Connecting the Bridges: Grandparenting Grandchildren

Lenora M. Poe, PhD
Marriage, Family and Child Therapist
Berkeley, CA


A growing number of children are in the care of someone other than a parent, and, in many cases, that someone is a grandparent or other relative. "Kinship care" is the term most commonly used to refer to arrangements in which a grandparent or other relative is raising a child. According to 1995 U.S. census, more than 3.9 million children were being raised in grandparent headed households. The census also reported that 1.5 million (or 1/3) of these children were being raised by grandparents in households where neither parent is present.

When we take other relative caregivers into account, approximately 3.4 million children were being raised in households headed by a relative and over 2.1 million children live in the care of relatives without a parent present.

Contributing factors: drug and alcohol abuse; aids; teenage parenting; family violence; incarceration and poverty.

These caregivers provide one of painfully few safety nets for children who, due to rising rates of aids, parental incarceration, substance abuse, family and community violence, teenage pregnancy, and child abuse and neglect, might otherwise be living in unsafe homes or relegated to the uncertain world of foster care.

According to 1994 statistics, the vast majority--68 percent (375,714) of grandparent caregivers are white; 29 percent (157,178) are black. Proportionately, however, midlife and older blacks are nearly twice as likely as whites the same age to be grandparent caregivers; 9 percent blacks versus 5 percent of whites. Ten percent (56,820) of grandparent caregivers are of Hispanic origin. Only one percent (6,289) of midlife and older grandparent caregivers are American Indians and 2 percent (11,843) are Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Grandparent caregiver households are heavily concentrated in the south, 57% (200,469) with the rest evenly divided between the northeast, midwest and west (about 14% in each).

In 1970, 2,214,000 children under 18 lived in grandparent headed households. By 1993, that number had grown to 3,368,000. In 1992, there were only 867,000 grandchildren living with grandparents with neither parent present. In 1993, there were 1,017,000, an increase of 17 percent (150,000) children in just one year.

Many grandparents don't have any legal protection for these children whom they are parenting. They may not seek legal custody or guardianship of these children, often thinking and hoping the birth parents will get their lives together and become parents to their children. They often hope this arrangement will be temporarily so that they may return to the achieved role of being grandparents to their grandchildren. Many children enter their grandparents' home through an informal arrangement.

Many times in the African-American culture, the traditional role of grandparent was to provide stability and security for their grandchildren while the birth parents went away to seek a better education, living arrangement and job opportunity. They remained grandparents to their grandchildren. They maintained a comfortable parent/child relationship. The birth parent often returned to take their children once they had achieved their goals.

By comparison, today grandparents take on the parenting role of their grandchildren because of feeling obligated to their grandchildren and their families. Thus, they are deprived of a grandparent/grandchild relationship.

Grandparents and relatives have become parents to these children to protect the family unit. In spite of the disruption in their families because of drug and alcohol abuse of the parent, physical abuse of the children, HIV/AIDS, homicide or family violence and poverty, they have sacrificed their own health needs, financial resources, their own age/stage options and their own leisure, to keep their family together: Connecting bridges in their families! Many times grandparents and other relatives step in to prevent these children from entering the child welfare system.

These dedicated and nurturing caregivers have stepped forward to care for these children whose own parents are unwilling or unable to do so. The personal sacrifices of these relatives are tremendous. They sacrifice their own health, financial resources, leisure time and in many instances, wholesome family relationships.

Many grandparents and other relative caregivers are older individuals who find themselves unexpectedly raising a second family--"connecting the bridges in parenting" as they take on the role of providing security and stability to these children.

Despite the stability and permanence these parenting relatives provide these children, they often face tremendous obstacles in assessing services and benefits for the children in their care.

Such tasks as enrolling these children in school, assessing medical needs, affordable housing, seeking appropriate childcare, can and often become an impossible challenge for these families.

As grandparents and other relatives become parents to these abused and neglected children, many of them are dealing with their own feelings of being abused, feeling betrayed and put-upon (punished) by their own sons and daughters, the birth parents of these children. These parenting relatives also experience a difficult time dealing and coping with their own issues of broken/impaired relationships with their own children. They are grieving the emotional death of their own children, the deprivation of their achieved role as a grandparent and the loss of their age and stage appropriate dreams and plans. By contrast, the grandchildren are grieving the absence of their parents in their lives..

Grandparents express feeling emotionally overwhelmed as they attempt to cope with these feelings. They attempt to compare their gains and losses:

Losses Gains
The loss of leisure, quiet time Physical and emotional involvement, schools, homework, little league, dance classes, boy/girl scouts, etc.
Age/stage appropriate social/personal options The feeling of being young again. Being involved. No time to feel bored or tired.
The option to travel, relax or weekend sleep-ins Constant homecompanion being connected with a child`s world. Being familiar with weekend early morning cartoons, etc.
Being alone in your senior years/feeling lonely Saving and rescuing a child from physical and emotional abandonment. Saving a child's life.

These children need a safe, nurturing, secure and structured home environment to grow and feel safe. They need to know that wherever they may go, school, church, park, etc., They have a home to return to. Someone there to receive them, a bed to sleep in, a table to sit and eat, and someone to hug and say, "I love you. You are special."

Marian Wright Edleman states, "It makes more sense to treat children with love and get them involved in something constructive before they get into trouble."

Tips for grandparents raising grandchildren:

To find out where support groups are located in the state, you can contact the Illinois Department of Aging helpline at 1-800-252-8966 or the AARP Grandparent Information Center at 202-434-2296.

To find additional help, look for assistance from community agencies. Possible resources include financial help from the public aid office and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. You might receive food, clothing, transportation and general aid from religious and charitable organizations, food pantries and clothing banks. Other agencies which can help you include your local mental health center, Head Start, the YMCA, and your area agency on aging.

Special needs of children who have been removed from birth parents:

Copyright © 1998 Lenora M. Poe.

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