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It seems, the answer is two-fold. In order to form a positive and lasting relationship with special needs grandchildren, one must first form a positive relationship with their parents. This may seem odd to some, but a special needs child can really put a strain on the relationship between the parent of the child, and the parent of the parent, especially if the parent of the parent has little or no experience with special needs children. The parent of the special needs child needs help, and if a parent of the parent is unwilling or unable to provide that help the relationship takes a major hit.
How do I form a positive relationship with my son or daughter, the parent of a special needs child?
1. Have a sincere desire to learn more about your grandchild's disability. Educate yourself about it. Read as many books as you can. Attend trainings offered to caretakers etc. Act on the information you've learned. Ask questions about the disability. Attend therapies, appointments, meetings, etc. when possible. Enter the world of a parent of a special needs child. It is completely different from what you may have experienced with your "typical" child, who is now the parent. As you enter this world, you will be able to better support your child as they endure the challenges of raising a special needs child.
2. Be open to new and different ways of parenting. What may seem right to you, in your experience with "typical" children, most likely is not the correct way to go about things with a special needs child. Chances are your child has already tried those methods, trying to be the great parent you were to them, and utterly failed by no fault of their own. As you educate yourself on your grandchild's disability and participate in the ways mentioned above, you will learn new and different ways that will help you, help your child, be the best parent they can be. Parents of special needs children are very hard on themselves, crying about their parenting struggles far more than you suppose. They need encouragement, praise, and as many compliments as you can give. Take the time to do this often. The absolute worst thing you can do is give uneducated advise about how your child "should" be raising their special needs child. With that said, if you have sincerely educated yourself and entered the world of a parent of a special needs child, advice regarding special needs parenting techniques is often very welcomed by the parent. It shows a never ending love and support towards the parent of a special needs child.
3. Accept your grandchild's disability. This may be difficult, but if you're already doing what's been mentioned in the two points above, it will come. Remember to grieve. Chances are your son or daughter has already done this, going through the phases of denial, anger, sadness, etc. Once you are able to do this, show a genuine interest and love for your grandchildren. In most cases, parents do not choose to have children with special needs. Therefore, grandparents do not have that choice either. Your special needs grandchildren need just as much, if not more love and attention, than your "typical" grandchildren. When you're able to do this, your son or daughter will feel such a relief and desire to share more with you. They will not feel as alone. This is a big thing for a parent of a special needs child.
4. Be a support. All parents of special needs children need help, and lots of it, whether they'd like to admit it or not. Ask what you can do for your son or daughter and then be willing to follow through with a commitment you make to them. If your son or daughter is unable to communicate the needs they have, or you're unable to help them in ways that they need, due to your circumstances, there are still ways you can help. Consider financial, emotional, and/or spiritual support. Prayer is powerful. Surprise your son or daughter with a care package just for them. Send them a gift card to buy a new outfit just for themselves. (Be sure to choose a store that does not carry anything they could buy for their child, because they will spend it on their child otherwise.) Write a letter expressing how great you think they are as parents. Be sure to include their spouse (if they have one) in all of these acts of kindness. Opportunities to support your son or daughter are endless. Just be aware that time with your son or daughter, alone, without their children and spouse, is most often, not a luxury they have. Please don't be offended if they're unable to spend time with you in ways you would like.
Once you are successful at forming a positive relationship with your son or daughter, the parent of the special needs child, you are then able to progress to phase two, forming a positive and lasting relationship with your special needs grandchild.
How can I form a positive and lasting relationship with my special needs grandchild?
1. Enter the child's world. Learn as much as you can about his/her subjects of interest. When you're with your special needs grandchild center everything you do around them. This may be difficult at times, especially if their current obsession is something you may not understand or do not enjoy. Remember this: When you enter their world, in time (it may take years), they may be more open to joining your world. You never know, you may surprise yourself, in that you come to thoroughly enjoy their world too. If you live far away from your special needs grandchild, keep in close touch with their parents. Learn what they like. Put together care packages full of items your special needs grandchild will enjoy, particular to their interests. The care packages do not have to be elaborate, but it's important that you do something. Your special needs kiddos will remember these expressions of your love for them, even if you're unable to see them as often as you'd like. I keep a private family blog. Along the side of the blog are wishlists that each of my kiddos have put together. Grandparents have come to LOVE these wishlists, especially those who don't see my kiddos often. When it comes time to purchase gifts for them, they can go straight to the list and get exactly what the grandchild wants. This is also a great way for them to keep up with the kiddos' latest interests and obsessions. If they can't find the exact item on the list, they can get something similar. My special needs kiddos think their grandparents are the best, because they always seem to give them exactly what they've wanted. (This helps Mommy and Daddy too.)
2. Create special routines and rituals that are specific to you and your special needs grandchild. Anytime they see you, they can look forward to these routines and rituals. These do not have to be linked to the grandchild's interests, as they will change over time, but must be something that the grandparent and grandchild both enjoy. Routines and rituals will help your grandchild feel safe when they're with you. They'll know what to expect. This will help them and their parents. If you live far away, find a specific ritual or routine to phone conversations (if the child is able), perhaps it's a funny joke, or a song at the beginning or at the end of phone calls. Be creative.
3. Set aside special time for your special needs grandchildren. Chances are, when in large groups with other extended family and/or friends, they will not be at their best, nor feel comfortable with you and all that's going on around them. They much prefer time spent alone with you and their parents. As you spend special time with them, they will be able to feel comfortable with you and learn to love you as much as you love them. If you live far away from your special needs grandchild, consider setting aside specific time for them when you're able to see them next. We have been extremely blessed to have a set of grandparents, who live out of state, take us on vacation with them about every other year. The vacation is for just us and them. All activities are centered around the needs and interests of our special needs kiddos. When they're unable to do that, they come and visit us, dedicating a day to something the kiddos want to do.
4. Be present. If your special needs grandchild is participating in a special event, be there. Visit them in their own home. Understand it's much easier for your special needs grandchild to spend time with you on their own turf, where they feel safe and less anxious. If you live faraway, you can still be present. Depending on the specific special needs of your grandchild, you can call regularly to speak to them. If the child enjoys writing, you can write letters or send e-mails back and forth. If you have access to Skype, you can Skype each other regularly, which would make for some fun rituals and routines. Please be aware though, it may be difficult for some special needs kiddos to participate in the activities listed above. I know my autistic boys are not the greatest at phone conversations. They hate writing. Skype is too overwhelming and distracting to them. In these cases, care packages are great. Cards with pictures are enjoyed. If you're creative and/or have access to options online, sending videos is a great idea. These videos can be of you or they can be of other things, possibly related to interests they have, or rituals and routines you'd like to create with them. They can watch videos over and over again, thinking of you often.
It is so important for special needs kiddos to have the love and support of their grandparents. Parents of special needs kiddos need to feel that love too. There is so much joy to be had in extended family relations when all parties are willing and able to put forth the effort to make things work.