When Grandparents Become Parents

“I had just come home from a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. There was a loud knock on the door, and standing outside were two policemen with two filthy children whose hair was matted and who looked like they hadn’t been washed in months. You could hardly tell that they were children! They were my grandchildren, and their mother—a drug addict—had neglected them. I was a widow, and I already had six children of my own. But I just couldn’t say no.”—Sally.

“My daughter asked if I could take her children until she got straightened out. I didn’t know that she was on drugs. I ended up raising her two children. Years later, my daughter had another baby. I didn’t want to take her, but my grandson begged me, saying, ‘Grandma, can’t we make room for just one more?’”—Willie Mae.

GRANDPARENTING used to be described as “pleasure without responsibility.” But not anymore. Some estimate that in the United States alone, over three million children live with their grandparents. And the number is rapidly growing.

What is behind this disturbing trend? Children whose parents divorce may end up living with their grandparents. So may children who are neglected or abused by their parents. The journal Child Welfare says that because of its immobilizing effects on addicted parents, ‘crack cocaine is creating a lost generation.’ There are also millions of children who are “parentless” as a result of abandonment, parental death, and mental illness. Children who lose their mother to AIDS may also end up in the care of their grandparents.

Taking on child-rearing responsibilities during middle age or during “the calamitous days” of old age may be overwhelming. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7) Many people simply do not have the energy to keep a constant eye on small children. Some grandparents are also taking care of their own aging parents. Yet others are widowed or divorced and must manage without the support of a mate. And many find that they are not prepared financially to take on such a load. In one survey, 4 out of 10 custodial grandparents had incomes near poverty level. “The children were sick,” recalls Sally. “I was forced to pay a lot of money for medicine. I got little financial help from the state.” One elderly woman recalls: “I had to use my retirement money to care for my grandkids.”

The Stresses and Strains

Not surprisingly, one study found that “caring for grandchildren generated considerable stress for grandparents, with 86 percent of the 60 grandparents in the study reporting feeling ‘depressed or anxious most of the time.’” Indeed, many report health problems. “It affected me physically, mentally, and spiritually,” says Elizabeth, a woman who cared for her teenage granddaughter. Willie Mae, suffering from heart trouble and high blood pressure, says: “My doctor believes it’s related to the stress of raising children.”

Many are unprepared for the change in life-style that raising grandchildren demands. “There will be times I can’t go places,” says one grandparent. “I would feel guilty . . . about leaving them with someone else, so rather than going somewhere or doing something, I don’t go or don’t do it.” Another described her personal time as “nonexistent.” Social isolation and loneliness are common. One grandmother said: “In our age bracket most of our friends don’t have [young] children and as a result a lot of times we don’t accept invitations to go because our children [the grandchildren] are not invited.”

Also painful are the emotional pressures. Says an article in U.S.News & World Report: “Many of them [grandparents] are racked by shame and guilt at the fact that their own children have failed as parents—and many blame themselves, wondering where they went wrong as parents. In order to provide safe and loving homes to their grandchildren, some must emotionally abandon their own abusive or drug-addicted children.”

One survey reports: “More than one-fourth . . . said that their satisfaction with their marital relationship had declined as a result of providing care.” Husbands, in particular, often feel neglected as their wives shoulder the lion’s share of the child care. Some husbands feel that they simply cannot handle the pressure. Says one woman of her husband: “He walked out on us. . . . I think he just felt trapped.”

Angry Children

Says U.S.News & World Report: “The stresses are compounded by the fact that some of the children [grandparents] inherit are among the most needy, most emotionally damaged and most angry in the nation.”

Consider Elizabeth’s granddaughter. The child’s father literally abandoned her at the street corner where Elizabeth worked as a school crossing guard. “She is an angry child,” says Elizabeth. “She is hurt.” Sally’s grandchildren bear similar wounds. “My grandson is bitter. He feels that nobody wants him.” Having a loving father and mother is a child’s birthright. Imagine how it feels to a child to be abandoned, neglected, or rejected by them! Understanding these feelings can be the key to dealing patiently with children who develop behavioral problems. Says Proverbs 19:11: “The insight of a man certainly slows down his anger.”

For example, an abandoned child may resist your efforts to care for him. Understanding the child’s fears and anxieties can help you to respond with compassion. Perhaps acknowledging his fears and reassuring him that you will do all you can to take care of him will do much to quell his fears.

Coping With the Pressures

‘I’ve been feeling very hurt and sorry for myself. It’s just not fair for this to happen to us.’ So said one custodial grandparent. If you are in that situation, you may have similar feelings. But the matter is far from hopeless. For one thing, age may limit your physical energy, but age is an asset when it comes to wisdom, patience, and skill. Not surprisingly, a study found that “children reared solely by their grandparents fared quite well relative to children in families with one biological parent present.”

The Bible urges us to ‘throw all our anxiety upon Jehovah, because he cares for us.’ (1 Peter 5:7) So constantly pray to him for strength and guidance, as did the psalmist. (Compare Psalm 71:18.) Give attention to your own spiritual needs. (Matthew 5:3) “Christian meetings and preaching to others helped me survive,” says one Christian woman. Where possible, try to teach your grandchildren God’s ways. (Deuteronomy 4:9) God will surely support your efforts to raise grandchildren “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.”—Ephesians 6:4.

Do not be afraid to seek help. Often friends can be of assistance, particularly within the Christian congregation. Recalls Sally: “The brothers and sisters in the congregation were very supportive. When I fell down, they were there to pick me up. Some even helped me financially.”

Don’t overlook assistance that may be obtainable from the government. (Romans 13:6) Interestingly, according to one survey of grandparents, “most do not know what is available or where to look for help.” (Child Welfare) Social workers and local agencies that assist the elderly may be able to direct you to helpful services.

In many cases, custodial grandparents are a product of these “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Fortunately, these difficult times are a sign that God will soon intervene and create “a new earth” in which the tragic situations that afflict so many families today will be things of the past. (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:3, 4) In the meantime, custodial grandparents must do what they can to make the most of their situation. Many are having great success in their efforts! Always remember that in spite of the frustration, there can be joys. Why, you may even have the joy of seeing your grandchildren become upright lovers of God! Would that not make all your hard work worthwhile?


Some of the names have been changed.

The book The Secret of Family Happiness (published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.) contains many helpful Bible principles that custodial grandparents can use in rearing their grandchildren.

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Legal Issues

Whether or not to obtain legal custody of grandchildren is a ticklish and complex question. Explains Mary Fron, an expert on the subject: “On one hand, you have few legal rights without custody. In most cases, the biological parents can return and remove the child or children at any time. On the other hand, many grandparents are reluctant to seek custody, because that means standing up in court to say your child is an unfit parent.”—Good Housekeeping.

Without legal custody grandparents often have difficulty enrolling their grandchildren in school or even obtaining medical care for them. Gaining custody, however, can be an expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining ordeal. And even if it is obtained, grandparents may find themselves cut off from state financial support. The journal Child Welfare thus advises grandparents to “seek legal advice from a local attorney who is experienced in the state’s family law, custody cases, and child welfare.” 

Counting the Cost

The sight of a child in need—especially one’s own flesh and blood—is heartrending. And the Bible commands Christians to care for ‘their own.’ (1 Timothy 5:8) Nevertheless, in many situations a grandparent is wise to give serious thought before taking on such a responsibility. (Proverbs 14:15; 21:5) One must count the cost.—Compare Luke 14:28.

Prayerfully consider: Are you really in a position physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially to meet the needs of this child? How does your mate feel about the situation? Is there any way to encourage or assist the child’s parents so that they can care for their child themselves? Sad to say, some delinquent parents simply continue pursuing an immoral life-style. One grandmother recalls bitterly: “I took in several of her children. But she kept taking drugs and having more babies. I reached a point where I had to say no!”

On the other hand, if you do not care for your grandchildren, what will happen to them? Could you handle the pressure of knowing that they are being cared for by others, perhaps even strangers? What of the children’s spiritual needs? Will others be able to raise them according to God’s standards? Some may conclude that in spite of the difficulties involved, they have little choice but to take on the responsibility.

These are agonizing concerns, and each individual must make his or her own decision.

The Featured image credits gdwlawfirm

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