Changing roles for grandparents raising grandkids.

The world is changing for grandchildren and grandparents. Despite two generation gaps and other problems, more and more grandparents are raising their grandchildren.


The Changing Role of Grandparents

Sally Houtman, M.S.

The world is changing for grandchildren and grandparents.  Despite two generation gaps and other problems, more and more grandparents are raising their grandchildren.


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Imagine for a moment the following scenario…

… You are a parent (and perhaps you are). Your life has been devoted to raising your children who are now grown, at long last. The phone rings. Your oldest daughter and her husband are expecting their first baby. You’re going to be a grandparent! You’re elated. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in your life. Your mind races with excitement as you try to take in the moment. You’re warmed by the prospect of once again having a little one in your life to watch grow, to dote after, and to spoil rotten. It’s exciting. It’s what you’ve waited for your whole life. This is your long-awaited reward for the years you spent worrying, struggling, and sacrificing for the sake of your children…and you’re going to love it!

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps the grandparent in this scenario, or even the expectant parent, is you. For many, the above scenario captures the joy and long-anticipated wonder of grandparenthood. But for others, the picture looks very different.

Now take a moment to imagine a very different scenario…

…You are the parent of a 19-year-old daughter. You’ve struggled endlessly with her though the years in a desperate attempt to steer her in the right direction. In spite of your heroic efforts, she’s dropped out of high school because she was "bored." Her search for excitement landed her in a stormy relationship with a boyfriend who abuses her. She’s been in and out of your home as her boyfriend’s moods dictated. She’s back home now, and seems quite content running the streets instead of looking for work. You can’t control her. You never could. You’re more afraid for her now than you’ve ever been. You’d put her out in an instant…if it weren’t for her 18 month old son. You may be his grandparent, but you’re all he’s got.

Or imagine this …

…You’re a grandparent for the third time. The catch is, that your unmarried, 28-year-old son keeps making you a grandparent with different women. Two of the mothers won’t let you see your grandchildren because they harbor such bitter feelings toward your son. They’re hurting each other, and in the process, making you pay for their mistakes.

Your youngest grandson is now 2 ½. He’s lived with you briefly on and off during his mother’s frequent run-ins with the law. It’s midnight. You’ve just gotten the call you’ve been dreading. Your grandson is at the police station with a children’s social worker. A neighbor had brought him in when he wandered next door asking for something to eat. His parents were nowhere to be found. The social worker needs to place him with a family member, or he’ll go into foster care. You aren’t prepared to raise another child. What do you do?


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What would you do in either of these situations? Would you be willing to put your own life on hold to care for the children? Could you even afford to? Where would the child sleep? Where would he or she go to school? Would you have to quit your job to look after another child? And what are you going to do with the tickets you’ve just bought for that cruise you’d been saving the past three years for? You didn’t create these problems. Why should this burden fall on you? You never imagined that being a grandparent would be like this.

These are but a few of the gripping and far-reaching questions which have faced and continue to face a growing number of grandparents who, for any number of reasons, find themselves becoming parents to their grandchildren.

Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are more than four million U.S. children living in homes in which a grandparent is the primary caregiver. In nearly a third of these homes, there is no parent present. The grandparents in these cases face untold challenges for which no amount of parenting experience could have prepared them. They learn through trial and error that being a parent is very different when the children they are raising are not their own.

Grandparents who are faced with the foreboding prospect of raising their grandchildren are confronted suddenly with an endless stream of unanswerable questions. Are they realistically suited for the job, and will they be able to rise to the many challenges that lie ahead? Are they healthy enough? Will they have to quit their jobs to care for the children? Will they have to re-enter the work force to afford the added expense? What about the emotional strain? Being a parent for a second time means jumping headlong back into the whirlwind of responsibilities, decisions, disciplinary dilemmas, medical appointments, homework assignments, parent-teacher conferences, and the list goes on. Will they hold up, or will they crumble under the weight of it all?

As if making this decision were not enough, what follows on its heels is yet another series of choices and unexpected challenges. Once the children arrive, grandparents find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between the parent and the children. How does a grandparent go about setting healthy and consistent limits for a child whose parent continuously undermines his or her authority? Who has the final say on issues when a parent and grandparent are at odds? If a grandparent’s goal is to provide safety and security for their grandchildren who have had none, then how does a grandparent protect the children from a parent who seems to present the biggest threat to their well-being? How does a grandparent compensate for a parent’s absence, irresponsibility, or broken promises? How do they get an absentee parent to take a more active role in his or her children’s lives? How hard should they try?

It seems an understatement to say that grandparents raising their grandchildren have their hands full. Not only have they inherited the dubious distinction of becoming parents to a generation of children once removed, but they are simultaneously balancing this against their ongoing role of parent to their now adult children. In essence, they’ve become parents to two generations at the same time. And doing double duty entitles them to twice their share of parental grief.

From their adult children, these grandparents will often bear the brunt of guilt and blame. Anxious to escape culpability for the chaotic state of their lives, these adult children seek out the easiest target, inundating the grandparent with such powerful statements as, "You’re trying to turn my own child against me," or, "If you don’t let me see my son when I want, I’ll leave and take him with me."

At the same time, these grandparents are fielding attacks from the other direction. Their grandchildren, who now have uncomfortable and unfamiliar restrictions placed on them, will unfalteringly remind their weary grandparents, "You’re not my mom or dad."

Children who come to live with their grandparents bring with them more than the average share of emotional and behavioral problems. Thus, grandparents who become parents to their grandchildren are sure to inherit more than the average share of resistance, rebellion, and limit-testing behaviors. Children whose parents have been unavailable or neglectful will wind up feeling unwanted and abandoned, and a burden to their new caretakers. Ironically, these children may desperately cling to what little their parent is able to give them, idealizing the parent, and leaving the grandparent feeling unappreciated and rejected. Being caught in the crossfire leaves grandparents feeling like they just can’t win.

For this reason, support and information is essential for all members of such a family. As the phenomenon of grandparents raising their grandchildren becomes increasingly more common, information and resources on the issue are becoming more numerous and more accessible. For those interested in sources of support, or just more information on the subject in general, start by calling the AARP’s Grandparent Information Center at: (202) 434-2296.

Article by Sally Houtman, M.S., author of , "To Grandma’s House, We…Stay: When You Have to Stop Spoiling Your Grandchildren and Start Raising Them."

The author’s book contains additional information and resources.

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Letters from Surfer Grandparents. Open-Minded in Changing World. April Fool’s Letter to Grandkids.
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News. Activities for Kids at Grandparents’ Home. At Grandma’s House We Stay.

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