Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

A new kind of family

Source: Shutterstock

Although many people are still largely unaware of this evolving family phenomenon, there are an increasing number of families today maintained by grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, ages newborns to adolescents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, there were 2.7 million grandparents who had the primary responsibility for caring for their grandchildren who lived with them. [1] It is also double the number of grandparent-headed households in 1970, when the percentage was 3% of all households. In 2012, the percentage was 6 percent.[2] In many cases, there are no parents living with the children and their grandparents.

Grandparents often receive bewildered babies or older children who arrive with the clothes on their backs and nothing else. No toys, no favorite blankets or stuffed animals to sleep with, nothing. They may be angry, confused, or fearful. Some of them were born addicted to drugs, and they suffer from the long-term effects of these drugs on their minds and bodies.

Why Are So Many Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Now?

Why are increasing numbers of grandparents, from their fifties to their seventies (and older), once again raising babies and children? The key reason is that they don’t want their grandchildren to be placed in foster care, and risk never seeing them again. But why would they have such a fear? One key issue is the major increase in opioid abuse in the United States, which has alarmed organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) so much that they issued their own prescribing guidelines for chronic pain.[3] Other reasons for grandparents acting as parents again are the mental illness of an adult child, and child abuse and neglect that adult children inflict on their own children. Often these reasons are tied together. For example, a person addicted to oxycodone or heroin has great difficulty parenting a child of any age, as does someone addicted to stimulants such as methamphetamine. Alcohol abuse also continues to be a problem among many people with young children. Substance abuse radically decreases an individual’s level of patience and interest in taking care of his or her own children.

Drug Abuse and Addiction and Child Maltreatment

Sometimes grandparents are raising their grandchildren because the adult children have died of drug overdoses. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2015, there were 20,101 overdose deaths linked to prescription opioids and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin.[4] Some people who overdose on drugs leave behind at least one child. Many were unmarried and their partners are unknown, uninterested, or incapable of parenting a child.

Of course, not all people who abuse drugs die of drug overdoses, and instead many continue to abuse drugs and may abuse or neglect their children, causing state protective services authorities to investigate and remove the children from their homes for their safety and well-being. The CDC says nearly 2 million Americans abuse or were addicted to opioids in 2014. [5]

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, substance abuse is a factor in as many as two-thirds of all cases of child abuse and neglect[6]. In most cases, state caseworkers seek out grandparents or other relatives who will take in the child(ren).

Mental Illness

Sometimes the adult child is mentally ill, suffering from such problems as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression. They may also abuse drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, eschewing the psychiatric drugs that could help them. When it becomes apparent that a mentally ill person cannot parent a child adequately, state social services steps in, again looking for family members to help. In most cases, these family members are grandparents.

Other Reasons

Sometimes the parent is incarcerated in jail or prison and the child needs a family member (or foster parent) to provide a home. The imprisoned parent may be jailed for drug or other offenses and sometimes is jailed for violent crimes, receiving a sentence of many years. In some few cases, the adult parent is extremely immature and incapable and uninterested in parenting.


If you are a grandparent raising your grandchild, or you know someone else who is, you may wish to participate in an ongoing study. A renowned American pediatrician, Andrew Adesman, MD, is performing a major research study on the unmet needs of grandparents raising their grandchildren. This study is meant to bolster efforts to ensure that grandparents raising their grandchildren obtain the financial and social supports that they need. Go to:


[1] Renee R. Ellis and Tavia Simmons, Coresident Grandparents and Their Grandchildren: 2012. United States Census Bureau: October 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Deborah Dowell, MD, Tamara M. Haegerich, PhD, and Roger Chou, MD, “CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain,” Morbidity and Mortality Review 65, 1 (March 18, 2016):1-50, (accessed December 16, 2016).

[4] American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Opioid Addiction,” 2016,… (accessed December 15, 2016).

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Prescription Opioids,” March 16, 2016, (accessed December 16, 2016).

[6] Child Welfare Information Gateway, Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System, October 2014, (accessed December 16, 2016).