Challenges and benefits of being a custodial grandparent

Photo by Nikoline Arns

It’s not uncommon to see older adults involved in the upbringing of their grandchildren.

More than ever, though, adults are the sole providers and guardians of grandchildren, a situation that comes with a host of various challenges, issues and benefits.

The Calgary and Area Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD) ordered a literature review — where the most up-to-date research on a subject is collected and compiled — into the subject of custodial grandparents: those who assume the fulltime care of their grandchildren.

This review was called as there was a “strong imperative for ensuring that health, education, child welfare and disability services develop effective practice responses to better address the unique needs of custodial grandparents and their grandchildren,” according to the summary released by the RCSD.

The summary begins with the various issues contributing to the rise of custodial grandparents, which include the current Opioid crisis, the 2008 financial crisis, the AIDs epidemic and an increased focus on “kinship placement” wherein child welfare agencies in Canada are more likely to place children under the guardianship of family members, or kin.

The document states that “surrogate parenting of children by relatives” is something deeply rooted in the history of humanity. Grandparents provide the majority of this surrogate parenting, comprising 88 per cent of all kinship caregivers in the United States.

The reasons behind the assumption of custody are many: issues such as parental substance abuse or death, child abuse or family violence, to poverty, unemployment or neglect.

The research suggests that grandparents are “often the only relatives who have the time and strong familial obligation to commit to the permanent care of these children” and that they are more likely to be women, older in age, experiencing higher levels of parental stress alongside more limited access to resources.

The reasoning offered that kinship caregivers often have less access to resources is that they are less like to pursue a formal avenue of guardianship, such as adoption.

Adoption requires that the parent of the child — most often an adult child of the grandparent —terminate their own parental rights. Custodial grandparents are hesitant to pursue this as it might either hurt their relationship with their own child or potentially close the door on the biological parent to regain custody of the child in the future.

This conflict between the biological parents is cited as one of the biggest challenges for custodial grandparents, many of whom feel “caught in the middle” between their own, adult children and child protective services.

Many fear or experience harassment from the biological parents as a result of working with child protection or welfare agencies, while at the same time struggling with anger and resentment towards their own adult children.

In additional, custodial grandparents experience resentment over having their own life plans being interrupted: a loss of freedom or lifestyle, hopes they may have had for their mid-to-late life and the issue of financial insecurity.

The grandchildren themselves also pose a challenge for custodial grandparents. Childcare can be an exhausting and stressful endeavour on its own, but a high percentage of children in “skipped generation” families have special needs, mental health issues or behavioural problems.

All of this coupled with the fact that grandparents have difficulty accessing support services due to the maze of navigating benefits, stress coming alongside interaction with the authorities within service systems and underplaying the difficulties of child-rearing — lest they seem incompetent and lose custody — and it’s clear that custodial grandparenting comes with a wide and expanding range of difficulties.

That’s not to say it’s without its benefits: many report enormous satisfaction with raising their grandchildren, with an appreciation for the joy and relief that comes alongside keeping families together.

And there are marked benefits for the grandchild as well: evidence shows that children feel happier, more valued and cared for, with better physical, mental and behavioural health outcomes. Kids are less likely to run away, change schools or re-enter care.

The existence of these benefits, though, do not erase the many difficulties that come alongside custodial grandparenting. The summary of the literature review conducted by RCSD includes recommendations for best practices to help alleviate these difficulties and further help custodial grandparents through the process.

These recommendations include addressing the emotional well-being of the grandparent in addition to the grandchild, better train social service practitioners to help grandparents navigate the rocky relationships with their adult children and increase access to support groups, medical and legal services, welfare programs and recreational programs for children.

Overall, one of the biggest recommendations is that practitioners move from a “one-size-fits-all response to develop support systems that are relevant and account for the wide variation in the health, mental health and circumstances of custodial grandparents.”

“The systems involved in the Calgary and Area RCSD have an opportunity to work together to better meet the needs of this population, thereby strengthening families and enhancing child outcomes.