Grand Families LogoThis article was written by Cookie Oakley, LCSW. She is a family counselor and one of the co-founders of Grand Families. 

As a counselor I have worked with many grandparents that are raising their grandchildren.  There are many challenges for grandparents becoming parents to their grandchildren. One of the most challenging problems is enforcing healthy boundaries with their adult children and parents of the grandchildren.  Substance abuse is the most common reason grandparents have custody of their grandchildren.  Parents who have lost custody of their children have not become responsible adults.  Therefore, they have irresponsible behaviors and are not a healthy influence for their children.   In fact, they often continue to cause additional problems for the grandparents that are trying to provide for their grandchildren.

The grandparents who are parenting their children’s children must provide healthy parenting so these children can grow up learning healthy life skills in order to function well in school and social life.  The issue of when and where parents can visit their children is most often decided by Child Protective Services or Juvenile Court.  Child Protective Services must have Juvenile Court approve all custody arrangements for children who are removed from their parents.  Often these visitations are “supervised.”  Depending on the severity of the neglect or abuse, the court determines where and how often visitation can occur.  Many grandparents struggle with enforcing these visitation arrangements.  The primary reason for the struggle is because of their emotional attachment to their adult child and “give in” to the parent or grandchildren wishes of bending the rules for visitation.  What most grandparents don’t realize is that Child Protective Services can remove the children from the grandparents’ custody if the visitation rules are broken.

What are healthy boundaries?   All family dynamics are totally different, therefore the grandparents must only allow responsible parents to visit their children.  Irresponsible parents can make false promises to the children causing more emotional harm in addition to what has already occurred.  Irresponsible parents can influence the children which can encourage defiant and other difficult behaviors by the children.  The grandparents then have additional struggles trying to parent an unruly, defiant, or difficult child.  The grandparents’ primary responsibility is to protect and provide for the children, and teach the children healthy and appropriate behaviors.

The most common emotional distress for the children is feeling rejected and missing their parents. They mostly do not understand their parents’ irresponsible adult behaviors that has required this change in living arrangements.  These emotional struggles for the children make it more difficult for the grandparents to teach and enforce the required rules they must learn, and manage the situation.  My recommendations for the grandparents are to enforce strict boundaries with the adult parents.  The parents must follow certain guidelines and respect the boundaries set by the grandparents.  Juvenile Court or a community facility that host supervised visitation monitor the parents’ behavior, and if the parents are acting inappropriately, the visitation is terminated.  This is a clear message to anyone who has temporary custody of children that they must enforce the same guidelines and boundaries.

When I counsel with children, I explain on their age-appropriate level how and why the change has occurred, and that their parents are struggling with becoming responsible adults.  Children adjust much better when they are given enough explanation to prevent worrying or feeling rejected.  They often do not understand the substance abuse life style, unless they are teenagers and have been exposed to this lifestyle.  Even then they do not want to believe the actual facts.

The purpose of healthy boundaries is to allow only responsible adults to have visitation with their children.  If they are continuing to live the substance abuse life style and have chosen not to put their life back together as responsible parents, they should not be allowed to visit the children.  The primary reason is the parent will continue the irresponsible and unhealthy interaction with the children and this irresponsible behavior causes emotional harm to the child.  Neither should the irresponsible parent be allowed to instruct the grandparent on how to parent their child in any manner.  The grandparents must eliminate all contact with the irresponsible parent if necessary.  Terminating visitation may seem harsh but it is simply tough love.  They must come to realize how their behavior is harmful to their children.  I counsel with so many grandparent families that are struggling with this situation.  The adult child will often try to manipulate the grandparent because manipulation has become a way of life for them, especially if they are substance abusers.

Grandparents who are raising grandchildren absolutely must create a positive, healthy, low-stress living environment because it is the best for all involved.  Children feel more loved and safe in a low-stress home.  Grandparents are often overwhelmed with the parenting responsibilities so they have no time or energy for additional stress.  And the children are much easier to manage without the irresponsible parents confusing them.

Enjoy your grandchildren by creating a low-stress and happy living environment.