It is devastating for a family to learn that their child has a disability. Sometimes families know before their child is even born. Other times, as is the case with autism spectrum disorder, a family may not learn of it until their little one is two or three years old.
Regardless of how or when it is discovered, parents go through stages of grief. For a grandparent, this is twofold. They are watching their child in pain, while also watching their grandchild struggle. And feeling helpless in the process.
I have worked for the past 20+ years with children with varying special needs along with their families. These four takeaways have proven consistently to be true through the years and across families:
Babysit Whenever Possible
This may seem like a no brainer, but it has to be said: If you can babysit, do it. The divorce rates among parents who have kids with special needs, depending on the type of disability, can go to as high as 85%.
Giving these parents time to get away for a dinner date or an overnight breather now and again is invaluable. Be available as much as you are able and willing to pitch in and lend a hand. Often, grandparents are the only people with whom parents feel comfortable leaving their special needs kiddos.
It takes a village for all families, but these families need their village around them more than most.
As soon as they learn that their grandchild has a disability, most grandparents begin to dive in and do their research. We all want to learn as much as we can when we realize there is a medical issue of some sort. And the Internet is chock full of information, as we know.
Dive away, but remember that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We need to listen twice as much as we speak – to what our grandchild’s parents are saying and what they want. We’ve got life experience behind us, yes. But this child is their child.
Our role as grandparents ALWAYS is to support what the parents decide to do – in terms of discipline, celebrations, traditions, and, in this case, how they want to address the needs of their child. Obviously, if they are doing harm, a grandparent needs to intervene, but this is the exception.
We need to respect our children and their decisions regarding their children. We raised them. We have to trust that they will do what is best. We may not always agree, but we don’t have to.
Don’t Downplay It
With some disabilities, it’s impossible to deny or downplay the issue. Conditions like cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down’s syndrome, etc. have physical manifestations of the disability that can preclude denial or downplaying.
But with conditions such as autism, there are no physical symptoms, and the other symptoms are often pushed under the rug by well-meaning family members.
Often, a parent will express concern over some aspect of their child’s development. They might say, “I’m worried because Johnny isn’t saying anything and all the other children in his playgroup are saying 50+ words!”
A well-meaning grandparent might say something such as, “Oh, he’s a boy… they’re slower to talk,” or “Give him/her time. He/she is young yet.”
These statements come from a place of love. We don’t want to believe something might actually be wrong. We also always want to ease the minds of our adult children because we don’t like to see them suffer.
But this goes back to simply listening and affirming. If it was a false alarm, that’s awesome. Either way, you’ve shown your children that you are there to support them in this journey that is parenthood.
If you are able, help your children financially. It doesn’t matter the disability – any disability is going to be costly. So, if there is any way that you can help your children to offset some of this, do it.
If there was college fund money that you had put aside, use it now instead. In some cases, this can give that little one the start they need to get on the right track.
Watching children and grandchildren try to navigate this different kind of life is extremely difficult for grandparents. We feel helpless and want to “fix” the situation.
We can’t fix everything for our children, no matter how much we would like to, but if we do have a grandchild with a disability these steps can help lighten the load a bit.
It really takes a village.
Do you have a grandchild with a disability? How often do you help babysit them? What other assistance can you offer? Do you have any tips for grandparents in a similar situation? Please share with our community.