University of Illinois Extension

Strengthening Emotional Connections

Giesela Grumbach, Family Life Educator

Children who have been removed from their homes and placed with a grandparent have the advantage of remaining with family. But, the emotional pain of being separated from a parent may still persist over time. The initial attachment they had with their parents may have been disrupted long before they entered the child protective system. Inconsistencies in parenting due to illness, drug use, neglect, abuse, or other stressful events may have adversely affected the parent - child attachment in many ways.

When children have a poor attachment with their mothers or primary caregivers, they may have emotional and behavioral problems. And, you may be seeing some of these problems firsthand. There is help. The Child Trauma Academy offers these suggestions for helping your grandchildren:

  • Nurture them. Give them the emotional support they need. Hold them and be physically caring toward them as they are able to tolerate it. Try not to force yourself into their personal space if this disturbs them.
  • Try to understand the behaviors before doling out punishment or consequences. Ask yourself, "What do the children's actions say about what they need?" Consider seeking professional help to learn ways to deal with troublesome behavior and to learn more about childhood development.
  • Base your parenting style on the children's emotional ages. This is one of the most helpful pieces of advice. Focus on the children's emotional levels rather than their ages. Severely abused and neglected children tend to be emotionally and socially delayed.
  • Be consistent, predictable, and repetitive. Try to establish new routines and create structure for them. Abused/neglected children may be very sensitive to chaos and hectic schedules. Predictable caregiving helps them feel safe and secure.
  • Model appropriate behavior. Show the children how to interact with others. The Child Trauma Academy even advocates that you narrate what you are doing. Here's an example: "I am going to the sink to wash my hands before dinner because..." Another technique called coaching helps children learn to play more effectively with others. An example of coaching would be, "When you call other children names they don't like it - so if you want to make friends, be kind and use nicer words."
  • Listen and talk. Show that you are there for your grandkids by being attentive and doing fun activities with them. Often, meaningful conversations arise spontaneously with children - when they feel relaxed.
  • Have realistic expectations of the children. Remember that they have been through a lot. It will take time to develop healthier attitudes and behaviors.
  • Have patience with the children's progress and with yourself. Progress may be slow. Do not discount the extra love and attention you give them as having no effect. It takes time!
  • Take care of yourself. Take time to rejuvenate your spirit. Energize yourself by taking long walks or exercising. You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of the children.
  • Take advantage of other resources. Support groups for you and community activities for the kids can be helpful. Also seek professional help and learn about childhood development.

Adapted from: Child Trauma Academy/Parent and Caregiver Education Series, Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood. Volume 1, Number 4, July 2001.