Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
When parents are unable to raise their own children, it is the grandparent who often steps in to assume the responsibility. Today in the United States, more than 2 million grandparents are living with and serving as the primary caregiver for their grandchildren. This trend poses incredible challenges both to the grandparent and the children involved, affecting everything from financial stress to child developmental to general family cohesion.
> Read the “Get Support, Grandparents!” Fact Sheet in English
> Read the “¡Obtengan apoyo, abuelos!” Fact Sheet in Spanish
> Listen to the Parenting Today radio show: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (mp3)
Why do grandparents become parents all over again?
Grandparents often assume the role of parent in an effort to keep their family together and keep their grandchildren out of the foster care system. It might happen when a parent is incarcerated, or struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness or other long-term health problem. A parent could be stationed overseas in the military. In some unfortunate cases, a parent may also be deceased.
Whatever the reason, when a grandparent steps in to care for a child, they take on an incredibly demanding role at a time in their lives when they might have otherwise been relaxing and relishing time alone.
The challenges for the grandparent:
Although a grandparent most often chooses to raise a grandchild for the right reasons, they are usually not prepared for the high demands of raising a child today. Unlike a foster parent, grandparent caregivers are usually offered no training to raise children, let alone a child who might be traumatized by losing a parent in some capacity.
Mental stress. Grandparents almost always take on the responsibility of caring for their grandkids because of a family emergency or tragedy. This means that they have to deal with their own emotional reaction to the circumstances along with those of their grandchildren. Once they overcome the initial shock of the situation, there is still the general stress of parenting. Their grandchildren may also have special medical, educational and psychological needs that require special attention.
Physical stress. As seniors age and require more medical attention, those raising their grandchildren often have less time and money to spend on their own health. In addition, the high physical demands of raising children (especially those under age 5) can take a serious toll on a caregiver’s health.
Financial stress. Perhaps the most immediate (and often most stressful) challenge for many grandparents is the financial burden of raising children, especially unexpectedly. Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren are 60% more likely to live in poverty than those who are not. And even if a grandparent is able to sufficiently support themselves, the cost of children can be overwhelming. Many are retired or living on fixed incomes, but they are suddenly forced to feed more mouths, fit more people into their home and pay for the endless other necessities associated with raising a child.
Day-to-day challenges. If the child’s original mother and father are absent, grandparents who do not have legal custody of their grandchildren might have trouble enrolling them in school, providing them with proper medical care and accessing their records. But obtaining custody and/or guardianship can be expensive, emotionally draining and confusing.
Grandparents can overcome these challenges!
Parenting can be tough. The second time around it might even seem impossible! But there are steps grandparent caregivers can take to make the transition smoother and the new family unit stronger. Children in this situation-regardless of why their parents are no longer there-may be dealing with serious issues of abandonment, parental confusion and emotional detachment.
Try to make their daily lives as stable and predictable as possible.This includes establishing a daily schedule and sticking to it. Try setting up a routine that is helpful to both you and your grandchild, like preparing meals together. They will learn valuable skills, lend you an extra set of helping hands, and they’ll be more likely to eat their vegetables if they’ve helped to prepare them.
Involve yourself in your grandchild’s school life. Introduce yourself to teachers and coaches at school. They see your grandchild every day and might be able to provide insight and support. If you feel that your grandchild may have special needs that are not being addressed in school, talk to his/her teachers, school counselor, or nurses. You have the right to request that your child be evaluated (or re-evaluated) for learning deficiencies and disabilities at any time.
Decide how to discipline. Start with a short, simple set of rules, and make sure that the children know why these rules are important to their safety and well-being. Then be consistent – you need to follow the rules just as the children do. Instead of spanking or slapping, which might teach your grandchildren to use violence in solving their own problems, use timeouts or a system of appropriate rewards and consequences for behavior to instill a sense of discipline. Remember: Beating, kicking, or assaulting a child are considered acts of child abuse, a criminal offense.
Communicate with your grandchildren. Respect what they have to say about rules, routines, and consequences. They are much more likely to be open with you about their daily lives and their emotions if you are receptive, tolerant, and understanding. It may take some time for them to open up to you; leave the door open!
Consider their perspective. Your grandchild’s preferences for music, clothing, and hobbies may be very different from your own as a child. However, you should try to be sensitive to his or her need to fit in with their peers, as long as this need does not grow into disrespect in your home or unsafe behavior.
Take care of yourself. Make sure to make time for yourself. Find a trusted babysitter, childcare center, or friend to take over while you exercise, nap, or relax. Your grandchild’s school may have before or after-school childcare. Don’t become isolated! Make sure that you keep in touch with friends in the neighborhood or at church. Their listening ears and helping hands can help ward away depression and stress.
Join a support group. Even if you have feelings of anger, shame, or disappointment towards your grandchild’s parents, do not use the child as a sounding board for your negative emotions. They may mistake your frustration for a withholding of love. They need to learn that they, and their parents, are worthy of love even if they have made mistakes in the past. Instead, try a grandparent support group where you can vent your frustrations, discuss parenting strategies and share successes.
Grandparents raising grandchildren is a growing phenomenon in this country, so you are not alone! There are a number of federal programs for support:
If the children are uninsured, you can apply to have them covered by Medicaid even without legal custody.
You may be eligible for state and federal income tax cuts and social programs, like WIC, a program that provides nutrition education and food vouchers for children under 5 who are at high risk for dietary or health problems.
For a complete list of state and federal programs that are available to grandparents raising grandchildren, go to www.childrensdefense.org.
The most important piece of advice for grandparents raising their children is the same thing we tell all parents: Parenting is TOUGH. And asking for help shouldn’t be. It is OKAY to feel angry or disappointed with your own child if you feel they are at fault in leaving your grandchildren. And it’s NORMAL to feel discouraged that you’ve had to change your plans at this point in your life.
Raising a grandchild is not an easy task, but it can certainly be something to be proud of and may even turn out to be the most rewarding accomplishment of your life. Your grandchildren can be a great and unexpected source of happiness.
By raising your grandchildren when their parents can not, you can help preserve your family’s heritage and history. Try taking your grandchild on a “virtual field trip” into your own past by telling them stories about your own childhood and showing them old photographs or possessions. You’ll be surprised at how fascinated they might be by your memories! And they might begin to understand the generosity and love you’ve pledged to caring for them.