/ Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Developing Self-Management


The growing phenomenon of grandparent child care is examined with a focus on care of children of drug addicts. A needs assessment revealed that principal problems were related to grandparent's personal issues; mother-daughter tensions, including drug issues; grandchild problems; and system problems. The article describes a ten-week educational program with the aim of increasing grandparental self-management to assist in developing qualities, skills and resources in order to achieve goals of caring for others and also oneself.

Key Words: grandparent caregiving, grandchildren, drug addiction, self-management, managerial skills, boundary ambiguity

    1. An earlier version of this paper was given at The Groves Conference for Marriage and the Family, Digby, Nova Scotia, June 1997.The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support of The W.K. Kellogg Foundation.return to text

    2. Mary Jane Van Meter is a consultant, 37839 Siena Drive, Farmington Hill, MI 48331.return to text

    3. Barbara Hirshorn is Director, Division for Intergenerational Studies Institute for Families and Society University of South Carolina Columbia, SC 29208.return to text

    Grandparents often remark about their grandchildren visiting that it's nice to see them come and just as nice to see them go. Increasingly today, however, for more and more grandchildren,G house is home. Census data indicate that of the 3.7 million grandchildren under 18 years old living in the home of their grandparent(s), 36 percent, or about 1.33 million, had neither parent present in the grandparental home. Children up to the age of 15 who live with neither parent are most likely to live with a grandparent (Saluter, 1994) This increasingly familiar phenomenon of grandparent caregiving is examined more thoroughly by Hirshorn (1998) who focuses on the reasons for providing care. Many contemporary factors account for the large number of grandchildren being raised by grandparents.

    Increasingly, states are encouraging the placement of Protective Service children with relatives rather than putting them into foster care. Typically, grandparents are the relative of choice. Cost to local and state governments is a big factor determining the decision for kinship care. Placement with relatives is now the fastest growing component of the foster care system. The escalation has been the most pronounced in urban inner cities, a fact attributed to the cocaine epidemic hitting disproportionately African American families with a strong cultural tradition of "taking care of our own." However, the cocaine epidemic has spread to suburban areas as well, and families of all races and economic strata are experiencing more doubling up of generations for caregiving.

    Additionally, many grandparents, without a case pending with a social services department, have assumed caregiving for grandchildren when their own child, the grandchildren's parent, can no longer provide responsible care. Cases of incarceration, mental illness, and alcohol or drug addiction have been largely responsible for this trend. Minkler and Roe (1993) cite drug addiction as a significant cause of the increase in grandparental caregiving.

    Such caregiving does not come easily. Grandparents are often at an age when caring for young children is physically burdensome, or when they had clearly hoped to be doing something else in this stage of their lives. Grandparents, with the grandchildren in their homes, see and must contend with children's day-in, day-out behavior. Today's children are different from those of yesteryear; they have heavy demands for particular consumer goods, are outspoken about their wants, and knowledgeable sexually as a result of much television viewing. Children of crack cocaine addicts may have especially challenging characteristics as a result of their own early exposure to the drug and possibly also the drug culture. Furthermore, the grandchildren who come to live with grandparents may have histories of abusive and/or neglectful treatment which may manifest itself in difficult-to-handle behavioral patterns (Minkler & Roe, 1993). Finally, this new lifestyle for the grandparent is frequently complicated by the lack of financial resources to take on the extra expenses that growing children require in any household. Thus, the strain on resources—physical, psychological, financial, emotional, including personal time and current knowledge of child rearing—is heavy for this generation.

    Concern among gerontologists for caregiving grandparents has led to increased study of the phenomenon (Burton, 1992; Droddy, 1993; Graham, 1994; Minkler & Roe, 1993). In Detroit, we were interested in studying the particular problems that urban grandparents raising grandchildren were experiencing and then planning a study and an effective service program. Our concern was that grandparents might not be prepared for the heavy task of childrearing and we believed that some educational intervention would be helpful. The study and program series were supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.


    Finding the grandparents and then learning about their problems and needs was the initial step to being able to provide any intervention. The needs assessment took the form of a group of referrals (from the local social services department) participating in a focus group. Another group was located through the local health department. Both groups presented similar problems which could be categorized along four principal dimensions: Grandparents' Personal Issues, e.g. lack of free time, loss of friends, loss of job, loss of privacy, no support from other family members; Mother-Daughter Tensions, e.g. daughter undermines her mother's authority with grandchildren, daughter takes out her animosity on the grandmother, daughters don't help (included in these tensions are drug issues with daughters, e.g., grandmothers must fortify their houses against them, some daughters send their drug dealers to the grandmothers' homes for money); Grandchild Problems, e.g., fear of abandonment, children are conflicted asking the maternal grandmother, "Do you love my momma?", holding mixed feelings about their own parents and living with their grandmother; and System Problems, e.g., lack of professional recognition and therapy for the sexually abused child, leniency of social service system toward substance abusers as in giving them food stamps and even allowing children to stay in the drug addict's home or returning children to their addicted parents.

    How best to help the parenting grandparents under these circumstances became clear to us as we reexamined these problem areas. An educational intervention that would help grandparents to look objectively at their own situation and how they might change in the household and who had authority, made a perfect fit with the concept of boundary ambiguity (Boss, 1988). However, the establishment of whose authority was preeminent, who had that right in that household, and who was taking responsibility for the role of parent required more than identifying the problem and its theoretical rationale. There were additional demands of personal assertiveness, of knowledge of child rearing today, of controlling one's own anger and communicating effectively, and of planning and executing plans in relation to long-term goals. Called for here were managerial competencies, some personal characteristics, and the ability to employ these resources to the desired ends which we termed, self-management.

    This paper describes the development of self-management as an underpinning theoretical concept in the program "Strengthening Parenting Across the Generations: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren". This was a 10-week series for grandparents whose children were substance addicted and unable to be responsible for their own children's (the grandchildren's) care.


    If the grandmother (the most frequent grandparent caregiver) is going to draw a line around the family and say who is in and who is out and define appropriate roles and rules for herself and others, part of the organization necessary is preparing herself for the task. She may have to change some of her own old patterns and behaviors or at least adapt to the new situation. This is what we have termed self-management. Adapting the concepts of "management" (Deacon & Firebaugh, 1981) and family management (Gross, Crandall, & Knoll, 1973, 1980) to self-management is very appropriate as they convey the process of applying resources to meet goals. The self refers to the grandparent whose responsibilities are the processes of planning, decision making — e.g. rule and goal setting, and implementation. Resources are both the personal and material resources over which the grandparents have control.

    In this study, these processes are subsumed under self-management because of the additional emotional burdens and implications that limit-setting, in the circumstance of a drug-addicted parent generation (daughter or son), may carry. The grandparent often must cut off a daughter from interfering with the grandmother's parenting while she is substance-addicted. This may mean no admittance to her home, no more babies accepted from drug related pregnancies, and similar "tough-love" limits. Grandparents who have assumed full responsibility for grandchild-rearing may need help to change their own behavior toward their substance-addicted children, in order to protect both themselves and the children in the present situation and, ultimately, the grandparent's own future.

    A set of management behaviors comprise the system of strategies that may be applied to facilitate task behavior. These include: organizing, decision making, decision implementing, and sharing. These are not sequential behaviors, but rather, skills which may be called upon at any time, even simultaneously throughout the process.


    As a part of organizing, we include: identifying the problem wherein the grandparent recognizes that indeed a specific problem exists; next, identifying the required behaviors to meet the problem; and finally, preparing the self for the task. Some of the qualities which he or she must be able to demonstrate include: becoming assertive; controlling anger; giving praise; observing and monitoring; being consistent; developing communication sensitivity; being able to seek information, help or support; and problem solving skills. Several sessions in the 10-week series addressed these concerns.

    Decision Making

    Grandparents who are parenting are once again making decisions for others and creating a home life for young children. Their decision making involves recognizing the need for a decision, evaluating acceptable alternatives, selecting one alternative and facilitating its action (Paolucci, Hall & Axinn, 1977). Decision making is especially applied to goal setting in this series.

    Decision Implementing

    Though carrying out one's plans is usually considered one of the steps in management, we list it separately here to indicate its important ongoing nature when grandparents are caring for grandchildren. Making things happen according to one's plan, monitoring, checking, and adjusting as necessary are all activities required when implementing a decision. In order to make things happen as one plans, be ing able to present decisions in a forthright manner is required. At this point, both the skills of asserting oneself and of communication sensitivity are critically important.

    Some evaluation is required as well, in order to know if one's efforts are on track. What was the mother's behavior when she was with her children? Were the children upset? What has been the effect on the children when mother can no longer see them? This is the kind of evaluation grandparents must make when trying to consider the best interests of the children and whether the decisions have helped in children's adjustment and development. Grandparents must then adjust their own responses accordingly.


    One important effect of the group process is for the individual within the group to realize that there are others who share similar responsibilities, some who have even more serious problems in coping, and then to be able to share ideas, understanding, and sympathy. These are the characteristics that make a support group especially helpful. This experience comes about in the group and may engender enthusiasm for continuing the group as a support group beyond the series.

    Medland (1989) has described self-management as a set of behaviors or skills that facilitate the individual or group to begin, continue, and end the performance of a task (p. 1). For grandparents who take on the job of rearing their grandchildren, the end of task performance may be more than a decade away. Indeed, for some, it will last for the rest of their lives. Self-management in this study is the individual's purposeful behavior involved in the development or use of personal qualities and resources to achieve his/her goals. How the grandmother takes care of herself and her own mental and physical health while in the demanding role of caregiving provides another dimension of self-management.

    Self Regard

    Another perspective on self-management has to do with regard for one's person and one's role. According to Baber and Allen (1992), some feminists have argued that women's socialization, and especially their subordinate status which requires attention to others, prepares them to recognize and serve the needs of others. Many women organize their lives around the principle of nurturing others. This is consistent with Gilligan (1982) who argues that women's moral sense, indeed moral development, is predicated on the responsibility for the well-being of others. However, at the final level of achievement, concerns and responsibility for self are balanced with concerns and responsibility for others. According to Gilligan, when good is equated with caring for others and goodness becomes self-sacrifice, there is an inequality between self and other. This imbalance causes psychological violence and, thereby, disequilibrium which may move the individual caregiver on to a new truth.

    The morality of nonviolence means that violence to the self is on a par with violence against others. Looking after the welfare of others is now a self-chosen and universal obligation that permits a woman to recognize a moral obligation between self and others in making moral judgments. In essence, the caregiver must be concerned about the welfare of the self in addition to the welfare of others. Noddings (1984) also asserts that caring presupposes maintenance of the self and clear self-knowledge.

    Whether or not the caregiving grandparent regards the morality of her parenting role in these terms at this point in her life may be of less importance than her own recognition of preserving her own health and well-being to carry on this role.

    Curriculum Content

    Teaching highly theoretical concepts to lay audiences (and expecting understanding) is an ambitious goal. Every effort was made to make the concepts real through diagramming, role play, and discussion. Participants found the video tape "Divided Loyalties" very affirming of their situation; it also reinforced the concept of boundary ambiguity. This video,[1] produced by Coronet films in 1992, also supports the value of having a network of other caregiving grandparents and encourages the group to make plans to continue to meet.

    One of the first lessons to convey was that the caregiving grandmother had to take care of herself, that she should take the time to have a bubble bath, to have an undisturbed telephone conversation, to have a nap, or to provide herself with some kind of personal reward. With this background of self-awareness, we began to teach about boundaries and boundary ambiguity by using diagrams and steps for developing boundaries as suggested in Goodman and Fallon (1995). As the grandmother saw the need to protect her grandchildren and to keep a level of consistency and discipline, she saw the need to establish limits of behavior within her home. This, of course, involved setting both roles and rules, including rules of who had access to the home and to the children.

    For many grandmothers who had culturally prescribed lifetime roles of caregiving, being assertive about what they wanted or pursuing plans for themselves or their homes was a new concept in itself. Delineating assertiveness from aggressiveness to make clear that assertiveness should be self-expressive, honest, and respectful was important to understanding its positive role in relationships.

    Dealing appropriately with anger, as well as effective listening as a follow-up to assertiveness, led the way to teaching about decision making and problem solving processes. Another important aspect of strengthening parenting, especially for these grandparents, is helping them to analyze their own support systems and the possible barriers to developing new kinds of support to meet their own needs. Then it becomes necessary to look at the development of support as a possible goal and some of the potential means of achievement. In the process, decision making and goal setting are emphasized.


    Boundary ambiguity is stressful and unless help is given on how to deal with it in one's life, there is little hope of being helpful in grandparents' lives. Furthermore, for women who see themselves as responsible for the nurturant role, taking care of themselves is as important as the care they provide to others. Thus, some of the principles of assertiveness and communication as well as knowledge of managerial skills as part of self-management are critical if grandparents are to get their needs met while reassuming the parenting role.

    One of the foremost aids to grandparent learning in this situation is the support of others who are experiencing many of the same kinds of life changes and challenges related to their caregiving for young children. Updating parenting skills in the group setting is much less stigmatizing than on an individual basis, as is any discussion of what can be done about an adult child who has become a drug addict or how to gain legal guardianship. The personal rewards of facing the caregiving task with an invigorated sense of competence and confidence have changed the lives and outlook of grandparent participants. Their awareness of self-management principles and a discovered willingness to try new approaches to life hold great promise for easing their later-life burdens as caregivers.


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      1. “Divided Loyalties”, Coronet-MTI Film and Video, 420 Academy Dr. Northbrook, IL 60062 (800-621-2121).return to text