Parenting young children — 09 January 2011
Gratitude for grandparents who raise their grandchildren

The Holiday season heightens people’s gratitude for their blessings, prompts their sharing and magnifies the value of family connections. With all the noted contributions of many, those who raise their grandchildren seem to be underrepresented in society’s kudos and praise.

According to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau, “close to six million children living in households with their grandparents–a nearly 30% increase over the number reported in the 1990 census. Furthermore, grandparent-headed households continue to be the fastest growing type of household in the U.S. and have been since 1990. There are an estimated 2.5 million grandparents who are rearing their grandchildren without help from the children’s biological parents.”

Grandparents assume primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren when their children are unable to care for their own children due to substance abuse, financial distress and/or homelessness, incarceration, excessive conflict, abuse or neglect, deployment or premature death. Grandparents step forward to enable the children to have family stability. In doing so, grandparents not only serve their grandchildren but also relieve society from shouldering the burden of caring for these youngsters.

This undertaking usually requires a major adjustment for the custodial grandparents. The unanticipated change in life-course is the first challenge they face. The elders have to realign their goals and refresh their earlier childrearing skills that have become somewhat rusty over the years. They no longer have the support of their peer group or may be unfamiliar with the third generations’ interests, culture or values.

The grandchildren’s attitudes toward the grandparents may become an additional challenge if the older guardians are a source of shame due to their advanced age.

Bert Hayslip Jr. in “Working with Custodial Grandparents,“ reports that custodial grandparents frequently experience: financial difficulties, legal issues about their rights in raising their grandchildren, social restrictions, physical difficulties such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma and heart conditions, childrearing dilemmas and emotional stress reactions that include increased agitation, stress and depression.

The self- assessment of the custodial grandparents in this study affirmed that the sense of mission was clouded by feelings of failure and frustration. The custodial functions deprived the grandparents from the more customary role of playful, pampering and wise men/women who delight in their grandchildren.

We need to support custodial grandparents to help alleviate some of their stresses and enable them to succeed and thrive. Their contribution benefits not only their grandchildren but also the whole community.

In encountering a custodial grandparent,

• Realize that this individual is a caring family member and is also in service to society.
• Befriend him/her and express appreciation for the exceptional courage, determination and challenges he/she has undertaken.
• Ask how you can be of help and provide it if you can.
• Understand that the custodial grandparent needs support, affirmation of competency, validation of current parenting practices and an appreciative friend.
• Listen to the joys and stresses the grandparent relates and offer empathy, compassion and guidance. The grandchildren, their parents and society thank you!

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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