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Many factors can lead to grandparents raising grandchildren

Editor's note: This series first appeared in The Hays Daily News in 2010.

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This is the third in a series about grandparents raising grandchildren.

Q: Why are more grandparents raising their grandchildren, and how does this change affect family dynamics?

A: There are multiple reasons why grandparents are assuming more and more responsibilities for raising their grandchildren. According to Dr. Lillian Carson, author of "The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference," the most common factors that necessitate grandparents taking over parenting are teenage pregnancies and substance abuse. Divorce also can produce needs for grandparents to intervene.

Other reasons parents cannot parent their own children include illness, particularly AIDS, and death. Other parents are incarcerated, frequently because of the abuse, manufacture or sale of illegal drugs. Disabilities of parents is another cause of their inabilities to care for their children. Disabilities include mental, emotional and physical limitations.

Another broad category of parental dysfunction that leads to grandparents raising children is abuse and neglect. These problems are related to other issues such as poverty, substance abuse, mental illness and mentally challenged parents.

Finally, parents serving in the military necessitates grandparents stepping in to assume temporary child rearing responsibilities for their grandchildren. With the exception of this latter reason of military service, all the other circumstances are crises or emergencies. Thus, the majority of grandparents begin their parenting of grandchildren under stressful conditions.

Another initial stress when grandparents intervene is the unexpectedness of assming such responsibilities. Grandparents frequently act to keep grandchildren out of foster care or to remove them from abusive and neglectful situations.

According to Carson, most grandparents accept this challenge abruptly with no preparation. They have to deal with giving up their own goals and plans and relinquishing their grandparent roles. They have to deal with their feelings of disappointment, anger and guilt about the failures of their own adult children.

Conflicts between mothers and grandparents most often are between the mothers and the maternal grandmothers. Fathers are seldom principals in these situations. The conflicts resolve around issues such as who determines how to raise the children. If parents are resentful and uncooperative about grandparents raising their children, there are additional family stresses around the transfer of parental responsibilities from parents to grandparents. The more children there are in a family, the greater the likelihood that the grandparents will be caring for some of their grandchildren someday.

In a 2009 article published by the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Florida, authors examined how relationships with family and friends change when grandparents raise their grandchildren. When couples marry, then have children later, they have to make adjustments to find time for each other and the children. Grandparents assuming responsibilities for raising their grandchildren, likewise, find themselves in the same situations of balancing couple time with family time.

Probably the most difficult relationship changes occur between grandparents and their adult children whose children they are raising. Changes range from total cooperation to total chaos or abandonment by the parents. Grandparents need to be non-judgmental and non-blaming toward their adult children. They need to keep their own negative feelings about their adult children from negatively affecting their grandchildren's feelings about their parents.

Visitation between parents and grandchildren need to be scheduled and consistent with legal decisions. These visits should be encouraged unless parental visits produce dysfunctional and regressive problems in the grandchildren. Then grandparents need to report these developments to the appropriate authorities, such as social workers, therapists, attorneys or involved agencies.

Grandparents certainly need to talk with their grandchildren about the changing relationships between them. Letting their grandchildren express their feelings of sadness, fear, and anxiety, and establishing routines as soon as possible are both important in helping grandchildren with transitions. If possible, grandparents need to help grandchildren maintain relationships with their friends and also create opportunities for them to make new friends.

Grandchildren will alter grandparent relationships with their own friends. Grandparents will not have as much time to spend with friends, nor will they have much in common with many of their friends. However, grandparents have opportunities to meet other grandparents raising grandchildren through schools, support groups, churches and grandchildren's activities.

Judy Caprez is associate professor and director of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work,

Rarick Hall, FHSU.