Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Grandparents Raise Grandchildren

October 6, 2008

Ah, the joys of being a grandparent. You know the kind. The occasional caregiver. The stabilizer and buffer. The carrier of wisdom and tradition. The doting, accepting, "love and leave" grandparent.

What if you had to step in and become the primary socializer and caregiver? Would those joys still be joys? That "what if" is a reality for many.

According to United States government statistics, there are 2.5 million grandparents who are primary caregivers and who have sole responsibility for providing basic food, shelter and clothing needs for their grandchildren. Overall there are 3.7 million grandparents who have grandchildren in their own home with one or both parents also residing there.

Where are the parents? Historically, the grandparents have stepped in when there was a death, divorce or abandonment. A new development is the increasing number of dysfunctional parents who remain in the picture. In these situations, one generation's disability becomes another's liability.

The rise in custodial grandparents reflects parental problems with substance abuse, child abuse or neglect, incarceration, emotional and neurological impairment, teenage pregnancy and parental failure to handle children. Children coming from these homes have more emotional and developmental problems.

Changes are hard. The assumption of parenting responsibilities for grandchildren is often sudden and impacts all aspects of the grandparents lives - leisure, friendships, relationships, work, health and finances. Grandparents experience the following losses or concerns.

1. A loss of freedom. Welcome back to 24 hours-a-day parenting. Their old routine is out the window. Grandparents need to cope with the stress of this transition.

2. There is on-going grief and anxiety about their own child's failure and impairment. Grandparents are gaining a grandchild but are often losing their own child.

3. There’s confusion about the role and responsibility of adult children who have been unreliable parents, yet periodically try to maintain bonds and assert their rights. This is especially hard to sort out roles when the parent is living in the home and is struggling for independence.

4. There’s doubt over their own sense of adequacy. What did they do wrong in their parenting to have children who cannot care for their own children? Are they, as grandparents, competent enough to deal with raising children again? Do they have the emotional energy to "matter" that much in their grandchildren's lives? Where do they learn or relearn basic parenting skills?

5. Grandparents may minimize personal health concerns to show they are up to the task.

6. There are complications in work hours, child care and financial pressures. These are coupled with the grandchildren's need for presence and attention.

7. There is often conflict with their own children, social services, medical care and schools. Grandparents have trouble getting others to recognize their legal and nonlegal custodial role and authority.

8. When parents pull themselves together and assume their parenting responsibilities, the "letting go" process is difficult for grandparent and grandchildren who have developed a tight bond. Trust issues with their children’s parenting will be a source of friction until parents demonstrate their reliability as parents.

A loss of dreams and expectations. Another source of loss and unresolved grief associated with the grandparents' transition back to primary caregiving is the loss of goals and activities they wanted to do and now cannot do. Grandparents expected time for themselves, freedom and inner peace.

With their new primary caregiver responsibilities, they are out of synch with their peers and their expectations of fun, relaxation and enjoyment that come with the empty nest. Grandparenting is what they wanted to do, not parenting. Their whole plan for their lives has been upset and put on hold. They need to grieve for the life they are not living as well as for the one they are living.

They hope for the long term goal of their child's return to health and parenting effectiveness. Meanwhile they have to plan proper care for their grandchildren and look after their own needs. They are caught in the dilemma of hoping for their adult child’s rehabilitation, judging their capability and not knowing how long their primary caregiving role will continue.

The rewards. Rewards come with helping grandchildren. Bonds deepen. The family pulls together. Grandchildren will have their needs met. There is hope that the grandchildren are spared some of the emotional or behavioral problems that come with the trauma of not having their parents able to function.

For all the other things grandparents could be doing, this is more important. They are needed, useful and depended upon for care that no one else can or will provide. Grandparents pull up their socks, cinch their belts and do what they have to do. Without their love and dedication, there would be a lot more lost souls in this world.

Finding support and information. There are many sources of support and information for grandparents raising their grandchildren.

For information and resource organizations: American Association for Retired Persons, Grandparent Information Center, 601 E Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20049. National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. Email: nationalcenter@gsu.edu; Brookdale Foundation: Relatives as Parents Program (RAPP) 950 Third Ave., 19th floor, New York, NY 10022 Phone; 212-208-7355.

Book: Schlossberg, N. and Robinson, S. P. (1996). "Going to Plan B," New York. Simon and Schuster.