Children Raised by Grandparents

by Senior Care Staff on February 17, 2012

Grand Families: Children Raised by Grandparents

As more grandparents take on the task of raising their grandchildren, the changes in communities brought about by the influence of this unique family structure become more powerful in shaping local and state policies. Many grandmothers and grandfathers don’t think twice about assuming the custody of grandchildren when the need arises, because family ties and familial love initially overcome practical considerations. However, forming a grandfamily — a household in which a grandparent, in the absence of parents, raises grandchildren — has far-reaching effects on lifestyle, economic status, and often quality of life.

The Numbers

The percentage of American grandchildren being raised by one or more grandparents in homes without parents present has risen over the past few decades. Whereas in 1991, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that about 1.7 percent of children in the U.S. lived in such home environments, that number has risen to 2.5 percent in 2009.

In terms of actual numbers, the senior association AARP reports that nearly one million American children are being raised in a grandparent’s household where the parents do not live. Furthermore, AARP points out that of those grandparents who find themselves parenting a second generation, 67 percent are under the age of 60.

The Children

While only a small body of research currently exists regarding the effects on children of being reared by one or both grandparents, some statistics and study results outline this demographic in broad brush strokes. Census statistics show that in 2009, more than half of all children who did not live with their parents lived in a grandparent’s household. Many of these grandfamilies were living below the national poverty level.

In a study from the National Institutes of Health entitled Risk of Psychological Difficulties Among Children Raised by Custodial Grandparents, researchers determined that custodial grandchildren had far more psychological problems than kids raised by one or both parents. In particular, boys raised by grandmothers had more behavioral and social problems.

The researchers concluded that there are two primary reasons for this discrepancy between traditional families and grandfamilies. First, many grandchildren come into the grandparent’s care because of a variety of problematic issues. Their parents may be substance abusers, they may be too young to parent, and some are incarcerated, dead, or ill. Grandchildren may be victims of neglect or abuse prior to moving in with grandparents. They often arrive with pre-existing psychological and behavioral problems.

Secondly, the unexpected pressures and difficulties experienced by grandparents who are unprepared to resume child-rearing lifestyles can detract from a grandchild’s psychological well-being. Irritability, anxiety, and feelings of guilt not only negatively affect a custodian’s parenting skills, but can transfer from grandparent to grandchild.

Economic Issues

The serious economic concerns that arise when a one or two person household suddenly expands can be crippling to the family’s well-being. For grandparents who are still in the workforce, taking on childcare expenses in addition to feeding, clothing and educating a grandchild, even if the parent is able to contribute financially, is an unexpected expense that may prove overwhelming.

Grandparents who have already retired when grandchildren move in are at an even greater economic disadvantage, since their fixed incomes are most likely insufficient to support more than themselves. If they are lucky and healthy, grandparents may be able to re-enter the workforce, or postpone retirement longer. However, many grandparent-headed households require assistance when they acquire custodial grandchildren.

AARP provides a comprehensive source of state-by-state fact sheets that provide custodial grandparents with information on state and local resources, financial and educational assistance, and other regional resources available.

New Accommodations for Grandfamilies

The availability of grandfamily resources reflects the increasing prevalence of these family units. In the same vein, some U.S. cities are leading the country in accommodating the unique needs of grandparent/grandchildren cohabitation.

The Bronx in New York and Kansas City, MO are just two urban centers where changes acknowledge the growing prevalence of grandfamilies. Kansas City’s Pemberton Park is a unique new apartment complex designed for retirees raising grandchildren. The wheel-chair accessible, multi-bedroom units with open floor plans have bathrooms equipped with senior-focused safety features.

However, the location of the complex reflects its multi-generational design. Pemberton Park is strategically positioned within walking distance of both a Head Start classroom and a health care clinic. Unlike other senior housing, Pemberton Park has a playground. Both students and grandparents can use the complex’s computer room. This emergent trend in grandfamily housing presents solutions to some of the challenges of multi-generational living.

Elsewhere in the U.S., grandfamily support groups are being established throughout the country where members can network, share their parenting experiences and provide mutual, grassroots support.

University extension programs, such as Montana State University’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Project, offer education and activities that help grandfamilies build strong family ties.

Legal Paperwork Grandparents Should Have

Some things about parenting come naturally while others may require a refresher course. Grandparents taking on the role of parents should have the following documents rounded up in one place for easy access as needed:

  • Grandchildren’s birth certificates
  • Their parent’s death certificate, if applicable
  • Grandchildren’s social security cards/numbers
  • Medical/immunization records
  • Dental records
  • Grandparent’s Power of Attorney, custody or guardianship documents
  • Consent letters from parents for obtaining medical care
  • School report cards and/or records
  • Proof of child support and assets for grandchildren
  • Citizenship verification, if applicable

Grandparents who establish contact and maintain relationships with grandchildren’s teachers, pediatricians, and social workers are best positioned to identify any difficulties the children may be having early on, when problems are easiest to address. These professionals also constitute a source of information and support for grandfamilies that can prove invaluable as grandparents and their grandchildren nurture new family bonds.

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