As unusual as it sounds, this story is an increasingly common one unfolding in a growing number of households across the country. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of grandparents raising grandchildren jumped by nearly 30 percent. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, just more than 4.5 million grandchildren -- slightly more than 6 percent of all children in the country -- are cared for by their grandparents. While grandparents often step in to help their adult children temporarily during a move, career change, return to school, or other life-altering events, occasionally the parental shift is long-term or even permanent. The reasons are diverse and sometimes painful, ranging from the death of a parent to incarceration to military deployment, says Faye Abram, PhD, a professor of social work at St. Louis University who facilitates a grandparents-as-caregivers support group.
But the results can be surprisingly beneficial. Research using data from the National Health Interview Survey shows that children raised by their grandparents tend to be more socially adept, and less likely to act out than children being raised in traditional households. And the grandparents learn a few lessons themselves, not the least of which is this: They still have what it takes to be a parent today, though it may require a steep learning curve.
As Susan Flagler discovered, grandparents face a number of challenges when they are suddenly catapulted back into the parenting role. One day they're the fun grown-ups who always greet a grandchild with a hug. The next day they're a disciplinarian who decides what clothes are worn to school. The shift can cause no small amount of frustration, anger, and even guilt.
"We all look forward to being grandparents because we don't want the yuck. You're supposed to be there for the birthdays and the fun stuff, but not the homework and the booster shots," says Dr. Dan Nelson, medical director for the child psychiatry unit at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. "It's normal to feel frustrated, and then you feel disappointed in yourself for feeling frustrated, because these are your grandkids and you are not supposed to get mad at them."
If your adult children are still in the picture, even on a part-time basis, there's great potential for disagreements about parenting styles. In the end, it can require everyone to compromise about their ideas on what it takes to raise the children.
Continued on page 3: Tips for Overcoming Challenges