Coping With an Angry Grandchild

By Bonnie Baker Cowan

Small tantrums when a grandchild is frustrated are common and short-lived. Dealing with the agony of teens and their moodiness and short bursts of growing-up angst eventually comes to an end. But how does a grandparent cope with a grandchild who is angry all the time for deep-seated reasons?

For most of us, coping with anger in grandchildren is not a full-time responsibility. That belongs to their parents. However, for grandparents who are responsible for raising their grandchildren, dealing with anger is definitely a full-time source of worry.

In many cases, children who arrive on a grandparent’s doorstep to live have been abandoned by parents who are unable to take care of them because of divorce, incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse or emotional or mental instability. These children have packed up their emotional turmoil and brought it along with them, and the older they are, the heavier the load. They suffer from fear, resentment, mistrust, anger and even depression. Some may even have been physically abused.

Whatever their circumstances, these children share mixed feelings of anger towards a parent and what they have done or not done, along with an abiding loyalty to that parent. The loyalty is tucked away in a fantasy that eventually can grow into a kind of idolatry for the absent parent. It’s difficult for anyone to deal with such a dichotomy of feelings, so imagine how confused a child is with these emotional swings and the hurt that is causing the anger.

The grandparent who inherits the role of raising this angry child has an enormous challenge in trying to create a safe, nurturing environment, not to mention a modicum of normalcy in daily life. Many children bottle up their anger and become withdrawn. Others may transfer their anger in aggressive or defiant ways to the grandparents and even blame them for the parents’ absence, especially if they’ve placed the missing parent in that ivory tower in their fantasy world.

What can you do as the grandparent now in charge to work through the anger and defuse it? Dr. Richard Dubuc of Ottawa advises understanding the child’s background and the need to encourage them to share their feelings. “Don’t equate their anger with disrespect for you,” he says. “And, if you’re uncomfortable with your own anger, it will be that much more difficult to deal with your grandchild’s feelings.”

It’s important that a child expresses these pent-up feelings, but in more appropriate ways than through acting out, defiance and aggressive anger. Keeping your cool and at the same time, the lines of communication open is a tenuous tightrope to walk, but essential to slowly mending the child’s pain.

What not to do? First of all, punishing a child for expressing anger will only exacerbate it. Secondly, striking back in anger will eliminate an opportunity to show the child that responding to anger in a non-threatening way is more appropriate as a way of expressing ourselves.

What should you do? First of all, keep calm even if your feelings are hurt. Try to remember you aren’t really the reason behind their hurt. But you are the closest target. Accept their anger as part of a healing process.

Secondly acknowledge their feelings. Tell them you understand that they’re upset and encourage them to talk more. They probably have very little faith that anyone is interested in listening to them. Anger is a cover-up for hurt. Speak to their hurt. While it may take some time to express their feelings in words you both understand, try to read between the lines so you don’t miss what they’re really trying to say.

Children who have suffered a painful childhood need a sense of security above all else. They need to be able to trust someone to be in charge and feel confident their world is not going to be turned upside down again. They need a clear sense of direction. By responding to them with love and reassurance, you will give them a boost to their self esteem and a sense of security they need to mature and thrive.