Depression, according to the researchers, is one of the most often felt affects of raising grandchildren. Fuller-Thompson and Minkler (2000) suggest that this psychological problem may stem from a variety of stressors involved in parenting their grandchildren, such as financial strains and a renewed requirement of helping others when they thought they would have “more time to themselves” (pg. 110). Faced with non-caregiving peers, custodial grandparents may regret the freedom, leisure, and financial stability that they may never have as a result of their parenting situations. Further, Fuller-Thompson and Minkler (2000) also note that adverse physical affects have been closely linked with custodial grandparenting, such as the “exacerbation of pre-existing chronic conditions, comorbidy, declines in self-assessed health, and limitations in one or more activities of daily living” (pg. 111). African-Americans are especially at risk because African-American women, on the whole, tend to suffer from more adverse health effects than their peers, due in part to poverty, racism, and oppression (Fuller-Thompson and Minkler, 2000). African-American grandparents in the inner city are at an even higher risk of experiencing these challenges, as they are likely to be poorer, have poorer living conditions, and have grandchildren who demand special attention because of their substance abuse problems or the emotional difficulties gained in dealing with their parents substance abuse.
While they may be the easiest to define physical and mental health problems on the part of custodial grandparents are not these caregivers only challenges. In fact, Heywood (1999) notes that “the identified problems of custodial grandparenting are as complex and interwoven as the reasons for their having assumed the primary caregiving of their grandchildren” (pg. 370). Oliver (2008) points out that custodial grandparents who attempt to co-parent often face difficulty living with their adult children. Other social problems often experienced by grandparents acting as parents include isolation and alienation both from their peers and from parents of their grandchildren’s age group. Whether the custodial grandparent is on a fixed income or is able to work, the burdens associated with finances are quite monumental. In addition to attempting to find the resources to care for themselves and their grandchildren, grandparents must also attempt to find daycare and babysitting services, if their grandchildren are younger (Heywood, 1999). When grandparents are the custodial parents of adolescents, they must attempt to deal with all of the problems adolescents in the inner city have, such as academic problems, the search for a college, after school jobs and clubs, and relationships and friends. There is do doubt that the custodial grandparent become exhausted as a result of this role. If this is not enough, Heywood (1999) discusses several legal challenges that are often encountered by grandparents raising their grandchildren, such as the difficulties they face without legal custody and the difficulties getting legal custody. Legal fees associated with the courts and the emotional burden of admitting or publicizing the fact that their child is an unfit parent can be devastating. In addition, Glass and Hunneycutt (2002) demonstrate that the legal road to becoming a custodial grandparent can be difficult. The courts allow parents to contest a grandparent’s attempt to gain custody, and because most states have an assumption that parents should have custody of their children, it is up to the grandparents to prove otherwise. Certainly, this kind of legal procedure in a family already facing difficulties would not be a prescription for healing.
Thus, grandparents acting as custodial parents today face a variety of challenges that they, unlike their peers or other parents, must overcome. In order to create a stable home life for their grandchildren, these grandparents must be able to care for those grandchildren and overcome the physical, mental, and emotional stressors associated with being a custodial grandparent. To say the least, all of this is quite stressful on the grandparent, and could easily lead to resentment for the child or grandchild, in addition to a myriad of other stress-induced conditions. For this reason, it is advised that grandparents having custody of their grandchildren seek help in the form of family therapy.
II. Challenges Faced By Grandchildren
Typically, a child placed in a home with his or her grandparents as caregivers is done so through no fault of his or her own. Although adolescents may sometimes be sent to live with other family members as an attempt to curb destructive behavior, it is generally destructive behavior on the part of the African-American, inner-city adolescent’s parents that lead to this living arrangement. Like the grandparent, the child in grandparent-headed family faces several challenges. In their 2007 study, Smith and Palmieri found that children raised in grandparent-headed families were more likely to experience behavioral and emotional problems, findings that are similar to those procured for children living in other family structures that minimize the role of the parent. According to Smith and Palmieri, children raised by custodial grandparents are “at greater risk” than other children for mental health problems (pg. 1309). When these findings are paired with the general stressors placed on adolescents in contemporary society, in addition to the stress associated with being black in the inner city, the challenges that adolescents in grandparent-headed families are monumental. According to Wilcox, around 20% of all adolescents have emotional or behavior problems, something Wilcox (2004) implies is a contemporary problem. Thoughts of teen suicide have entered the thoughts of around 20% of adolescents as of 2001, which suggests “a lack of physiological well-being among teens” (Wilcox, 2004, pg. 12). Other problems, such as depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and delinquency, have also risen in connection with today’s modern teenager. These problems increase when teens view their neighborhoods negatively (Stiffman et al. 2000). Wlicox (2004) suggests that these difficulties are associated with the breakdown of the family, and, among other things, with the fact that many children live in custodial arrangements other than the traditional two-parent home. Grandparent-headed families, then, could be cited as a potential cause of such problems among teenagers. Because Darling et al. (2008) suggest that the observed less functional behaviors of teenagers, especially considering their parents’ marriage, leads to less functional behavior on the part of the teenager, one could argue that family structure is of the utmost importance in a teenager’s life. Because teenagers in grandparent-headed families are not only subject to greater challenges than teenagers in other family structures, but also because they are observers to their grandparent’s stress and, likely, conflict between biological parents or biological parents and grandparents, it is important that such teenagers be treated for possible behavioral and mental health problems.
I. Implications for Treatment and Further Research
Identifying certain trends within family structures is a powerful tool for mental health professionals, allowing them to give preventative treatment to insure certain trends are not continued. Although the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren in grandparent-headed families can be positive, the relationship has been associated with many challenges, challenges that can be overcome through counseling and other professional arrangements. These special relationships can be best aided through the use of school counselors and other academic professionals. Because of the vested interest of such professionals in the positive outcome of adolescents and their caregivers, this valuable resource will allow both students and grandparents to discuss potential issues of conflict in a safe environment. Further, Armbruster and Lichtman’s (1999) findings that students counseled by urban school professionals exhibited similar levels of success when compared with students counseled by private clinic professionals suggest that school counseling programs are capable to deal with such situations. One way in which school counselors can affect change within these relationships is through the use of web-based fact sheets. Identified by Peterson et al. (2009) as a useful way “to reach both grandparents and professionals working with this audience in a variety of settings” (pg. 276), the fact sheet allows a grandparent to have a resource when he or she feels like consulting one when a counseling session is not in progress. Fact sheets included important information for grandparents raising grandchildren, and were considered valuable by those grandparents, suggesting that this is one method school counselors can use in an attempt to help grandparents who may be floundering in their new task. Other ways in which counselors might help inner-city adolescents in grandparent-headed families include initiating discussions with both grandparents and students regarding their feelings about the relationship, as well as providing resources for the grandparents that might aid them financially, psychologically and physiologically.
Based on the research, grandparent-headed families are becoming more and more common as the aspects of society change. It is important that these families be given legitimacy, but it is similarly important that trends be studied in order to help teens, children, and grandparents with the unique problems they experience from being a part of this family structure. Thus, the research regarding grandparent-headed families suggests the importance of continuing research regarding the structure of families and their negative trends in order to find implications for treatment. Through the use of school counselors employing a variety…