Kinship care: Grandchildren coming to live with you

Grandparents can become kinship carers overnight. It's sometimes called the midnight call syndrome – when grandparents find they are thrown into a situation where they have to set up their homes for their grandchildren without a great deal of warning. Here are some tips to help you on this new journey.

Understanding kinship care

Kinship care can be through a private arrangement or formalised through a legal order.

Private arrangement - this is an informal arrangement where a child is looked after by close relatives and there is no legal order in place.

Private fostering - this is when a child under the age of 16 or under 18 if they are disabled is looked after by someone who is not their parent or a 'close relative'. This is a private arrangement made between a parent and a carer for 28 days or more.

Kinship Fostering - this is an arrangement where the local authority have legal responsibility for a child and place them with a family member or friend who is a foster carer for that child.

Special Guardianship - Special Guardianship is a formal court order that was introduced on 30 December 2005 which allows parental control over a child by individuals other than the parent. This could be a grandparent, close relative or even a family friend.

If you are a grandparent or relative caring for a child, you may wish to consider making an application for a legal order to formalise the agreement so you have the right to be involved in their upbringing and have the right to make decisions. It is important to seek legal advice about this before making any applications. Grandparents Plus have an informative factsheet that can give you more information.

How should I deal with the children?

If you have not been prepared for your grandchildren suddenly to come into your care there will be a host of things to deal with. There are the obvious practical issues, such as where does everyone sleep, how do we clothe the children, how do we stretch the budget and financial support. There are emotional issues too as the child may be feeling confused and emotional about this big change in their lives. 

Caring for your grandchildren

Are they in shock? 

Be prepared for the fact that the children will no doubt be in shock. They have gone through whatever trauma which has brought them to you and they are likely to be upset and scared. They might show their feelings by being quiet and withdrawn, angry and rude, or they might follow you around and cry wanting your attention and reassurance. 

There may be times when you hear things that you wish you hadn’t. There will undoubtedly be times when you will have feelings that overwhelm you just as they do the children. These are normal grief reactions in a difficult situation and you or your grandchildren, or both, may need professional help in order to deal with them. 

Love and reassurance

Your grandchildren will benefit most from knowing that you love them and much needed reassurance that they are safe and that you are not going to leave them. Hugs are important if they are willing to accept them and most importantly they will want to know what to expect from you. You need to let them know what you are doing to help make life better for them here and now. They will need stability from you and it may take time for them to start showing they are feeling more secure which is natural under the circumstances. 

Start by establishing some ground rules

Children like to know what's expected of them. What they can do now they're living at your house? For example – what time should they go to bed, what time should they get up? If they feel scared during the night let them know where you are and if it is okay to wake you up. Let them know about meal times and what there are for snacks – children that have been through a time of neglect are often malnourished. They might eat larger meals than you expect. They may be used to food being scarce and might take to hoarding food. Let them know that there is enough to go around – and encourage them to talk about their concerns and fears. 

If you have already spent a lot of time with your grandchildren before they came to live with you permanently, it may help to keep the relationship on the same level.  They may still need and want you to be their grandparent and not their mum or dad.  This will help the child feel reassured, safe and supported.

If your grandchildren have come to live with you but you have not had a close relationship or had much contact with them previously then helping them adjust to the new changes may take a bit longer.  It may take time as you both establish a relationship with each other based on trust and security.  It is important not to have too many expectations on yourself or the situation and allow things to be gentle and natural as possible. 

Talk with the children 

You may have to rebuild trust if the children feel let down and betrayed. Older children may need to be encouraged to talk – one of the best ways to do that is to listen carefully to them. Nobody is perfect but, in the early days especially, however harassed or frustrated you feel, find other ways to let it out than around the children!  If they have been in an abusive household they will not trust you if you yell or smack them and you'll have lost important 'ground' with them that you'll have to rebuild. You may want to consider professional support such as counselling or therapy to help them deal with their emotional needs. 

Understanding your feelings

Don't get cross with yourself if you feel confused. One minute you may have an overwhelming need to comfort and protect your grandchildren and the next you may be longing for someone to just take them off your hands for a while. That's normal to want a break and doesn’t mean that you do not love or want them and it helps to recharge your batteries. 

Your grandchild's health

It is a good idea for the children to have a check up with the doctor soon after they come into your care. Children who have been through times of neglect might not have had medical or dental checks for some time so make this a priority. This introduces them to their new doctor and it lets you know whether there are any problems you need to address. Find out if they have been immunised for instance.

Look after yourself

You may not be the type to ask for help – or ever to have thought of seeking counselling in your life. But you will find there are times when you really need an ear and some professional guidance to help you over some of the hurdles.  Things that could help:

Make an appointment with your local GP and let her/him know your situation and see what advice is on offer. Your GP can refer you to counseling services and some have counsellors working in their practice. Alternatively, you may be able to get a referral via the child's school or health visitor. 

Get some regular exercise and do the things you enjoy. Whether it is a brisk walk, taking up a class or meeting up with friends.  

It may help to find out if there are other kinship carers or a support group where you can meet others in a similar situation and share your experiences and get useful tips and help. 

Take time out for yourself – quiet time that is yours each day. Children can learn that you need times like this and they can be occupied doing something quietly as well. Listening to music, doing something creative or just having a short nap can be very beneficial.

Watch this video made with Grandparents Plus  

Further support

You can speak to Grandparents Plus for further support and they also provide advice. You can also get in touch with Family Rights Group for advice and support too.  

This article was kindly provided by Grandparents Plus.


(Updated September 2017)

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If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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