Grandparents raising children need more support – these children have greater needs

Photo: S P Photography. Creative Commons.

A study of grandfamilies – a grandparent or grandparents raising a child with no parent present – has found that, even though the grandparents were better off than parents and even though their parenting practices were similar to those of single mothers in the study, children in grandfamilies showed less academic success and more social and emotional problems than did children living with their parents.

The researchers, Natasha Pilkauskas and Rachel Dunifon, selected data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study of 5,000 children born from 1998 to 2000 in large US cities. The researchers looked at 84 grandfamilies (82 grandmothers and 2 grandfathers) and also looked at information from 79 of the children in these families.

They compared characteristics of grandparents raising their grandchildren with the characteristics of those same children’s non-resident parents (47 of the mothers and 34 of the fathers). Results show that the grandparents were better off than the non-resident parents – twice as likely to be married, more likely to be college educated, and less likely to be unemployed and to be suffering poverty and hardship.

Pilkauskas and Dunifon also compared grandparents raising their grandchildren to families in which a biological parent was raising the child – 3,098 mother-child pairs and 2,174 father-child pairs. Results showed few differences across these groups in terms of marriage, education and employment.

Despite the fact that grandparents raising their grandchildren look very similar to parents raising their own children, the well-being of the children in grandfamilies was worse on average than that of other kids. Teacher reports of academic performance (literacy and math) showed lower attainment. Children’s behaviour – such as anger, defiance, sadness, lack of affection – was also worse, according to ratings by caregivers, teachers and the children themselves. Average child health issues were not significantly different except in the case of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) – 20% of the children in grandfamilies were diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, compared to 11% of children living with their mothers.

Why might these children fare worse on average, even though the grandparents are better off and their parenting similarly to that of other families? The researchers suggest that the results could be related to the traumas experienced by a child being cared for by grandparents – both earlier traumas that led to the move in the first place, and continued contact with non-resident parents who have particularly high rates of depression, substance abuse and poor health.

They conclude that support services need to pay particular attention to grandfamilies.

Pilkauskas NV & Dunifon RE, Understanding grandfamilies: characteristics of grandparents, non-resident parents, and children, Journal of Marriage and Family 78.3, 2016