A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Why has the number of grandparents raising grandchildren skyrocketed?

In the last thirty years, a dramatic increase in the numbers of grandparents raising their grandchildren has taken place. Sometimes the parent in the middle also lives in the house, but often not. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of children living in grandparent-headed households increased by a whopping 66 percent. (Bryson, K., & Casper, L. M. [1999]. Co-resident grandparents and grandchildren. Washington, DC: Current Population Reports, Special Studies, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census).

In 1997, 2.4 million of the nation's families were maintained by grandparents who had one or more of their grandchildren living with them. This trend seems to be continuing to the present day. Among white families, the number of children being raised by their grandparents was up 9 percent from 2007 to 2008 alone. This was before the effect of economic factors resulting from the deep recession.

When the situation is not due to external factors such as the sudden unemployment of the parents, military parents being deployed to Iraq, or the untimely death or serious illness of the child's parents, the persons in the middle -- the mother and father of the child -- often fall into one of three categories:

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1. Individuals who carry the psychiatric diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) who neglect, abuse or otherwise endanger their children.
2. Individuals with antisocial traits who end up in jail (antisocial personality disorder is also a Cluster B personality disorder just like BPD).
3. Addicts or alcoholics. Many of them may also exhibit significant Cluster B personality traits at one time or another, although in addicts the traits may disappear if and when the addict cleans up.

These types of parents may literally give their children drugs or alcohol, leave them unattended, or hang out with unsavory characters who are bad influences on the children. Because the grandchildren appear to be in such danger, the grandparents feel that they simply must take over the rearing of the child, and of course there is a lot of truth to their viewpoint. Often the grandparents step in to prevent these children from going into the foster care system, or worse, onto the street to hang out with other runaways. As we all know, female runaways are in danger of ending up in the sex trade.

When I see the Cluster B parents in psychotherapy, and ask them about what they think is going on, however, a completely different but oddly complementary point of view emerges. They believe that their parents want to take control of the grandchildren, and are just looking for an excuse to do so. They interpret their parents' frequent attacks on them for their bad parenting skills as a coded instruction to become or to continue to be bad parents -- so that the grandparents can have the excuse they are looking for to take the kids away.

The child's parents then abdicate their parental role to give the grandparents what they seem to want. The parents are, in a sense, offering up their own children as gifts to their parents. The more the grandparents criticize their behavior, the more they think the grandparents are looking for such an excuse, and the worse parents they become. The worse parents they become, the more the grandparents feel obligated to take over the care of children. And it's not just a vicious circle -- although it is that -- because both the parents and the grandparents are simultaneously giving each other double messages. I refer to this phenomenon as cross-motive reading.

A few years ago there was a TV newsmagazine story about grandparents raising grandchildren that illustrated what other family members may be reacting to. Several of the grandmas who were interviewed waxed eloquently about how their grandchild was the center of their universe and how raising their grandchild was such a joy and how it gave their lives new meaning. At other times during the same interview, however, they complained bitterly about how, as elderly women, chasing after their grandkids made them soooo tired. Not that both of these statements cannot be true simultaneously, but I suspect that both the parents of the grandkids and the grandchildren themselves would find the two sentiments somewhat contradictory.

If these women expressed them so readily to a TV news reporter, one can confidently wager that their children and grandchildren had heard them ad nauseam as well.

I strongly suspect that one of the main reasons behind the large increases in the number of grandparents who are raising grandchildren has been the increasing frequency of Cluster B family dynamics in American culture. When I was a psychiatry resident in the mid-1970s, borderline personality disorder was considered somewhat uncommon. Not so any more.

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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