The most effective way to encourage openness without encouraging disrespect from angry children is to offer them a more appropriate way of expressing themselves. We are too quick to tell them when they're in the wrong without offering a more appropriate alternative. It's difficult for anyone at any age to stop doing something that's become comfortable and familiar without being shown another way of doing it. The most effective responses for (grand)parents are ones that acknowledge children's feelings, inform them that their way of expressing themselves could hurt someone else's feelings, and offer them a means of getting their point across in a way that would be easier for others to hear.
Example #1: Child: "I hate you!"
Counterattack: Grandparent:"Don't ever say a terrible thing like that!"
Or: Grandparent: "You must be really upset to say that you hate me. Sometimes when we're really hurt we say things we don't mean. When you're calmer, I'd like to know what I did to make you so mad so we can find a way to make up."
Example #2: Child: "Why don't you just go away... I wish you were dead!"
Counterattack: Grandparent: "Oh, really? Well, maybe I will die, and then you'll really be sorry!"
Or: Grandparent: "It really hurts me to hear you say that. Sometimes when I feel that mad, what I really feel is scared. Maybe you're afraid I'll leave you someday, too, and you want me to just go away and get it over with. I can understand that."
If you're a grandparent raising grandchildren, fasten your emotional safety belt. Get accustomed to anger and all of its variations, and accept it as a part of the child's natural healing process. Make friends with it and learn to use its power to your advantage in constructive, rather than destructive, ways. Counterattacks certainly show children who's the boss, but they leave them with the feeling that you're yet another person they can't trust. Angry children are hurting children. Don't get so caught up in reprimanding them for their unpolished communication skills that you miss what they're really trying to say. Children who have been with a less-than-enthusiastic parent will in all likelihood have missed out on the experience of being taught how to express themselves more effectively. Not only will they be unpracticed at talking about what they feel, but they'll probably also have very little faith that anyone is really interested in hearing what they have to say. Remember, these are the same children who have had their parents' ineffective coping skills to use as their only guide. Keep your expectations realistic. Your job is not to admonish them for what they haven't yet learned, but to help them unlearn their old, defensive ways of coping and replace them with healthier, more effective alternatives.
The Best Defense...
Anger is often a disguise for pain. By refusing to be detoured by the anger, and by responding directly to the pain, you show the children that you aren't fooled by their bluster because you're hip to what's really going on inside them. If you speak to the hurt and ignore the anger, the anger often goes away on its own. Anger is usually smoke from a deeper fire--blowing it away doesn't put out the flames.
Example #1: Child: "You're not my mother!"
Counterattack: Grandparent: "I may not be your mother, but if it weren't for me, you'd be in a foster home."
Or: Grandparent: "You really miss your mom, don't you?" (Addresses the loss.) Example #2: Child: "What do you care? I'm only here because my mom dumped me on you!"
Counterattack: Grandparent: "Don't you think I know that? I obviously care more about you than she does."
Constructive Alternative Response: Grandparent: "I'm sorry you've had to be shuffled around. It's hard not knowing where you belong or if anyone really cares, but you know I took you in because I love you, not because I had to." (Responds to the abandonment, not the accusation.)
By responding with love and reassurance, you can provide a sense of security and perhaps give your grandchildren, for the first time in their lives, the chance to experience that the limits surrounding them can be trusted and are not subject to change without notice. Troubled children are not bad children in search of discipline, but rather lost children in search of direction. The way you respond to them will determine if your role in their lives will be that of a warden or that of a teacher.