Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Part II

Children may be "gifted" to their grandparents by dysfunctional adult children.

Posted Nov 26, 2019

 Grandparents and Grandchildren by Rickpilot 2000 CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr: Grandparents and Grandchildren by Rickpilot 2000 CC by 2.0

On May 13, 2018, the news program Sixty Minutes aired a story about the phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren. It focused entirely on the epidemic of opioid addiction as the primary reason for the middle generation taking such poor care of their kids that the grandparents having to “take over.” 

The show reported that there are now over one million grandparents raising grandchildren because of their own adult kids’ failings

This hearkens back to my very first post on my Psychology Today blog, back on June 22, 2011, in which I discussed the then-already-skyrocketing incidence of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of their dysfunctional children’s abdication of the parental role (rather than in cases of temporary needs like a military deployment). Note that this post was written well before the current explosion of the opioid epidemic had started.

I discussed the idea that the children were, in a sense, being “gifted” to the grandparents, who seemed to their children to have a pathological need to raise children despite continually complaining about it.

I wrote that the major apparent (pardon the pun) reasons were because the adult children:

1. Carry the psychiatric diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and were neglecting, abusing or otherwise endangering their children. 

2. Have antisocial traits and end up in jail (antisocial personality disorder is also a Cluster B personality disorder just like BPD). 

3. Are addicts or alcoholics. Many of those folks 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.

As most of my readers will know, I believe that the parents’ intrapsychic conflicts over the role of raising children is by far the most important cause of cluster B symptoms and acting out by their children and adult children. 

Furthermore, the grandchildren in these cases are also being subjected to its manifestations within the family system and might later develop the same disorders themselves (intergenerational transfer of dysfunctional patterns).

In a previous newsmagazine show from around the time of the earlier post, grandparents raising their grandkids were heard to say how much they loved taking care of the grandkids, but how chasing after them made them soooooo tired! And clearly, if we heard that, so did the grandkids. So the grandparents end up giving the same double messages that they had to their own children.

Some of these grandparents were interviewed on the newer Sixty Minutes segment, and the reporter discussed how many of them were plowing through and depleting their retirement savings, having to downsize and not go on previously planned vacation trips, arguing more between themselves, and even worrying about how they would find the money to treat their own illnesses such as, in one case, cancer.  Again, if we heard all this, so do the grandkids. In fact, one child was asked what the grandparents were giving up in order to take care of them, and replied, “Grandma had to give up dating. She says it all the time.

Two grandparents protested, “We can’t not do it [take care of the grandkids]; they’re our family!”

When the show described what went on before the grandkids had been “rescued” by their grandparents, the reporters did a good job of describing how older siblings would have to become so-called “parentified children” for their younger siblings, and how they felt they had to grow up too fast. I described what can happen in that situation in a previous post.

So was there any evidence that these grandparents may have engaged in problematic relationships with the absent parents that had influenced the middle generation’s irresponsible behavior with their own kids? Well, no direct evidence, but a couple of things were mentioned in passing that might suggest that this was the case.

In two of the described cases, the grandparents spoke of keeping track of what was going on with their kids and grandkids as the folks in the middle generation became homeless and along with their children crashed at various shady dives and crack houses. Rather than simply calling protective services to investigate, one set of parents bought their child a van and put a tracking device on it, while another set said they literally camped out across the street from one of said crash pads to make sure that their grandchildren were not being abused. Apparently all night long!

We don’t know for certain how long this sort of “tracking” was going on, but my guess is a long, long time. As regular readers may recall from my previous posts, the parents’ conflicts over their parental role in many (but not all) of these cases leads them to vacillate between severe over-involvement and severe under-involvement with their kids. One of these two poles often predominates much (but not all) of the time. This creates a double message to the children, “I need you—I hate you.” Constant tracking is one manifestation of the over-involved polarity.

So am I questioning all of the so-called evidence that opioid addiction is a biogenetic disease over which these deadbeat parents have no control, and that it has nothing at all to do with family dynamics? Well, yes. If you believe these people have absolutely no control over their drug use, you would also have to believe that:

1.  12 Step Programs like AA and NA, having no direct on brain pathology, could never work. Especially when the addict has "hit bottom" (that is, when the addiction is at its worst), which is when the 12 steppers say adopting their philosophy is most likely.   

2.  The way the drugs make them feel is so all-encompassing that they lose all ability to reason and the ability to appreciate the harm they are doing to themselves and their own children, or lose the ability to care about that at all.     

3.  If you pointed a gun at them and told them that, if they picked up the drug or drink in front of them, you would shoot them the moment they did, assuming they believed you and were not overtly suicidal at the time, then they would have to go ahead and die.

Do you really believe those things?