Two recent journal articles about the challenges and opportunities confronting grandparents taking care of grandchildren highlight the passion of Youjung Lee, co-director of the Institute of Multigenerational Studies (IMS) and several Binghamton University co-authors.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.7 million grandparents have primary caretaker roles for their grandchildren in this country. By definition, children who are being taken care of by their grandparents have experienced a variety of trauma and stress that necessitated the atypical arrangement. Whether the cause is abuse, death, abandonment or incapacitation of the parents, the new nuclear family poses significant opportunities and challenges to all members.
Schools see greater behavior problems among children whose parents have been replaced by grandparents, and the older caretakers are not always prepared – both physically and emotionally – to handle their new charges. There may also be shame associated with admitting that they have “failed” to raise their own children well enough to avoid such a predicament.
But there are also significant benefits to both ends of the spectrum: Children in such circumstances can show amazing resiliency, avoiding the “toxic stress” that often comes with placement outside their immediate family.
Grandparent caregivers also embrace this new “second chance” at childrearing in better ways than they may have done with their own children. Thus, healing and growth can be achieved.
In the words of one grandparent, “I couldn’t imagine not doing it. They’re my life. They’re my reason to get up every day.”
Another said, “I try to give her more love than I did my own children.”
Social workers have critical roles to make these arrangements successful. For example, there are institutional barriers that need to be identified, negotiated or removed. Grandparents may not be aware of social services available to them as caregivers, or they may not (without assistance) gain the proper legal status to adequately represent their grandchildren.
Another role social workers can assume is to steer grandparents toward those educational, psychosocial and health services that do cater to older surrogate parents and help those services work collaboratively.
It is also important to have social work advocacy to promote institutional policies that recognize and alleviate the stresses on grandparents. At the university level, greater emphasis is needed for multi-faceted program that sensitizes and trains graduate students in education, social work and the sciences.
In order to work more collaboratively, to better understand and be responsive to grandparent-headed households, Binghamton University’s IMS sponsored a three-week science camp, a monthly math education program and an interdisciplinary family service project in 2014.
The project was meant to help grandparents better understand their grandchildren’s science and math curriculums so that they could engage with the children in positive ways at home. It was also intended to break some of the hierarchical silos that exist for graduate students to be more effective serving grandparents and their families.
Access the full research article, originally published in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships.