There’s a sense of magic that occurs when a grandmother snuggles next to her grandchild and reads a book or a grandfather tells his grandchildren the stories of his own youth. While the relationship between a child and his grandparents usually develops naturally, that relationship might take some extra work and fine-tuning if your child has a disability.
Our oldest child developed a relationship with her grandparents effortlessly. Like many children, by the age of twelve months she had mastered a repertoire of animal sounds that she was willing to perform endlessly on command. “What does the cow say?” a doting grandparent might ask, kneeling down at her level, eyes glittering with anticipation. And our small daughter would make the moo sound, clapping her hands to congratulate herself. A fast and eager talker, by the age of 2 she could easily engage them in conversations.
When relatives learned that our second child had been born with medical problems and would be disabled, they were more reluctant to approach her. It was clear that they loved her as much as our older child, but they were less sure how to interact with her.
I’ve found through discussions with other moms of disabled children that this is a common problem. As much as grandparents might want to be involved with a disabled child, it can be hard for them to take the first steps. They might be nervous about holding a child with a physical disability, or, if the child is nonverbal, they might not know how to communicate with him. While grandparents or other relations might normally enjoy the opportunity to spend time alone with a grandchild, they could feel reluctant if they aren’t confident they’ll know how to care for the child.
I found with our second child that I had to take a much larger and more conscious role in helping to forge a relationship with her grandparents. Because she was experiencing seizures, her grandparents were nervous about holding her or being left with her. As a result, I usually stayed in the room with them or made sure I was within hearing in case they had a concern. Unlike our first child, the second one was mostly nonverbal in the earlier years of life. Fortunately, she liked being read to, an activity I could suggest to grandparents who puzzled over what they could do with her.
While the relationship took several years of careful negotiating to establish, it was well worth the time spent. Today, our daughter is a stronger young person for having had a close relationship with her grandparents.
Below are some tips for helping to build those relationships:
- Provide grandparents with information on the child’s disability through magazine articles, books or links to sites like Psych Central. Learning about a disability helps other family members learn how to relate to the child as an individual.
- Provide information that explains behavior, if the child’s disability makes him or her act out. It is often easier for grandparents to understand and accept a child’s behavior if they read explanations from an authority. This also keeps the parent from having to explain or be put on the defensive.
- Suggest ways for the child to interact with grandparents. Identify mutually enjoyable activities. If you know that certain activities are difficult for your child, steer away from them. For example, if your child does better one-on-one in a quieter setting, pick a simple activity like working on a puzzle together in a quiet room.
- Try to gauge the comfort zone of both the child and the grandparent. Offer to stay in the room if either seems nervous about being left alone together, or stay nearby where you can hear if difficulties arise. Assure the grandparents that you know the child needs a relationship with them and you want to help foster it.
- Finally, step out of the way as the relationship progresses. As the child and the grandparent become more comfortable with each other, allow the relationship to happen, accepting that they will have to negotiate glitches on their own. No relationship is without its difficulties, and as parents, we can’t always provide perfect situations. When you step back, do it with the acknowledgement that you’ve done your best.
Sometimes it’s the most unlikely moment that ends up offering the perfect opportunity for a child and his or her grandparent to bond. The one I witnessed occurred several years ago at a large holiday gathering, fraught with the kind of excitement and activity that used to send our disabled child over the edge. She became easily overstimulated and could fall apart in those moments, crying or acting out.
On this particular occasion, she became upset and fled to an upstairs bedroom at the far end of her grandparents’ house. After her explosive exit, the kitchen was full of the silent dismay of extended family as I tried to explain what had happened.
The surprise came minutes later when I found her upstairs. My father was sitting on the bed next to her. When they both glanced up as I walked in, it was obvious I had interrupted something. “I know just how she feels,” my father told me. “I get that sense of being overwhelmed too when there’s so much noise. I can’t even hear myself think.”
I turned around and crept out, leaving the two of them alone, sensing that what they had to offer to each other in that moment was both private and precious. While it felt strange to have become the intruder, it was also delightful. Magic moments like that one can happen with any child and a grandparent, even a disabled child. And when those moments do occur for the child with a disability, they are all the more powerful.