Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Risk and Resilience Through Conflict

by Angela Nancy Mendoza, M.A., Colorado State University and Christine A. Fruhauf, Ph.D., Colorado State University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Internal Dynamics of Families

The word conflict has a negative connotation for most individuals and families. Conflict is viewed as entailing adverse consequences, yet researchers who study conflict would argue that conflict can be beneficial to the development of the family. Furthermore, conflict theorists consider conflict to be at the root of progress and change within families. It provides family members a chance to learn, produce new values, alter existing values, and revive existing norms. As families learn and change, the relationships among the family members continue to develop, increasing the resilience of the family as a unit and its members.

Whereas some conflict among family members can be favorable, other types of conflict can drain family resources and undermine the cohesion of the family unit, leading to damaging consequences to the family and its members. One such example is the conflict that arises between a grandparent raising a grandchild and his or her grandchild. According to the U.S. Census, in 2010 there were 2.7 million grandparents raising their grandchildren. This trend is predicted to continue to increase. These families experience a number of challenges and are often overlooked despite the fact that they have a high risk for poor physical and mental health outcomes for both grandchildren and grandparents.

Grandparents who take on the responsibility of caring for a grandchild often experience role conflict as they transition from a grandparenting role to a parenting role. They also must cope with their own personal reactions to the situation that led to them raising grandchildren. The feelings they experience may include loss, disappointment, anxiety, worry, and anger, among many more. In addition, many of these grandparents are faced with challenges in parenting children who are likely to have experienced extensive trauma exposure and who may have some physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. For example, most of these children are experiencing the traumatic event of losing one or both parents either through a sudden death or separation. Others have experienced additional traumatic events, such as maltreatment, neglect, domestic and community violence. Many grandchildren have an accumulative history of trauma in their lives.

This high level of exposure to numerous traumatic events may partially explain the finding that grandchildren raised by grandparents tend to display higher levels of emotional problems than children in the general population. The trauma these children experienced before being placed in the care of their grandparents increases their vulnerability to detrimental consequences such as emotional, physical, and behavioral problems.

Exposure to traumatic events also has a ripple effect on the child–grandparent relationship. The results of a study by Ginny Sprang and colleagues in 2015 that examined child–grandparent conflict in relation to child exposure to trauma and grandparenting parental stress indicated that as the amount of trauma exposure increases for a child, the more distressed the child becomes, leading to negative impacts on both the child–grandparent relationship and the grandparent's emotional well-being. Children who experience a high number of different types of trauma tend to have higher levels of child–grandparent conflict; this in turn has been associated with higher levels of stress and lower levels of emotional well-being among caregiving grandparents. Furthermore, children with a history of experiencing direct interpersonal violence, such as neglect and maltreatment, are more likely to have relational conflict with peers and other family members than those who have experienced other types of trauma.

Sprang and colleagues' findings are consistent with the larger body of literature in that they suggest the existence of higher levels of child–grandparent conflict among grandparents who have been exposed to some type of trauma in their own lives compared to grandparents raising grandchildren who had not been exposed to trauma. These higher levels of child–grandparent conflict are associated with grandparents' parental stress levels. In other words, grandparents who have experienced traumatic events in their own lives tend to experience more parental stress than grandparents who are caring for children who have no history of exposure to trauma. In addition to these negative impacts on the child–grandparent relationship and grandparents' stress levels, Sprang and colleagues found that grandparents with their own exposure to trauma reported lower levels of emotional well-being than those who were raising grandchildren who had not experienced any type of trauma.

Another study, conducted by Mary Ellen Ross and Lu Ann Aday in 2006, revealed that 92% of grandparents raising grandchildren were identified as experiencing clinically significant levels of stress. This study included all types of grandparents and did not differentiate between those raising children with and without exposure to trauma. Therefore, in general it seems that grandparents experience high levels of parenting stress. This fact, combined with raising a child who has emotional and behavioral problems due to past exposure to traumatic events, increases the amount of parental stress a grandparent experiences while also decreasing the quality of the child–grandparent relationship. Indeed, researchers have consistently found that grandparents who have identified their grandchild as having emotional and/or behavioral issues tend to experience lower levels of closeness to their grandchild. These findings are unsettling, because research on trauma has identified a strong and positive child–parent relationship to be a protective factor for children who have experienced traumatic events. These types of close relationships help decrease the level of distress a child may be experiencing. In the case of grandparents raising grandchildren, it is important to decrease the child–grandparent conflict so the relationship can improve and provide protective benefits for these children.

Researchers have suggested many ideas about how services can aid in decreasing child–grandparent conflict. Among these is that specific services need to be developed with a focus on enhancing grandparent caregivers' emotional well-being, coping, and any relational conflict the grandparent and/or child are experiencing, as well as relational conflicts the child may have experienced prior to placement in grandparents' care. Likewise, grandparents should receive psychoeducation about trauma and the impact it can have on their grandchildren, themselves, and the family. Grandparent caregivers who have this information will be more competent and resourceful in managing the child–grandparent relationship and decreasing any child–grandparent conflict.

Conflict within a family and its members may be beneficial, but it can also be damaging. Grandparents who parent grandchildren who have experienced trauma often have higher levels of child–grandparent conflict, which tends to lead to numerous negative consequences. This conflict can prevent grandparents from creating ideal relationships with their grandchildren so that they may take advantage of the protective factor that a good close relationship can have for a child who has been exposed to trauma. By offering specialized services to this group of grandparents and grandchildren, family science professionals can help them decrease the child–grandparent conflict and begin to learn and grow as a new family entity.

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