Recently the state of Massachusetts released findings that the percentage of grandparents raising their grandkids is up 20 percent since 2005, a statistic officials link to the state’s massive opioid epidemic. The overall number—34,000 grandparents—is mirrored across the country in states like Louisiana (where 11 percent of children live solely with grandparents) and Kentucky (where 59,000 grandparents and other relatives are kinship caregivers) as the disease of addiction continues to erode the ability of young parents to take care of themselves, let alone their children.
Those who step up need our support. Without these grandparents and other relatives, as many as 4.9 million more children would be in America’s foster care systems, and the cost to taxpayers could be hundreds of millions. More importantly, the children would lose a forceful protective factor that helps to safeguard their future; kids living with a relative fare better on virtually every social measure than those in foster care.
Kinship caregivers (aunts and uncles as well as grandparents) face down mountains of child-rearing tasks. They make meals, tend to earaches, check homework, settle spats, and wipe away tears. They also advocate for their children’s educational, legal, and mental health needs, referee parental contact, navigate competing family loyalties, and step up for whatever heart-stopping crises arise. Critically, through these acts, they reweave the fabric of family, providing vulnerable children with a sense of belonging, stability, and identity.
The enormous difference they make often happens through informal arrangements at their own expense—no small thing when the average cost of raising a child to the age of 18 tops $245,000. (Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds of kinship caregivers have cited finances as their greatest concern.) Their role is also a physically demanding one, especially tough for those struggling with issues of aging or medical concerns. Many also face legal obstacles to providing the children in their care all they need. Additionally, countless grandparents fight ongoing battles with the guilt, shame, and worry they feel about their adult child’s addiction.
By doing whatever we can to support “grandfamilies,” we can profoundly shape children’s future for the better. Here are five ways to help:
- Listen to the caregiver’s story. Although they may be reluctant to share, they need someone to understand what things are like for them, that their hurdles are real, and that what they are doing is noble. Be a shoulder to lean on.
- Offer help, not blame or applause. Often, caregivers are either put on a pedestal or harshly criticized. Some are lionized as some kind of super-parent who has no needs. Others are stuck under a microscope and their every action is picked apart. This, of course, only compounds the pain they feel about what’s gone on in their family. Run a few errands, take the child on an outing for an afternoon, or lend a hand some other way.
- Remind them that risk does not equal destiny. Because kinship caregivers know addiction has a genetic component, they may be highly anxious about the child’s future. Remind them that risk doesn’t equal destiny, and that they can help their child grow up healthy and happy by encouraging four skills linked to resilience: problem solving, optimism, independence, and social connection. For instance, to teach problem solving, they can show a child how to break a task into smaller steps, or how to name and identify her feelings, or, for older kids, how to respond to invitations to use drugs or alcohol.
- Encourage the caregiver to work with the parent’s counselor if the parent is in treatment. The strength of the parent’s sobriety and recovery can be tied up with his or her parenting issues. The counselor can help both parties work through unresolved family problems and strife, and lay the groundwork for a mutually supportive relationship.
- Recommend concrete resources. Many states or counties have resources for grandparents and other relatives raising children, even if they’re not formally in the foster care system. Good sources include Generations United, AARP, the New York State Kinship Care Navigator national resource page (and the kinship care navigator systems some other states have put in place), the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, and county or state Divisions of Aging or Divisions of Youth and Family Services.
Senior Advisor, Center on Addiction and the Family (COAF)
Phoenix House New York