Grandparents can be an important resource, offering valuable support to both parents and children. They may help with child care or, for older children, drive them to school, sports events, or other extracurricular activities. Grandparents often help with homework and meals, and some may even support their grandchildren financially.
In some cases grandparenting goes beyond the occasional assistance and becomes regular part-time or even full-time care. An increasing number of children in the United States live in households headed by a grandparent, belonging to what is known as a “grandfamily.” The latest data indicate that 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, according to a study published in 2020.1 The reasons vary, but they include a rise in teen pregnancy, single-parent families, and divorce. There are also an increasing number of families in which substance abuse is a problem, resulting in grandchildren living with their grandparents.
“For households across the nation, grandparents have stepped up to become caregivers, for a variety of reasons, and with that responsibility often comes difficulties,” says medical doctor Andrew Adesman.2
Adventist grandparents Tom and Catherine Henderson3 found themselves moving from grandparenting into full-time parenting when their three granddaughters came to live with them. They began when the girls were younger, and have been caring for them for the past nine years. They started because of an increase in stress and trauma in the children’s home. “Taking on the role of ‘parent’ has its challenges and joys,” they report.
This example reflects the most extensive research to date, which surveyed 80,646 households, including 2,407, where grandparents were raising their grandchildren. The team of investigators used information from the National Survey of Children’s Health that gathered data from 2016 to 2018. This national study examined the physical and emotional health of children ages 3 to 17, concluding that grandparents who step in to raise their grandchildren are overcoming unique challenges and doing it successfully.
Catherine can certainly identify with the challenges that come with caring for grandchildren. One thing she and her husband have experienced is the “reluctancy at times for the grandchildren to accept [us], their grandparents, as their ‘real parents’ since they still see and want to honor their biological parents. Often their feelings are taken out on us. You have to develop some pretty wide shoulders to handle this and not take it personally or become bitter. Many times grandparents can feel alone or isolated as other ‘normal’ families may not quite understand the challenges.”
Another challenge, says Catherine, is “dealing with the damage that sometimes results from the parents not being present and in contact with the children. When they are in contact with the kids, they don’t necessarily keep the best interests of the child in mind. And as the child becomes older, questions arise as to if they can live with their parents. It can be hard for them to understand how this may not be the best situation.”
But joys are there too. “Seeing my granddaughters thrive in a stable and loving environment, growing in their relationship with Jesus . . . that far outweighs the challenges,” says Catherine. “It has taught me total dependence on God. I feel God has placed us in this situation to help us grow and to understand more about His relationship with us as His children.”
The task is not without discouragement. At those times, she says, “I will go on a long walk in the woods, pray out loud, read the Psalms, or talk with a friend who has taken on foster children and can identify with some of the challenges.”
Evidence suggests that even when grandparents have their own unique financial and health challenges, they can provide an environment in which their grandchildren can thrive. In fact, many grandparents raising grandchildren report that they would perform the same role again if given the chance.4
Children who are products of such a relationship may, as adults, agree with the study’s findings. Having their grandparents raise them was a positive experience. “I went to live with my grandparents when I was in middle school because my parents were going through a divorce,” shares one granddaughter. “My grandparents had a safe, stable, loving, and faith-filled home. I loved when they would share their life experiences with me of a simpler time, and I have carried that appreciation for their generation into my adult life. I think multigenerational relationships are a gift and both grandparents and grandchildren benefit.”
Grandparents play a vital role in bringing health, healing, and, most of all, hope to their grandchildren as they face life’s most difficult challenges. Their importance cannot be overestimated. However, they, too, need to be seen and supported in this challenging journey. At the end of the day, grandparents can be God’s hands and feet and help to reflect God’s heart.
Grandfamilies.org provides a directory of national and state-specific resources and support groups.
Focusonthefamily.com/grandparenting: Articles and tips that extend from those new to grandparenting to grandparents raising their grandchildren
AARP.org/relationships/friends-family/info-08-2011/grandfamilies-guide-getting-started.html: A complete document that lists what a grandparent raising grandchildren may need as well as helpful tips and information on legal documents, finances, health insurance, education, and child care.
1 Eli Rapoport, Nallammai Muthiah, Sarah A. Kiem, Andrew Adesman, “Family Well-being in Grandparent Versus Parent-headed Households,” Pediatrics 146, no. 3 (2020): e20200115.
3 Not their real names.
4 J. P. Lent and A. Otto, “Grandparents, Grandchildren, and Caregiving: The Impacts of America’s Substance Abuse Crisis,” Generations 42, no. 3 (2018): 15-22; B. Hayslip, Jr., and P. L. Kaminski, “Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Practice,” Gerontologist 45, no. 2 (2005): 262-269.