5 Ways Grandfamilies Help Grandchildren

Many grandparents are taking over for parents today.

Posted Jul 11, 2018

Are you currently raising your children’s children, or do you think you might be doing so sometime soon? You’re not alone. More than 3 million households in the United States are “grandfamilies” — homes where grandparents are the primary caregivers for their children’s kids. There are also grandfamilies in Canada, Europe, and many other countries worldwide. I’m a developmental pediatrician, and in recent years I’ve seen more and more of these families in my office. I deeply admire these women and men—in midlife or beyond—who are making the best of what’s often an extremely tough situation. They’re rewriting the story of their lives to provide stable, loving homes for their grandchildren, and they’re educating themselves to do the best possible job. This blog is for them, and for you, if you’re among these generous, hard-working family heroes.

Grandfamilies are often formed in crisis, and the opioid epidemic is one major reason for their rising numbers lately. What happens when a young parent struggles with addiction or dies of an overdose?  Often, the addicted person’s mom or dad (or both) takes a deep breath and steps in to raise their grandkids. Because whether it’s opioids, other drugs, or alcohol, addictive substances can utterly scramble a parent’s priorities, leading to child neglect or abuse. “My grandson would have been seriously injured or killed in his parents’ care,” one grandparent told me. As another put it, “A child should never have to live in a car or on the streets.” 

Sometimes the parenting problems stem from untreated mental disorders, or from simple immaturity or irresponsibility. Often these issues intertwine, and incarceration plays a part in many grandfamilies’ stories.  Grandparents might see the problem looming ahead, or it might catch them by surprise. But by the time I meet these families in my office, the older generation has risen to the challenge.

And grandparents bring some real advantages to the table—whether they step into “informal custody” arrangements, serve as foster parents, or seek legal guardianship or adoption. Here’s why forming a grandfamily is often the best alternative for children.

Kinship care often builds on existing bonds, offering the best continuity for the child.  If a social service agency is involved in placing a child, it will generally first seek out relatives as potential caregivers. Indeed, in many cultures throughout human history, extended and multi-generational families have provided care for their youngest. Today’s “skip-generation” families are a new version of that practice. Maintaining family traditions, and access to other relatives, can be a major plus. And grandfamilies can offer the most flexibility if the birth parents eventually prove themselves able to parent again— although that outcome is by no means certain. 

Grandparents are assured of the child’s safety.  Once we’re aware of a danger to a child, it’s hard to stop worrying about what might happen. As a pediatrician, I fully support the “ounce of prevention” approach, especially when it comes to a child’s general health and welfare. When it comes to our family’s lives, no one wants to someday think, I wish I’d done more to prevent that situation from escalating the way it did. Grandparents want to know they did all they could. As one grandmother told me, “I’m so relieved. I sleep at night now, knowing she is here, cared for, and loved.”

Grandparents are motivated to nurture the child—although they may have to make a mental leap from grandparenting to parenting again. Meeting the child’s physical and emotional needs; providing structure and stability; securing medical, dental, and perhaps psychological care; navigating social lives, school requirements, and other activities—these nurturing tasks are important to many grandparents.

Grandparents are motivated to advocate for the child. Parenting is hard work, as well as a great joy: you already know that.  And children who come from troubled households may need even more support. To help them thrive at school, you may be learning your way around new systems for addressing developmental issues or learning disabilities. To help with your household’s new priorities and finances, you may wonder what assistance is available from local, state, and federal sources. I’ve met plenty of grandparents who are tenaciously advocating for these children in these and other settings.

Grandparents can tap into an instant support network through social media sites.  This real-time practical support can be especially valuable for catching up on evolving and emerging parenting issues. Two examples: Grandsplace—Grandparents Raising Grandchildren on Facebook; and The Addict’s Mom:Grandparent to Grandparent—as well as other excellent groups.

In this blog, I’ll explore key issues grandfamilies face today. You’ll also hear from many of those who responded to my Adesman Grandfamily Study (2016), one of the largest national studies on this topic. Excellent pediatric care is just the beginning. Together, we’ll explore what you need to know for the successful physical and emotional health of everyone in your grandfamily.