Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

In the last 30 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of grandparent-headed families. Census data indicate that in the United States there are approximately 2.4 million grandparents raising 4.5 million children. Custodial grandparenting occurs when a grandparent assumes responsibility for a grandchild because the grandchild’s parents cannot or choose not to care for the child. Some common reasons for custodial grandparenting include parental substance abuse, abuse and neglect, incarceration, HIV/AIDS, mental or physical illness, teenage pregnancy, abandonment, divorce, and death. Although grandparent-headed families are extremely diverse, they are more likely to be African-American, female-headed, and living in poverty.

What Are The Challenges?


  • Because of their experiences with their parents, children being raised in grandparent-headed families often display developmental, physical, behavioral, academic, and emotional problems. Some of these problems include depression, anxiety, ADHD, health problems, learning disabilities, poor school performance, and aggression.
  • Grandchildren may also experience feelings of anger, rejection, and guilt. The degree to which grandchildren experience problems varies, although many grandchildren experience multiple problems.
  • Relationships among family members can also create stress for grandchildren. Visits from parents can be upsetting, and often leave grandchildren feeling hurt and confused. Due to their age difference, grandchildren may also feel disconnected from their grandparent caregivers. Finally, household rules and expectations can be a source of tension and conflict. Granparent and child holding hands

Grandparent Caregivers:

  • Becoming the caregiver for a grandchild impacts all aspects of a person’s life. As a result, grandparents raising grandchildren face a number of challenges.
  • Grandparents often have legal difficulties related to obtaining guardianship, enrolling their grandchildren in school, and accessing medical care for their grandchildren. They may also have concerns related to custody battles with other grandparents or their grandchildren’s parents.
  • Because they often have limited financial resources, grandparents may experience difficulty providing adequate housing, food, and clothing.
  • Parenting may be challenging for custodial grandparents, especially when their grandchildren have problems. To be effective parents, grandparents need current information about discipline, child development, and childhood problems. Grandparents also need to transition from the role of traditional grandparent to that of parent.
  • Grandparents may have limited energy and physical health problems that make parenting difficult. Additionally, grandparent caregivers might feel anxious or depressed.
  • Grandparents raising grandchildren often have less time for themselves. They may also have less time to spend with their partners and friends. This loss of time can be stressful and can cause feelings of anger, grief, and loss.
  • It can be difficult for grandparent caregivers to manage their grandchildren’s parents. Parents may make unannounced visits and unrealistic promises. Grandparents may also struggle with trying to protect their grandchildren, while still allowing them to visit with their parents. Additionally, it may be disappointing for grandparents to see their child fail as a parent.
  • Grandparents may feel anger at their grandchildren’s parents, guilt about their parenting, or embarrassment about their family situation.

How Can I Help My Family & Myself?

  • Join a support group; meeting other grandparent-headed families can provide support and a sense of community.
  • Establish a schedule for your family; having a routine is helpful for children from unstable and chaotic homes.
  • Take care of your physical and mental health. Get regular physicals, exercise, eat right, and get plenty of rest.
  • Take advantage of respite services or work with other grandparent caregivers to take a break from caregiving.
  • Have a social network; stay in contact with friends or a faith community.
  • Become educated about custodial grandparenting and available resources.
  • Do not talk negatively about grandchildren’s parents in front of your grandchildren.
  • Allow grandchildren to share their feelings about their family situation.

When Should I Get Help?

Because each family is different, it is difficult to say when a grandparent-headed family should seek help. However, grandparents should seek help if they feel unable to manage their stress, if their stress interferes with their ability to function, or if tension and conflict among family members becomes too difficult to manage. They should also seek help if their grandchildren’s problems become overwhelming.

Some other signs that you or someone you know needs help managing stress include:

  • Anger or irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Pulling away from people
  • Constant worrying
  • Feeling sad all the time
  • Problems sleeping (too much or too little)
  • Worsening of health problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

What Types of Help Are Available?

  • Family Therapy: Custodial grandparenting impacts all members of a family. Family therapy can help individuals and families cope with their feelings about their family structure and improve the quality of their relationships. Family therapists are specially trained to understand the complicated feelings and relationships within grandparent-headed families. If you feel that your family could benefit from family therapy, find a therapist who has experience working with grandparent-headed families.
  • Support Groups: Many communities offer support groups for grandparent-headed families. Most of these support groups are for grandparents raising grandchildren. However, support groups are also available for grandchildren. Support groups provide participants with an opportunity to talk about their experiences and feelings in a safe, supportive environment. Participants can also gain information, learn from one another, and meet people dealing with similar issues. Good support groups allow time for personal sharing, but also take a positive outlook, structure sharing time, connect participants to sources of support, and help participants set and reach goals. To find a support group near you, visit the Web sites of the organizations listed under Resources.

By Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab, PhD and Ryan M. Traylor, MS 

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