Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Globally, grandparents often serve as surrogate parents for their grandchildren, usually in response to family crises and other sociopolitical issues (e.g., poverty, war, disease epidemics, and urban migration). Grandparents raising grandchildren are primarily responsible for all aspects of their grandchildren’s care. While some grandparents have a legal relationship to the grandchildren they are raising, many are caring for their grandchildren informally.

Grandparents raise their grandchildren for a variety of reasons. Most of these reasons reflect difficulties experienced by the grandchild’s parents, which prevent the parents from caring for their children. Specifically, grandparents often raise their grandchildren due to a combination of parental substance abuse, abuse and neglect, unemployment, incarceration, HIV/AIDS, mental or physical illness, teenage pregnancy, child disability, divorce, military deployment, abandonment, and death. 

Family therapists are specially trained to understand the complicated feelings and relationships experienced by grandparents and their grandchildren.

What are the challenges?

Grandparents

Raising a grandchild impacts every aspect of a grandparent’s life. As a result, grandparents raising grandchildren face many challenges:

Legal. Grandparents often experience legal difficulties related to obtaining custody or guardianship, enrolling their grandchildren in school, and accessing medical care for their grandchildren. They may also have concerns related to custody disputes with other grandparents or with their grandchildren’s parents. 

 
Financial. Due to limited financial resources, grandparents raising grandchildren often have trouble supporting themselves and providing adequate housing, food, and clothing for their grandchildren. If they are not employed, grandparents may have limited or no sources of income.  
 
Parenting. Parenting can be challenging, especially when grandchildren have emotional, behavioral, of physical difficulties. To be effective parents, grandparents need current information about effective discipline strategies, child development, and childhood problems.  Research suggests that an authoritative parenting style is the most effective. 
 
Physical and Mental Health. Grandparents may have limited energy and physical health problems that make raising their grandchildren more challenging. Some grandparents also neglect their health due to a lack of financial resources or because of the demands associated with caring for their grandchildren. Other grandparents experience significant anxiety and depression.   
 
Social. Grandparents raising grandchildren often have less time for themselves and less time to spend with their partners and friends. This loss of social connections can be stressful and can contribute to depression and feelings of anger, loss, and grief. 
 
Family Relationships. Family relationships can be a source of stress. Grandparents may experience ambivalence about their grandchild’s parents – they may feel compelled to protect their grandchildren from the parents’ issues, while also feeling concerned about the parents’ well-being. Grandparents may also find it difficult to set limits with their grandchildren’s parents. Other adult children and grandchildren sometimes dislike the amount of attention being given to one part of the family, or may be concerned about the impact of raising grandchildren on the grandparent’s physical and mental health. Some grandparents even find it difficult to relate to their grandchildren, because of the generation gap. 
 
Accessing Services. Grandparents often need a variety of support services to manage the demands of raising their grandchildren. However, grandparents may be unaware of the range of services available to their family. Some grandparents also have difficulty accessing available services due to a number of other barriers (e.g., health problems, lack of transportation). Finally, grandparents can experience problems with service providers who are judgmental or treat them disrespectfully.  

Grandchildren

Due to their experiences with their parents, children being raised by grandparents may display a variety of developmental, physical, behavioral, academic, and emotional difficulties. Some of these difficulties include depression, anxiety, ADHD, physical health problems, learning disabilities, poor school performance, developmental delays, and aggression. Grandchildren may also experience feelings of anger, rejection, and guilt. The degree to which grandchildren experience these types of challenges varies widely, and some grandchildren may experience multiple, overlapping difficulties.

Relationships among family members can also be a source of stress for grandchildren:

  • Visits from parents can be upsetting, particularly when parents are unpredictable or unstable. Additionally, grandchildren may want to spend more time with their parents, but often have difficulty understanding why their parents are not able to be more active in their lives.
  • Due to the age difference between grandparents and their grandchildren, it is not uncommon for grandchildren to feel disconnected from their grandparents when it comes to issues like fashion, technology, leisure time, and social relationships. Expectations related to household rules and chores can also be sources of tension and conflict.

Parents

Frequently, limited attention is given to the parents in families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren. However, these parents deal with their own unique challenges. Parents may experience frustration about not being able to see their children, particularly when visits must be supervised or are otherwise limited. They may also have difficulty communicating with the grandparent, and feel confused about their role in the family. Parents are often in need of support services related to their difficulties (e.g., substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, etc.), but may struggle to access these services and, therefore, may find it difficult to address their issues and challenges.

Find a Therapist

If you or someone you know is experiencing distress, therapy with a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help.

Find an MFT

Understanding the Benefits of Marriage and Family Therapy

What are the benefits?

Even though families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren experience a variety challenges, these families are also highly resilient. There are a number of benefits, for both grandparents and grandchildren, associated with this caregiving arrangement:

  • Grandparents. Grandparents frequently report that raising their grandchildren is enjoyable because they have an opportunity to parent for a second time. They may also derive satisfaction from having a close relationship with their grandchild, as well as seeing their grandchild grow, develop, and learn new skills. Some grandparents experience joy and a sense of purpose in knowing that they are giving their grandchildren a better chance at life.
  • Grandchildren. Being raised by a grandparent has been associated with a number of benefits for grandchildren. These include greater stability and safety, the maintenance of relationships with siblings and extended family members, and the continuation of cultural identity and community ties. Evidence also suggests that children who are raised by grandparents or other relatives have better behavioral and mental health outcomes than those who are not.

How Can I Help Myself & My Family?

Find a Support System. Consider joining a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren. Meeting other people in similar situations can provide a valuable sense of community. Also, ask family, friends, neighbors, and professionals for help. They can be excellent sources of support and assistance. 

Access Available Resources. Many support services are available to grandparents raising grandchildren. Make use of these resources. If you don’t know about them or how to access them, ask a trusted professional such as a caseworker, school counselor, or health care provider. 

Maintain a Positive Outlook. Grandparents who can see the benefits of raising their grandchildren, view challenges in a positive way, and maintain an optimistic outlook on life experience less stress. 

Take Action. Grandparents who actively cope with challenges experience less stress and fewer negative outcomes. When confronted with a challenge, take action to resolve or address the issue. Get assistance from others, if needed. 

Engage in Self Care. Take care of your physical and mental health. Get regular physicals, exercise, eat right, and get plenty of rest. This may also mean taking a break from the daily demands of raising your grandchildren. Ask a friend or family member to help take care of your grandchildren, even for a short period of time, so that you can rest and recharge. 

Establish a Schedule. Establish a schedule for your family; having a routine is helpful for children, especially for those children who have experienced unstable or chaotic homes. 

Learn Child Discipline Techniques. Learn current recommendations for child discipline. Update yourself on issues related to technology, drugs, sex, school, and other issues that may confront your grandchild. 

Use Open Communication. Allow your grandchildren to talk openly about their feelings about their parents and their family situation. Listen to what they have to say. Do not talk negatively about your grandchildren’s parents in front of your grandchildren. 

Set Limits. To protect yourself and your grandchildren, you may need to set limits with your grandchild’s parents. This may mean not allowing them to visit at times, or limiting when and how long they can visit. You can express support and concern for your grandchild’s parents, while still remaining clear about your expectations.

When should I get professional help?

Because each family is different, it is difficult to say when grandparents raising grandchildren should seek professional help for themselves or their grandchildren. Generally, grandparents should seek help from a professional if 1) they feel unable to manage their stress, 2) their stress interferes with their ability to function, or 3) tension and conflict among family members becomes too difficult to manage. Grandparents should also seek help if their grandchildren's problems become too overwhelming to manage themselves. 

What types of help are available?

Family Therapy. Family therapy can help individuals and families cope with their feelings about their family situation, resolve problems, and improve the quality of their relationships. Family therapists are specially trained to understand the complicated feelings and relationships experienced by grandparents and their grandchildren. If you feel that your family could benefit from family therapy, seek a therapist who has experience working with grandparents raising grandchildren.

Support Groups. Many communities offer support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren. Although most of these support groups are for grandparents, some 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 about local resources, 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 websites of the organizations listed under “Resources” or contact a trusted professional in your area. Online support communities are also available, though you would want to carefully assess their quality.

Other Services. Grandparents raising grandchildren may be eligible for a variety of other services and supports including financial assistance, food and nutrition programs, free or low-cost medical care, respite care, and housing assistance, among others. To learn more about these services, consult the “Resources” listed below or ask a trusted professional such as a caseworker, school counselor, or health care provider.

Resources

  • Generations United: Offers a variety of information and resources for grandparents raising grandchildren.

  • Grandfamilies.orgProvides legal resources and policy information for grandparents raising grandchildren.

  • AARP Grandfamilies Guide:Offers a comprehensive guide related to seeking services.  Includes information about how grandparents can obtain assistance from a variety of professionals and organizations.  The website also offers a searchable listing of support groups.

  • AARP Grandfamily ResourcesList of public and private resources for grandparents raising grandchildren.  Topics include education, childcare and children’s special needs, family challenges, finances, health, housing and safety, legal, support, and work.

  • www.raisingyourgrandchildren.comInformation and community for grandparents raising grandchildren.