your grandchild’s condition.
  • Be smart with financial assistance. If you have a special needs grandchild who will qualify for disability when he or she turns 18, you must be careful not to do anything to disqualify your grandchild. A disabled person can receive Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid upon turning 18, but currently cannot have more than $2,000 in assets. Special needs trusts can be set up that do not disqualify the grandchild from governmental assistance. The bottom line is, if you have the ability to financially assist your special needs grandchild, be sure to consult an attorney who specializes in disability law before you actually give away any of your money.
  • Remember that the key word is special. The challenges may be especially difficult, but many grandparents who have experienced grandparenting a special needs grandchild report that the rewards are truly special.
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