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Jun 02, 2017

Q&A with Missy Parker-Miller, Licensing and Recruitment Specialist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Madison Heights

Grandparents can play an important role for both a child in foster care and for you as foster parents. It can make such a difference to know your parents are on board. As we train foster parents, we encourage them to speak with their immediate and extended family members and ask for their involvement and support—you’re going to need it.

What’s the most common role for grandparents in a foster family?

In most foster families, extended family members are a key part of the support network, often watching the children as substitute caregivers. Some foster families only feel comfortable leaving children with grandparents. The grandparents’ home is usually a place where the children feel comfortable, and most foster parents have talked with extended family members in-depth about early childhood trauma and strategies to deal with difficult behaviors.

Talking with grandparents about trauma is important, but it’s essential to do so in a balanced way. Be careful about how you talk with your parents about a child’s difficult, fear-based behaviors. If you call your mother to vent and share only negative stories about “the crazy things this child is doing,” your mother may become reluctant to visit or engage with the child. Talk with your family members about how trauma affects children and invite them to join you for training.

What kind of training would be beneficial for grandparents?  

I recommend any of Bethany’s training on trauma-informed parenting. If grandparents are unable to attend training in person, they can go online and watch a variety of videos by Dr. Karyn Purvis to better understand why children who have experienced trauma often have difficult behaviors. Responding to those behaviors by yelling or punishing isn’t helpful, for the grandparent or the child. The training can teach coping skills such as speaking to the child in a calm voice at their eye level.

It’s important for grandparents to understand that parenting strategies that worked with their children likely won’t work with children in foster care. Appropriate training can provide new, more effective tools. Most grandparents love children and enjoyed raising their own children. But parenting children who have experienced trauma requires a different approach. That’s why Bethany equip parents and caregivers with training to help children heal—grandparents can play an important role in that.

How can grandparents build rapport with a child in foster care?

They can do the same things grandparents naturally do: visit the child, bring treats, play games, and read stories. Rapport is built through ongoing interactions they have with the child. In most foster families I know, the grandparents are supportive, loving, and nurturing, and they often provide care for the child as an extension of the foster family.

What should a child in foster care call grandparents?

Most of the families I work with come up with a name for the child to call the grandparents, usually something that includes the grandparent’s first name like “Nana Linda” or “Papa Jim.” Don’t complicate things if the child has biological grandparents they call “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” You can ask an older child to suggest a name they’d like to use if they already have a biological “Nana.”

How can grandparents make the transition easier when their adult children become foster parents?

It can be overwhelming when new foster parents welcome a child into their home and take on new responsibilities. It is so helpful when grandparents can provide even small acts of service for the family—coming over to clean or preparing meals. Providing transportation can also be a big time saver as foster families often have weekly appointments for parent visits, therapy, or tutoring.

How can grandparents make the transition easier for the child?

Give the immediate family some time to connect first. Let the child “meet” the grandparents first through photos and stories so they aren’t meeting too many new people all at once. When the time is right, plan a fun, relaxing time to introduce the child to the grandparents. Perhaps the grandparents can prepare the child’s favorite meal or make the child’s favorite dessert. This will help open the door to a positive relationship.

What resources do you recommend for grandparents?

Fostering will stretch you beyond your comfort zone, but that’s how the Lord grows us. He can do the same with your parents, expanding their hearts for children they grow to love and embrace into the family.

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