Unique Considerations for Children Raised by Grandparents

How is a child's well-being influenced by living with a grandparent?

Posted Oct 21, 2014

by Laura D. Pittman, Ph.D., guest contributor

The season to think about heading to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. But many kids don’t have far to travel.

It’s not uncommon nowadays for grandparents to live with grandchildren, with many acting as full-time parents. And with that family arrangement come unique challenges.

Between 2008 and 2010, more than 5 million children in the United States lived with their grandparents (Murphey, Cooper, & Moore, 2012). About two-thirds of these households were multi-generational, where both the parent and grandparent lived in the home. The remaining one-third were custodial grandparent households, where the parent generation was absent (Vespa, Lewis, & Kreider, 2013).

These households form for many reasons, with the most common being that the family needs help from the grandparent generation (Pittman, Keeports, & Ioffe, in press). Multi-generational households often form because parents are working and need someone to help with childcare. Or they might be struggling financially and need somewhere to live.

However, custodial grandparent households usually form after even more serious difficulties, such as when parents are unable to take care of their children because of incarceration, child maltreatment or mental health or substance abuse issues.

So educators and social workers are now asking an important question: How does living in these grandparent-headed households influence a child’s well-being? As is true for most questions in psychology, the answer depends on how you look at the question.

Usually living in grandparent-headed households is better than the alternative. For example, children with single parents fared better academically and psychologically when living in multi-generational households compared to those living in single-parent-only households (DeLeire & Kalil, 2002). Similarly, children who live in custodial grandparent households, after being placed there by social services, do better than those who are placed in the regular foster care system (Brooks & Barth, 1998).

Other things such as age and culture are likely to influence how a child responds to living with a grandparent. Younger children need to feel loved and cared for, which grandparents can do well. However, adolescents who are figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world likely will start to wonder what it means to have their grandparents serving in a parental role. In addition, the expectation of how involved grandparents should be in taking care of grandchildren varies by culture.

So, while many children in grandparent-headed households may do fine, children living with grandparents are at risk for having more psychological problems than those living with traditional two-parent families (Dunifon, 2013). This is probably because of the negative circumstances that led to the household formation, for example poverty, adolescent parents or child maltreatment.

So what can we do to help these children living with their grandparents. Some suggestions:

• Raise awareness. Those working with children should be inclusive in their language about families. For example, teachers can broadly invite family members, not just parents, to special events.

• Be proactive. Because of the increased risk of psychological or academic difficulties, problems might be avoided by screening children in grandparent-headed households for problems that may go unrecognized and then providing proactive support, as needed. For example, schools could offer these students an opportunity to join a group or “lunch bunch,” where they could talk about their experiences to help them realize that other kids have the same family-living arrangement.

• Expand programming. Agencies serving families can include programming aimed at helping grandparents serving in the parent role. Those who are parenting the second time around often report a lot of stress and more mental health issues (Bachman & Chase-Lansdale, 2005). Having the support in place both to talk about this stress and to get helpful advice on raising grandchildren is invaluable.

More attention to tailored services for these families is warranted. Grandparents clearly are stepping up to help out in times of need. It’s time we step up to give them a hand.

Laura D. Pittman is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses about developmental psychopathology, ethics, and diversity issues in clinical psychology. Her research is focused on how family, school, and cultural contexts influence psychological and academic outcomes among children and adolescents.


Bachman, H. J., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (2005). Custodial grandmothers' physical, mental, and economic well-being: Comparisons of primary caregivers from low-income neighborhoods. Family Relations, 54, 475-487.

Brooks, D. & Barth, R. P. (1998). Characteristics and outcomes of drug-exposed and non drug-exposed children in kinship and non-relative foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 20, 475-501.

DeLeire, T. & Kalil, A. (2002). Good things come in threes: Single-parent multigenerational family structure and adolescent adjustment. Demography, 39, 393-413.

Dunifon, R. (2013). The influence of grandparents on the lives of children and adolescents. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 55-60.

Murphey, D., Cooper, M & Moore, K. A. (2012). Children Living with and Cared for by Grandparents: State-level Data from the American Community Survey. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Available at http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2012-30Grandparent....

Pittman, L. D., Ioffe, M., & Keeports, C. (in press). Young adults’ perceptions of grandparenting in multigenerational households. In M. H. Meyer (Ed.), Grandparenting in the US. Baywood Society and Aging Series.

Vespa, J., Lewis, J. M., & Kreider, R. M. (2013). America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Available at http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf.