Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Face Unique Challenges

Tracy Stengel

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*Names, identifying characteristics, and details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

I am lucky to be in a circle of five close girlfriends. Our tight-knit group gets together to laugh, cry, and celebrate each other’s achievements. Most of us have children in high school or college. But Darcy, 55 years old and the eldest in our group, watched her little one start kindergarten last month.

Darcy’s only child, Amanda, is 26. Four years ago, after a string of arrests for petty theft, drug possession, and other misdemeanors Amanda showed up at Darcy’s door. Strung out and pale, Amanda handed Darcy her screaming baby, Jasmine, and said, “I don’t want to be a mother anymore. It’s just too much.”

Darcy and her husband, Dave, watched in shock and horror as Amanda jumped into her boyfriend’s beat up car and sped off. It was 10 PM. The baby, was wrapped in a soiled blanket, wore pajamas with crusty spit-up on the front, and desperately needed a diaper change.

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From that moment on, Dave and Darcy’s lives were irrevocably changed. Their friends rallied around them, resurrecting playpens, car seats, and toys from their attics. Offers to babysit poured in, prayers were said, and sympathetic ears were at the ready. While these acts of kindness were welcomed and appreciated, Dave and Darcy seemed to age a decade in only a month.

Darcy quit her job as a nurse and started a cake baking business out of her home. Dave took a two-month leave of absence from teaching. There were court dates to get custody, a nursery to set up, and doctors’ appointments to attend.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Darcy said. “We were angry and disappointed with Amanda, but also with ourselves. How could we parent our granddaughter when we felt we had already failed with our daughter? Guilt and shame consumed us. It began to erode our marriage. As a last-ditch effort, we sought counseling and joined a grandparent support group. Those two things are what saved our relationship and our sanity.”

They learned to set boundaries. “Amanda would appear sporadically, wanting to see her daughter and play mommy for a few hours. Then, we wouldn’t see her again for months. We never knew where she was living or with whom. It was confusing to little Jasmine. Finally, we told Amanda not to come back until she was clean. That was three years ago. We haven’t seen her since. All we can do is pray for her safety and that she’ll get healthy again. But our focus needs to stay on Jasmine now. She deserves to know she’s loved. She is an innocent victim.”

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Dave and Darcy’s story is heartbreaking, but they aren’t alone. An estimated 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren in the United States. A study by Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, and a team of investigators, shows the unique challenges grandparents face when they find themselves parenting young children again.

… children in grandparent households were much more likely to have a history of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs), such as having lived with someone with drug or alcohol problems, psychiatric issues or exposure to violence. The study found children raised by their grandparents were six times more likely to have had a parent or guardian serve time in jail and four times more likely to have lived with someone with a drug or alcohol problem.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy recommends grandparents seek therapy for themselves and their grandchildren, find a strong support system, and access available resources. They also stress the need for self-care.

If you are a grandparent raising grandchildren, I’d love to hear your advice in the comments. What worked for you and what didn’t?

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI
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