One in six Americans live in a multigenerational household, meaning that more than two generations are together under the same roof. Of these, an increasing number are grandfamilies – that is, households headed by an older couple or individual who is raising grandchildren under the age of 18.
In these cases, grandparents have stepped in when the parents are unable to take care of the kids. Incarceration, substance abuse, or early death of parents are a few of the circumstances that might precipitate such an arrangement. The opioid epidemic is often cited as a reason for the increase in grandfamilies.
In other cases, a parent is present in the household too, often a single mother who needs support. But in all cases, grandparents raising grandchildren face special challenges. Here’s a quick overview.
The role of the custodial grandparent
Many people expect that as grandparents, they’ll get to have fun with their grandkids, without the day-to-day responsibility of parenting. It’s a major life adjustment when circumstances dictate that you have to take custody of the kids. If that’s your situation, it’s important to acknowledge feelings of grief or loss you might be experiencing. Many people look forward to retirement as a time of independence, and it’s not easy to give this up and resume parenting. Ambivalence about this is normal.
Self-care and seeking support from others is critical. This means making healthy choices for your physical and mental health not only for your own sake, but for the kids. Finding support can mean making friends with parents of your grandchildren’s friends, or finding support groups of grandparents raising grandkids.
Legal issues relating to grandfamilies
Depending on your family’s specific circumstances, it may be appropriate for you to seek the help of a family lawyer to clarify your rights and ensure continued access to your grandchildren. These might include situations of suspected abuse, or if there’s been a divorce, death of a parent, or estrangement. Grandfamilies.org is a wonderful resource with a great deal of legal information applying to different situations in which grandparents might find themselves raising their grandchildren.
No matter the situation, it’s important for custodial grandparents to assemble important documents. These can include the children’s birth certificates and Social Security cards, power of attorney or any custody/guardianship papers, consent forms, and death certificates of the parents (if applicable).
Financial assistance may be available for grandparents who are unexpectedly raising grandchildren and are unprepared for the financial burden of doing so. Social workers, attorneys, and groups like the AARP are useful resources for grandparents who are seeking practical assistance, including financial, with raising grandchildren.
Grandfamilies.org also features downloadable fact sheets for each state, including Pennsylvania, that provide detailed information about how to access a wide range of available resources, including tax credits, support agencies, public benefits, health insurance, and more.
Helping the grandchildren
When your grandchildren move in with you, it may take some time for them to adjust. The circumstances that have created the necessity that they move in with you likely involve some sort of trauma or loss. So while this is a big adjustment for you, bear in mind that it’s even harder for them. The kids may act out, but no matter their behavior, they need your love and support. Creating a stable home environment for them, complete with routines and expectations, will be critical.
It may be difficult to know how to talk to the kids about their parents, or how much to tell them – especially if they are very young. However, it is critical that they should be told the reasons why they’re with you in an age-appropriate fashion. Answer all questions honestly, while avoiding telling the children more than they may be prepared to hear. (One way to navigate this: focus on answering each question very precisely, without going into unnecessary detail. If the kids want to know more, they’ll follow up with more questions). But no matter what, you should never lie to them, and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. The children should not be put in the position of having to find out more about their family’s circumstances from anyone other than you.
It’s natural for children to miss their parents, even if they know they’re better off with you. Acknowledge these painful, conflicting feelings and encourage the kids to talk about them. Be careful to avoid giving the children the impression that their parents and their circumstances are a taboo subject. Talking about things openly and honestly is an important part of moving forward in a healthy way, and the kids need to know that it’s safe to do that anytime they need to.
The role of counseling for grandfamilies
In many cases, family counseling can be helpful as members of a grandfamily adjust to new roles and new expectations. This is an enormous life transition for everyone involved. Sometimes, grandparents see a need for family counseling right away — other times, the need for counseling becomes apparent after the initial crisis that precipitates the move is over, and it becomes obvious that this will be a long-term situation.
Individual counseling can also be helpful for grandparents and grandchildren alike. You may be struggling with feelings of resentment toward your grandchildren, or guilt over the fact that your own child, the grandchildren’s parent, is unable to raise the kids. Counseling can help you work through these painful feelings. Counseling can also provide you with coping skills and emotional support as you become re-accustomed to parenting.
Many of the reasons why children are being raised by their grandparents are deeply traumatic. Individual counseling can help children cope with these traumas in a healthy way.
At Westmont Family Counseling Ministries, we provide family and individual counseling to people facing a wide variety of life transitions, including members of grandfamilies. We encourage you to get in touch if we can be of assistance to you or your family.