Raising Grandkids: What to Do When the Honeymoon Ends

by James Lehman, MSW
Raising Grandkids: What to Do When the Honeymoon Ends

Jan is a sixty-five-year-old grandmother who was given custody of her two grandsons, aged 8 and 15, after her daughter was jailed for drug abuse. “At first, it was a joy to have them in our house,” said Jan, whose grandchildren came to live with her one year ago. “They seemed so happy to be here. But then the real problems started. Now, my older grandson either just plain ignores me or he talks back—I don’t know which is worse. And the younger one is starting to follow suit. I’m starting to wonder where we went wrong.”

Raising Grandkids: When the Honeymoon is Over

Like Jan, often when you first take your grandchild in, there’s a honeymoon period where the change of environment and absence of stress from the old living situation gives your grandchild the chance to show his or her best side, which is great. Sadly, all too often the honeymoon ends. And the problematic behaviors emerge—sometimes slowly, sometimes with great rapidity. Either way, it knocks the family off balance. The honeymoon should be expected, but grandparents should not be deceived into thinking that a magic solution to the family’s problems has occurred by having the grandchildren come live with them. If the honeymoon never ends and your grandchild always does great, that’s beautiful.  But sometimes these kids are initially being manipulative, and are using their skills to try to "con" their grandparents. It’s my experience that this is a very common thing for kids to do. So if the period of calm ends and the disruptive behavior emerges, I tell grandparents “Don’t blame yourself. This is just the end of the honeymoon. And you’re starting to see the child in the light of his true problems.”

If You’re Helping to Raise Your Grandchildren While Their Parents are Working

Many grandparents are watching their grandkids in the daytime while a single parent or even both parents are working. So in effect, those kids have two sets of parents and two parenting styles to cope with, and those styles may not always be in sync.

If the picture is that there’s a working single parent and that you are raising the child during the work hours, it’s very important that you and the child’s parents sit down and come to a common understanding of how you’re going to manage behavior, what the limits are, and the range of consequences that are appropriate. New situations will present themselves every day, and you may get frustrated from time to time and feel like you’re going back to the drawing board, but stick with it—it’s very important that all the adults in the child’s life are on the same page.

The difficulty here is that grandparents don’t like to be told how to raise their grandkids, thinking that they’ve raised their own children and know how to do it just fine. And parents don’t want their kids to be raised outside of their own philosophy. This can become a point of conflict between grandparents and their children. Communication and a willingness to look and learn by both parties will prevent this problem from becoming a crisis.

When You Have Custody of Your Grandchildren Because of Parental Addiction, Abandonment or Neglect

Children who are living with their grandparents because of parental addiction, neglect or abandonment bring a whole set of other problems to deal with. These kids are already programmed to deal with the negative environment they came from, and may not be ready to move into a family situation where there are boundaries and rules. What grandparents have to remember is, when your grandchildren move in with you, you are their new family.

In my private practice, I knew many grandparents who raised their grandchildren because of parental neglect, abandonment, incarceration or substance abuse. Frankly, these grandparents had their hands full. Often their grandkids came to them with a constellation of inappropriate behaviors already firmly in place. It was very hard for these grandparents to try to change that behavior or intervene in the child’s life.  And there are generational difficulties, as well as physical problems with caring for children when you’re older. Your energy levels and mental flexibility may not be what they were when you were parenting young children yourself.

If the picture is that the grandparents are raising the child because of parental neglect, abuse or abandonment, above all, the parents should not be allowed to undermine the authority or rules the grandparents have put in place. You should limit or forbid visits until the parent is willing to comply with that. That’s because the grandparents have now become the primary parents, and the birth parents have to take a secondary role. It’s all too easy for the secondary parents to judge grandparents and be critical of their efforts, because it helps the birth parent not look at his or her own irresponsibility and neglect. But this should not be tolerated, especially in front of the children. The grandparents and the birth parent have to communicate, share thoughts and ideas, and then come to some method of operating together.

I want to be clear: such meetings should not become a forum for birth parents to be abusive, oppositional or defiant to the grandparent. This is all too often the case. Grandparents should not accept blame from birth parents who have lost their ability to meet their own parenting responsibilities.

“You’re not my mom! I don’t have to listen to you!”

When your grandchild says, “You’re not my parent!” I think the best strategy here is to agree with the child.  You can say, “You’re right, I’m not your mom. But you live in my house now, and these are the rules in my house.” Do not condemn the mom or dad or get into a discussion about it. All you have to say is, “There are the rules here, and there will be consequences if you don’t follow them.”

When kids say “You’re not my mom or dad,” what they’re really trying to do is take the power away from you. Focus on what your role is: Caretaker. That means you should inform the child what the rules are in your house. The whole idea here is to avoid a power struggle. What your grandchild is doing is inviting you to a fight. And remember, you don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to. Avoid the power struggle, and calmly state what your role is and what the rules are. It’s very important to verbalize no judgments about the mother or father. Judgments will only lead to more anger and resentment, which will lead to more power struggles.

I want to add that I really admire and respect grandparents—or anyone who adopts or takes in a child who has behavioral problems. In my opinion, they’re amazing. But that doesn’t mean that you can do it alone. And just as parents need help, so do grandparents, and I urge you to get the help you need to successfully live with and raise these children.

For Grandparents whose Grandchildren are Being Physically Abusive

First of all, if your grandchild is being physically abusive to you, you should call the police. There’s no excuse for physical abuse. You did not work all your life to be abused physically in your later years. If you want to be a martyr and allow that, that’s your choice. But understand this: choosing to be a martyr doesn’t help the child. If you think you are doing it to help that child, what you need to understand is that the most important thing for that child is to have powerful limits set for them. And if they won’t accept the limits imposed by you, then you need to look outside the home for entities with more power, such as the police and the social service system. Often you’ll hear grandparents state that they don’t want to call the authorities because they’re afraid their grandchild will end up in group home or institution. My response is clear: if he’s physically hurting you, robbing you, or abusing you, maybe he needs to be in a group home or institution where the resources are available to teach him how to manage himself. 

I don’t say this to be harsh. I say it with complete empathy for your situation. The fact remains that kids who are physically abusive, steal, set fires, or destroy property often need more resources than the ordinary family has to offer. These behaviors should be taken very seriously indeed, because they can be precursors of much larger problems.

If You’re Considering Taking in a Grandchild, Ask Yourself: Are You Able to Manage a Child with Behavioral Problems?

In my experience, many of the grandparents I worked with were very committed to their grandchildren, but were in fact just plain tired. They had lived their lives, they had worked like dogs, they had raised their kids, and now when they were dealing with their own failing health and financial problems, they felt obligated to take on the burden of raising their grandchildren. While I respect the generosity of grandparents tremendously, I wouldn’t always advise people to try to manage a behaviorally disordered grandchild. Each case is different. Remember, if the kid is well-behaved and knows how to manage himself, accept authority and recognize limits, the grandparents can do fine. But behaviorally disordered children are not only draining, they require people who have acquired special techniques in order to manage them. 

Parenting Today Ain’t What it Used to Be: Get Help if You Need It

Many of the behaviors grandparents have to address today were not part of the youth culture 30 or 50 years ago: The blatant disrespect, the demand for autonomy, the open defiance to rules. These things were present, but not at the level of intensity they are today. Grandparents I met in my practice often reported to me how shocked and discouraged they where when their grandkids did not accept their authority or the limits they set.

My advice to grandparents in cases where inappropriate behaviors start to emerge is to get help. That help can be outside the home in a counselor’s office, or that help can be inside the home through a training program like The Total Transformation. If these children have behavior disorders, you’re going to see all that goes along with that: manipulative behavior, risk taking, rigidity, senseless defiance. Remember not to blame yourself if these behaviors emerge: grandparents need as much help as anybody else in dealing with these issues.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


My wife and I have been raising our 2 grand boys, ages 10 & 12 now for several years. It's been quite a challange for both of us as we are not getting any younger. What has helped immensely are the technics found within the Total Transformation Program. It has provided the tools needed to avoid the power struggles and to help the boys to respect our authority. We recommend this program to every parent but especially to grand parents who have taken on the challange of raising their grand kids. Sincerely, Ken & Debra G.

Comment By : kendeb84

Thank you so much for finally writing about this all too prevelant situation in todays world. It's helpful to know we are not the only ones out there raising grandchildren. Your right, we are mostly tired but wouldn't have it any other way. Knowing my granddaughter is in a stable, loving home with us is all worth it. Yes, there are times when it is so very challenging and frustrating, but the good times far outweight the bad. We hope and pray everyday for our own daughter to get her life back so she can be a part of this family again. Not only does her daughter need her, but we do too. Meanwhile, we will raise our 4 year old granddaughter the best we can. At first it was incredibly hard, the stress of everything, having a toddler in the house, worrying about our own daughters safety, etc. Now, 2 years later, we have come to accept the situation and try to make the best of it. No, it's not what we had planned, but it's what life has thrown our way. There are times when we ask ourselves when will this end, but we have come to accept it may never end. We enjoy our granddaughter so much and she keeps us young, no doubt. Right now it may be hard keeping up with a 4 year old but I'd rather be doing that than keeping up with a teenager. I really worry about those years and hope to God we can do a good job of teaching her good morales, good self-esteem and good decision-making skills. Thanks for all the great articles and ideas.

Comment By : Susan

Program, principles, case scenarios are all very helpful! Thank you

Comment By : Mom25

I really need HELP! I do not know what to do with my granddaughter who is 12 years old and draining the life out of me. She is angry, oppositional, defiant, non-cooperative. Does not do what I ask, ignores me, yells at me and treats me like dirt. I already have a health condition and it is draining me and more than I can deal with. Neither parent is in any condition to raise her. I do not know what to do.

Comment By : no name

Thanks for the article. I have been raising my Grandson since he was 3. He is now 14. There were many trying times because of behavior problems. His Grandpa died a few years ago and I did not think I could continue on alone. I got your Total Transformation program and implemented much of the program. He is a different kid and a joy to be around. He is great company. As a word of encouragement for anyone in this situation, it is a wonderful feeling to know you have made a positive impact on a child's life. Where would they be without you?

Comment By : Shirl49

I love your articles...behaviorally based, and succint. That is why I bought 3 or 4 copies of your Total Transformation Program and gave it to friends. They in turn have referred others to call you directly. I believe your program works.

Comment By : dmac

I am raising three grandson, ages 3, 5 and 8. The two oldest are ADHD, PTSD and the oldest suffers from high anxiety and depression. The second could possibly be bi-polar. I am divorced so I am on my own, I do have a full time Nanny because I have to work. It is hard, it is difficult, but I wouldnt change a thing. I adopted them last year so that they would be protected. Their mother is a co-alcoholic and drug addict. She has been in and out of jail over the last two years. Last year she had another son, who is with a very close family friend and she intends to adopt him. He will have the best of two worlds, knowing his siblings and his grandmother and have a family who loves him as will. A fourth was going to be simply impossible for me, but if she hadnt taken him, I would not have said no. I adore my boys, but I am always looking for things that will make out life together better. Consistency and love is so essential in their lives, but as they get older, I can foresee behavorial problems because of the abandonment issues and if your program works I am willing to try it.

Comment By : mrebaza

My husband and I took on the care of our daughter's 3 neglected grandsons when one was 14 months old and the twins were 12 weeks old. Even though our daughter pretended to be getting her life straigt, she had another son and we took him in when he was 2 years old. So, we have 4 boys, 8, 7, 7 and 5. Total Transformation, while mostly geared to older children provides the baseline that we always retreat to when we find ourselves in unknown behavior territory as James Lehman so expertly understands. Rearing one's grandchildren is a humbling experience. My old beliefs as a parent often don't apply or need to be tweaked considerably in order to be minimally effective as a grandparent. As old dogs, it is imperative to learn the new tricks and accept the thinking of the Lehman types who have done the work. Before opening up my mind to accept different parenting skills, I reminded myself of the rat in the maze, constantly going to the old workstation that did not provide any sustinance. Believe me, it is still a huge difficulty, however, with love, consistency and getting out of the emotional trap of over reacting, and thanks to the life saving newsletters that remind me of other people going through the same issues, we can and will do this, for better or for worse. AND, as grandparents, we do know that they will grow up. Thank you James Lehman!

Comment By : di

Thanks for this article. I have a tendency to think my grandson and my daughter's behavoir is my fault. I am raising my grandson due to my daughter's addiction. My daughter blames me for her grandson's defiant abusive behavoir. She came back into his life ten months ago. I feel she has disrespected my authority as her mother and now I feel like she disrepects my authority as the primary caretaker of her son. James as validated some of my feelings in this article. And yet, I am responsiable for my own healing. I have a hard time with the police-group home thing. I know it is not right that my grandson abuses me. And yet, I struggle with going that far. I myself have been subject to foster homes as a child and group home. Even though I know the circumstances were different...I know how scaring that experience was. I love my grandson and I want to do the "right" thing. This is a conflicting and challenging place to be in. I love my family and at the same time I need to make a shift. I am having a very hard time after having worked so much in creating a loving home and life for my grandson for the last four plus years. I so appreciate the support line....cause there are days I just don't feel like I can do this! But then...I know that this too shall pass. Blessings to all the grandparents out there that love their famalies.

Comment By : Lilliane

i am 65 and now have temporary custody of my two grand children while their mother is in jail for drugs. they both werw on probation for weed. the 16 year old boy is driving me crazy. He is defiant, won't pay attention to me at all. i love him and can't give up on him Im all he has. what can i do to help him and me get through this.

Comment By : joy

* Dear 'Joy': Your grandchildren are very lucky to have you to care for them. When there is a lot going on, it can feel overwhelming and paralyzing--not knowing where to start. Love for our children is necessary but not enough. Learning skills from James Lehman’s Total Transformation program will guide you. James wrote the Total Transformation program with defiant behaviors in mind. The first part of the lessons will help you focus on your interactions with your grandsons. This is important and lays the foundation for change. That foundation is a ‘new authority’ in yourself and a new ‘sense of accountability’ in your grandchildren. When the kids are defiant, you’ll learn when to say, “If you continue that behavior, there will be a consequence” then allow them their choice, and if they make the wrong choice, decide on an appropriate consequence and require them to have a conversation with you about choosing a better solution to their problem next time. This article has some additional ideas: Oppositional Defiant Disorder: The War at Home. One thing to pay attention to is any continued drug use. If they are using pot, it won’t help with the work you’re trying to do with them. Get help again from the probation department if you can, to require them to seek additional treatment for their drug use. Changes in their behaviors will take time. Your grandson’s will need time to learn new skills to manage their behaviors appropriately. And it will take you time to create that ‘culture of accountability’ that James talks about, but it can be done. Call the support line. We want to help. They will help you with specific guidance every step of the way.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Excellent article thank you for highlighting Grandparents raising grandkids. My husband and I just took in our 11 and 12 year old grandkids 6 months ago. Their mother is incarcerated and will be until they are both well over 18. My 12 year old grandson is ADHD, he struggles with middle school and hates doing homework and just not doing it. We take away all his electronics but still doesn't seem to care. Both kids have different Dads who have never been in the picture which is a shame. My grandaughter is really coming along, she was basically the neglected one, her teacher told us she sees a big change in her now that she lives with us. Only problem I have is my husband is very "Old school" discipline. I love reading the articles but can't get him to change his old school almost army like ruling in the house. The old man is driving me more nuts than the kids !! We are also young grandparents at 49 and 54

Comment By : Rocking Cool Grandma

I am a grandmother raising mentally disabled grandchildren. I took custody of each one when only a few weeks of age, now they are teens. It has been extremely challenging raising them alone.

Comment By : Barbara

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