Twenty weeks along in her pregnancy, Brooke Cole discovered her baby Maggie had spina bifida. Immediately after Maggie’s birth, the fragile newborn was rushed into surgery and spent the next 18 days in the hospital undergoing unexpected treatments. Like clockwork every morning, Brooke’s parents, Melita and Brant Bryan, were there for the 7am doctor rounds. And, when the doctor returned at 12noon, there they were again — solid and caring.
Of the 11 million grandparents nationwide who have full- or part-time care of their grandchildren, 12% to 15% have a grandchild with a special need, according to Charlotte E. Thompson, author of Grandparenting a Child with Special Needs.
A grandparent’s role
Grandparents aren’t immune to the stages parents deal with — shock and disbelief, blame and disappointment, sadness and depression, acceptance, reality and action, according to Arthur Kornhaber, author of The Grandparents’ Guide. Yet grandparents who move quickly (and privately) beyond the first few stages toward accepting and dealing with their grandchild’s diagnosis can provide significant support for families with new special needs.
Debra Collins and her husband, Rusty, were there when their granddaughter, Jordan, was born. Debra remembers peering at Jordan through the nursery window, thinking something was wrong. The diagnosis: Down syndrome.
Once she understood Jordan wasn’t in danger, the grandmother’s immediate response was relief. “I knew [Jordan] was going to have some problems with her health, but we could handle that,” she says. Collins knew she had to be strong to help her daughter.
The role of a grandparent is support, says counselor Jennifer Leister. The Collins and the Bryan families understand that the number one “special need” of any child is unconditional love.
When parents have their hands full, one-on-one grandparent time with the child can make the difference in acquiring skills. For example, for kids with autism, “helping them find that special area of interest makes you feel good and realize you’re really making a contribution,” notes Thompson.
Get them involved
The more grandparents know about the child’s diagnosis, the more they’ll be inclined to help. “Let them read your books. Let them learn from the experts the parents are learning from and then let them learn how to assist,” suggests Leister.
Grandparents can furnish support at a doctor’s visit. They can help filter out the emotional noise parents may experience, suggests Leister. It’s not uncommon for them to offer respite to parents.
If grandparents express nervousness at caring for the child alone, ask a trusted caregiver or friend to stay with them during the first couple of visits.
If they don’t participate
Not all grandparents are willing or able to pitch in. It’s not productive to force a relationship. There are, however, some things you can do to bolster the rapport. The key is communication and understanding, says Leister. Explain what you need and be willing to slowly increase grandparents’ involvement.
When grandparents are willing to help, start by asking that they take any of your children for special one-on-one time, says therapist Larry Watson, PhD. “That fosters really special memories for the kids that they carry through their lives.”
Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer.