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Grandfamilies in 2020: An Overview

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In the U.S., many grandparents are primary caregivers for their grandchildren. According to a University of Michigan/AARP Poll, ten percent of grandparents care for their grandchildren full time. This number includes children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence.

These numbers have doubled since 1970, leading to a sharp rise in grandfamilies. While the reasons for this vary, they have a common denominator: they typically involve some form of tragic event.

First is the issue of parental illness or death. As many children today live in single-parent homes, the loss of that one parent leads to the grandparents taking legal guardianship or custody of the children.

In other situations, parents become incapacitated due to addiction or mental health issues.

Parental Drug Use

The opioid crisis has resulted in a staggering number of deaths in the U.S. In 2018, more than 46,000 people died as a result of an opioid overdose. Often, these addicts’ partners/spouses also battle substance use disorder, or are otherwise incapable of being a single parent. In many cases, the other partner is out of the picture altogether. In these tragic scenarios, the children are left without anywhere to go.

Grandparents typically step in first.

But even when a parent with a substance use disorder is still alive, the situation may not be safe enough for the children. In 2018, 1.7 million people in the U.S. suffered from substance use disorder related to prescription opioid pain relievers. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), drug abuse often goes hand in hand with neglect – both physical and emotional – and abuse. In fact, two-thirds of all child abuse cases involve substance abuse. That’s why, in most cases, social workers need to place the children in a different home until the parents stabilize. Child welfare organizations often turn to grandparents as the first option.

Parental Mental Health Issues

Other times, parents are incapable of properly caring for their children because they struggle with severe mental health issues. Schizophrenia, manic disorder, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and major depression and anxiety can be extremely debilitating. Parents with these types of mental illnesses may neglect their children or abuse them verbally, physically, and emotionally. They may lash out at their kids, bring home inappropriate guests, or stop providing food or clothing. Children – even teen children – are often safer in the home of grandparents.

The Benefits of Grandparent Caregiving

In the absence of the parents, healthy grandparents can give their grandkids a sense of security. Evidence shows that living with willing and available grandparents is a far better alternative for children than living in foster care with non-relatives. Studies show that children who are raised by their grandparents face fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those in foster care. Grandparents also usually feel lucky to be able to develop such close ties with their grandchildren, despite the unfortunate circumstances that led to the arrangement.

The Challenges of Grandparent Caregiving

While there are numerous benefits to being part of a grandfamily, there are many challenges as well. First, there are logistical issues: money, space, and transportation. For example, the costs of childcare are enormous, with every year and stage of the child’s life bringing more expenses. While affluent grandparents may not have an issue with all the unexpected costs, many older couples did not prepare for them. They may live from month to month, relying on social security income or their life savings. Lack of financial and social support for the grandchildren may place heavy strain on these grandparents.

An article in The Atlantic reported that grandparent caregivers also find second-time parenting much harder due to less stamina and more health issues. When you’re 65, you have less energy to run after a toddler climbing all over the dinner table. You might have arthritis or knee problems, hearing or vision loss. It’s likely you have more aches and pains than when you were a fresh-faced parent the first time around, which could impair your ability to effectively parent or provide necessary discipline.

You might also have less energy to handle teenage mood swings or mental health and emotional issues. Which, unfortunately, could be a serious problem. Teens who move in with grandparents because their biological parents struggled with addiction or mental health issues may suffer from childhood trauma such as abuse or neglect.

Caring for Their Mental Health Issues

Which brings us to our last point. Grandparents caring for their adolescent grandchildren need to be extra careful about monitoring their mental, emotional, and behavioral health. Since mental health and substance use problems have both a genetic and behavioral component, these children are at high risk for developing the same issues their parents dealt with. While it’s a scary thought to consider, it’s necessary to think about. Because your grandchildren are coming into a safer and more secure home doesn’t mean they’ll be immune from all the issues your own children – their parents – struggled with.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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