School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
To accompany Chapter 4
Over the past decade, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of households where grandparents are raising their grandchildren.  This family situation, while having some rewards, has many problems associated with it.  Below are some of the current statistics on this family situation.
  • Approximately 6% of grandchildren live in a grandparent and grandchild household at some point in time.
  • Between 1990 and 1994 the number of families with grandparents raising grandchildren more than tripled; has been a steady increase each year since.
  • Majority of grandparents raising grandchildren are single grandmothers.
  • Average age for a custodial grandparent is 53.
Women who are caring for grandchildren are often below retirement age and are often employed.  Grandma may have to quit her job to care for her grandchildren, and lose any benefits that are accrued for her on the job.
     Drug abuse on part of biological parent - In the U.S., drug abuse is an ongoing, serious  problem.  When an individual with a drug problem has a child, very often he or she is not going to be able to care appropriately for that child.  When that occurs, it is most often a family member who will take on that responsibility.  And that family member is most often a grandmother.  The hope, certainly, with someone who is abusing drugs and not able to take care of his or her child, is that they will get help and be able to parent the child.  All too often, however, that either doesn't happen, or the parent goes through recovery, has a relapse, goes through recovery again, another relapse, etc.  This often means that the primary raising of the child is by the grandmother.
     Teen pregnancy - Very often when a teenage girl gives birth, she is unequipped and ill-prepared to raise the child on her own.  We know that very often when a teenage girl has a baby, the father drops out of the picture.  In those situations, again, it is often the grandmother who takes on the raising of the child.
     Abandonment - Many times the biological parent simply leaves a child and goes off to start a life in another place.  When the child is left behind, grandparents are often the ones who take on raising the child.
     AIDS - Women who have AIDS and then have a child may very well die when the child is very young.  When that happens, grandparents often must raise the child who is left behind.
     Divorce of adult child - When a divorce occurs, and both parents cannot or will not take the responsibility of raising their child, it may fall to the grandparents to do this.  A flip side of this is that sometimes when parents divorce, grandparents are left out of the child's life entirely.
     Death of adult child - If a parent dies while there are still children in the home, and if there is not another parent to raise them, the grandparents very often take over the raising of the child.  It is suggested that parents have wills and other legal documents detailing who would raise their children should the parents die.  It may very well be the grandparents, but if the choice is someone else (a brother, sister or close friend), that needs to be clearly and legally set up beforehand.  When parents are young, they very often don't want to think about death and may not discuss the issue of who would raise their children.  But it is an important consideration.
Grandparents cite many positive aspects of raising their grandchildren.  While it may not be their first choice of how to spend their older years, research shows that many grandparents would rather take on the raising of their grandchildren than leave it to strangers.  Very often grandparents take a resigned view of raising their grandchildren.  They also state that there is a close bond and attachment with their grandchildren that they would not have had otherwise.  Some of the things that grandparents cite as positive aspects of raising their grandchildren are listed below.
  • Grandparents want child to be raised by a blood relative, not in foster care
  • Want to have access to child; fear they might not if child is in foster care
  • Child can provide companionship for grandparent; if it's a single grandparent raising child, they might be at a lonely time in life
  • Helps grandparent feel younger and healthier
  • Custodial grandparent gets second chance at rearing a new generation
  • Sense of satisfaction and renewed sense of purpose
  • Feeling they have failed their adult children and can make things right by raising another child
  • Children may give grandparent a "new lease on life" and enhanced sense of self worth
Parenting has many stresses associated with it.  But by and large, parents are in their 20s, 30s and 40s when they are raising their children.  As people get older, their energy levels go down, there are more health concerns, and they are further removed from the day to day rearing of children.  This necessarily means that when grandparents are raising their grandchildren, the stresses are almost always going to be greater for them than they are for most parents.  The following stresses have been found to be common in family situations where grandparents are responsible for raising grandchildren.
     Restrictions in daily activities - mobility inside the house, completing daily household tasks, climbing stairs, walking outside, doing heavy tasks and working for pay.  Many grandparents must quit their job in order to stay home and raise their grandchildren.  If children are very young, grandparents are going to be much more restricted to their home than if the children are older, but their daily activities are affected when grandchildren are living in the home.  Take, for example, the widowed grandmother who works part-time and in her free time is a volunteer at the local hospital and is active with a bridge club and bowling league.  When she takes over the raising of her grandchildren, all of those activities may have to be curtailed.  Most grandmothers would say they do it willingly, but the fact remains that raising their grandchildren means big changes in their day to day lives.
     Financial burden; fixed income now needs to cover expenses of child rearing.  Many older adults are on fixed incomes, and in many cases, they must be very frugal with their money in order to take care of their day to day expenses.  Once they begin raising their grandchildren, that fixed income needs to expand to cover all the things children need - clothes, shoes, fees for playing sports, gymnastics lessons, etc.  It can be a real financial burden and very stressful for the older person to handle all those new expenses.
     Older adulthood is a time for reflection; grandparent may be focusing on their own declining health, caring for an ailing spouse, trying to enjoy retirement.  Full time parenting can add stress to already stressful situations.  I watched a video once for a class I was taking, and in it was a grandmother who was in her 60s and was raising her 4-year-old granddaughter.  The grandmother had health problems, but always tried to be cheerful and upbeat for her granddaughter.  One of her comments was, "When I get up in the morning and don't feel good and ache all over, my granddaughter comes in and jumps on the bed and says, 'Time to get up, gamma!', I just pull myself out of the bed and start taking care of her.  There's no time to feel sick or take care of your ills."   She added as an aside that her granddaughter didn't ask for the situation they were in (her mother was addicted to drugs and was in another part of the country), and she felt she needed to do everything she could for the child.
     Grandparent may feel their role as grandparent is lost since they now have to be the parent.  It can be a lot of fun to be a grandparent, and most people who have raised children look forward to the experience of being a grandparent.
     Grandparents are the ones who get to spoil the kids and have all the time in the world to spend just listening to whatever the child wants to ramble on about.  Grandparents also get to enjoy their grandchildren and then send them home to mom and dad to do the raising.  Once grandparents start having to parent the grandchild, that traditional grandparent-grandchild relationship is replaced by a parent-child relationship.  Some grandparents don't mind this and in fact embrace it, but for many there is almost a sense of mourning for that grandparent-grandchild relationship they wanted to have.
     Behavior difficulties with grandchildren; generational differences in values; difficulty in being firm parent.  Times change, and attitudes about parenting change.  The way the grandparent parented their own children may not work as well for their grandchildren.  It is difficult for grandparents to learn new ways to parent and new methods of discipline.  There can be conflict and friction between the grandparent and grandchild over this.
     Lack of support from other family members; other adult children are often jealous of the care that needs to be provided to grandchildren; sometimes think grandchildren are receiving better care than they received growing up.
     Sometimes grandparents ask for help within the family only to find that none is forthcoming.  Their other children may have their own responsibilities and not be able to help.  They may also feel that they didn't get enough attention as children and now here is the grandchild who is getting attention showered on him or her from the grandparent.  Old negative family feelings sometimes surface in these situations.
     Differences in caregiving style between grandparent and parent; needs of children who might have been mistreated
     Lack of social services for grandparents in this situation.  Most frequently cited services needed are financial assistance and day care.  Also medical assistance for themselves and their grandchildren.  Many grandparents are not aware of where to go for assistance when it is available.  There are more and more supports being offered by social service agencies as this family situation has become more common.  There are often places that offer respite care, so that the grandparent can get away from the house sometimes and do something just for themselves while someone else cares for the grandchildren.  However, there are many grandparents who don't feel comfortable asking for support within the community or aren't aware of just what programs are available.
There are various types of assistance available for grandparents who are raising grandchildren.  Some of these are listed below.  The Internet can be a valuable source of information for grandparents who are seeking out resources that can be helpful for them and their grandchildren.
     Strengths-based case management - focuses on directly assisting clients to achieve their personal goals by helping them discover and use their strengths and resources.  This type of help permits grandparents to take an active role in identifying the source of their own problems, to make a self assessment of their personal and environmental resources
and assume responsibility for the final outcome.
     Another service is Project Healthy Grandparents (PHG); established at Georgia State University, this idea spreading to other areas.  The general purpose is to determine the effectiveness of a community-based intervention to improve the social, psychological, physical and economic well-being of grandparent-headed households in order to prevent child neglect.
     Program's goal is to strengthen the confidence of grandparents regarding the decisions that affect their grandchildren's lives while providing a nurturing and stable environment for them.
     Respite care centers.  These programs offer caregivers for grandchildren so that grandparents can have a break from the 24-7 of raising their grandchildren.  Respite care is sometimes offered through local social service agencies, such as family services programs or church based programs.  For grandchildren with special needs, there are sometimes respite care programs where individuals who are trained can spend time with the grandchild so that the grandparent can get away from the situation for a while.
     Outreach programs for these grandparents.  These may be part of family and consumer science extension services, family service agencies, health and human services agencies, hospitals.
Grandparents aren't the only ones who feel the stress of this family situation.  Many times the grandchildren are experiencing difficulties too.  It is important for grandparents who are raising grandchildren to be aware of how the grandchildren are handling the situation.  Just as in a divorce situation, the problems children are experiencing are sometimes ignored because the adults are dealing with their own problems.  The grandmother who is having to change her life around to accommodate the raising of her grandchildren may not notice that the grandchildren are having physical or emotional problems as they try to deal with the situation.  Some common problems for children in this family situation are listed below.
     Kids have difficulty forming attachments due to inconsistencies and crises in their early home environments.  In many instances, by the time a child is turned over to a grandparent to raise, there have already been many upheavals and crises in the child's family.  Sometimes the child has experienced a situation where the parent is unfit and the child is taken from the parent and lives with a relative.  Then mom gets better for awhile and the child goes home with her.  Then things get bad again and the child has to move again.  In this situation, maybe grandma takes the child for a time, maybe there is a foster care situation, maybe another relative takes the child for a time.  The child ends up being in many home situations and learns that inconsistency is the only constant.  While the child may then be permanently placed with the grandparent and the situation is going to be permanent, the child has come to know that nothing in his life is permanent.  This makes it hard to become attached to the grandparent and can lead to behavior problems.
     Confusing emotions - common feelings are grief/loss, guilt, embarrassment and anger.  The child must deal with his or her own feelings about the situation, and sometimes has a hard time talking with the grandparent about them.  There may even be some anger or resentment toward the grandparent because of the family problems.
     Not knowing what to call their grandparents.  For young children, it is not uncommon for them to start calling grandma, "mommy."  The grandparent needs to think about what he or she is comfortable being called, and also take into account what the grandchild is comfortable with.
     Kids from abusive or neglectful backgrounds may feel they are betraying their parents when they find themselves feeling relieved and positive about their new living situations.  It can be stressful for the child to have to try to control their emotions all the time.  If family life was very negative when they lived with the parent, there may very well be feelings of relief or joy when they go live with grandma.  Because children love their parents - even parents who aren't very good parents - children can feel guilty about having feelings of relief when they don't have to live with the parent anymore.
     Kids feel embarrassed about their living situation.  People have questions and they may feel awkward answering them.  It's a good idea for the grandparent to stay in close contact with the child's teacher and other parents so that embarrassing or awkward situations can be taken care of before they escalate.
     Inappropriate displays of anger.  Because these children are in very difficult or even volatile situations sometimes, they may not respond appropriately.  Young children may engage in tantrums or regressive behavior.  Older children may act out against other children.  Teenagers may become more aggressive or abusive to others.  Again, it is important for grandparents to do many of the things that parents should do to be effective parents - keep the lines of communication open, use authoritative parenting methods, use appropriate discipline, foster an environment of mutual respect between grandparent and grandchild.
Oftentimes, grandparents aren't aware of these things that are happening to the child at school and with their peers.
Grandparents may also not have the information or skills to prevent children from feeling singled out or different.  Other members of the family, neighbors or friends who are aware of a family situation where grandparents are raising grandchildren should make efforts to inform the grandparents about resources that are available to them.  Teachers at the child's school can let the grandparents know about social services or other supports that can be contacted to get information and assistance.
While my granddaughter, Abby, is primarily being raised by my son and daughter-in-law, we grandparents have had a large role in caring for her since birth and have all forged very strong bonds with her.  While my husband and I have cared for Abby regularly either one or two days a week since she was three months old, I think of us as more of the "village" that helps support her parents rather than as "surrogate parents."
When Abby was born, my husband and I (as well as my daughter-in-law's parents) were there throughout the labor and birth process.  Other than when I had my own children I had never been present for anyone else's birth.  Needless to say, Abby took hold of our hearts from the very beginning.  When my daughter-in-law had to return to her teaching job three months after Abby's birth, she and my son enlisted my husband and me; my daughter-in-law’s mom and my ex-husband for child care.  My daughter-in-law’s mom was a stay at home wife, my ex-husband was retired from his job, and my husband and I jockeyed our jobs as college professors so that we could accommodate our jobs and Abby's schedule (we taught at different times and were on different college committees so could generally manage for one of us to be home to care for Abby (we did paperwork at home while she napped).  There have also been many times when Abby has gone to school with us.  I would teach a class while my husband kept an eye on her, then we would switch.  We have also gone in on weekends to do work.  Not always easy, and we have been fortunate with our jobs that this has been possible.  We also work in a pretty family friendly department.   
As with any enterprise this one has many rewards and some costs associated with it.  Costs primarily come in the form of diminished energy levels for dealing with a young child (I have often said that there is a reason that people have children when they're young.  It was much easier to chase after a youngster when I was 25 than it is when I'm in my 50s!).  There is also less time to devote to some of the extra things I like doing for my job - like conducting research and writing.  My husband and I went into this, however, with open eyes and a willingness to do whatever it took to support our kids and provide the best environment for our grandchildren.  And the rewards have been enormous.  We have a bond and closeness to our grandchild that is very strong and is akin to the closeness we both felt with our own children.  We have been able to experience their growth and development from a vantage point that not everyone can have.  We feel that we have been positive influences on Abby’s development (and a few years later, her brother Craig’s also) and we hope that as she continues to grow and develop, she will know that her grandparents are strongly in her corner and think that she is a true "force in the universe” and can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. 
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