In every part of the developed world, there are increasing numbers of grandparents taking on the care of their grandchildren. Mental health professionals have become increasingly aware of the special needs of these intergenerational families. In Europe the Kinship International Network was established in 2013 to both study and support these families.
What are the needs of custodial grandparents? What happens when older adults take on the huge responsibility of raising their grandchildren? What are the problems involved and what are the benefits to both grandparents and grandchildren?
In a small number of cases grandparents take on the parenting role from the very beginning. Teen births are the primary cause. But in most cases there is a transition time which involves some sort of traumatic or disruptive behavior on the part of the parents. They live with increasing problems of addiction, they become incarcerated or maybe there is illness or death in the family. Divorce and break-ups, mental health issues and a host of other problems may make it impossible for the parent to adequately care for their children.
Any of these transition times involve a great deal of stress for all concerned. The grandchildren may have been neglected or abused. Irresponsible behavior may have put the grandchildren at risk in many ways. Grandparents observing the ongoing problems may have experienced anxiety, distress and great worry before deciding to take on the responsibility of caring for their grandchildren full time. And whether the transition takes place abruptly or over a period of time, grandparents will have experienced stress before taking on the role of grandparents raising their grandchildren.
While each extended family will be unique in their needs and responses to their situation, the main stressors fall into three broad categories: additional financial burden, family conflicts and legal difficulties.
Grandparents taking on the role of parent may find the need to increase their income. That may mean going back to work after retirement, taking on additional jobs or, for some, giving up their jobs to be home with the grandchildren, which in turn increases financial stresses. There are additional costs in feeding and housing children plus medical expenses, clothing and school expenses. For most grandparents there are also legal fees mounting in the process of gaining either custody or temporary custody releases.
There has been trauma in the transition period. Arguments, scenes, arrests, and any number of other stressful happenings have been part of family interaction. Grandparents may feel a great deal of anger, fear, shame and unhappiness over the problems facing their family. There is often a strain on the grandparents’ marriage as they cope with the stressful situations that arise day by day. Unpredictable behavior by the parents increases stress as the safety and well-being of the grandchildren is in question. Emotional manipulation by parents trying to retain control of their lives is common. All of these may keep the entire family in a state of perpetual tension.
Gaining custody of grandchildren moves the family into a maze of laws, forms, and major decisions. Most often grandparents will need to hire a lawyer to help them through the processes. At times grandparents are not able to gain full legal authority to make decisions for their grandchildren which further raises tension levels. The necessity of having to work with law enforcement in times of extreme behaviors further stresses family life.
While raising grandchildren is a problematic situation, there are also many benefits and satisfactions enjoyed by both the grandparents and their grandchildren. Here are some of the main benefits reported by custodial grandparents.
Joy in Sharing a Child’s Life
We tend to forget each stage of child development once it’s past. Grandparents have raised their children and in many cases the experience has been negative. Things haven’t gone well. Now the grandchildren need help. Grandparents are able to go back to the beginning and enjoy each phase of childhood with their grandchildren.
There’s no time to rock in the rocking chair when you’re raising grandchildren. Life will be busy and full of activity. Attending school events, church functions, sports and music events—grandparents’ lives stay young.
The richest experiences in life come when we have purpose and a sense of direction in life. Grandparents raising their grandchildren have a great sense of accomplishment. These children deserve a chance at happiness and grandparents can provide it.
Satisfaction in Grandchildren’s Successes
While family life may have had its problems and children have gone astray for one reason or another, grandparents raising their grandchildren can take great joy in their grandchildren’s successes.
Each family finding itself in a grandparent custodial situation is unique. No two families have the same story to share. But they do have much in common—some sort of trauma or loss, a special need to re-order their lives and the will and determination to move forward to provide a safe and secure home for grandchildren. While the number of families in this group is large worldwide, they often find themselves in a marginalized position in society. They need the help of governmental agencies, mental health providers and other community support systems.
*Some of the information in this article was gleaned from studies done by Deborah Waldrop and Joseph Weber of Oklahoma State University and by Megan Ludwisiak and Sarah Morse, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan.