Guest post: 5 tips for grandfamilies facing mental health concerns

MHA Admin

Wed, 11/29/2023 – 17:03

by Jaia Peterson Lent

The U.S. is in a child and adolescent mental health emergency, on top of a national mental health crisis for Americans of all ages. While everyone can be impacted, there is one particular type of family that is particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns: grandfamilies.

What are grandfamilies?

Grandfamilies, also known as kinship families, are families in which grandparents, other relatives, or close family friends are raising children with no parents in the home. There are at least 2.4 million children growing up in grandfamilies, and 7.6 million children are living in households where another relative (not their parent) is head of the household. Grandfamilies are diverse and exist across various geographies, socioeconomic statuses, races, and ethnicities. Yet, they are disproportionately Black, African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, and, in some areas, Latino.

Grandfamilies form out of events that separate children from their parents, such as a parental death, incarceration, deportation, divorce, military deployment, or the growing concern of mental health and substance use disorders. Research shows that between 2002 and 2019, grandparents reporting parents’ substance use as a reason for raising their grandchildren jumped from 21% to 40%.

Grandfamily mental health impacts

Grandfamilies have many strengths, including resilience, which can mediate the effects of trauma; family connections and legacies; adaptability; and the ability to co-parent with birth parents. Research indicates that children in grandfamilies do better than when they are placed in non-relative foster care, especially when the grandfamilies have the services and support they need. However, mental health services and systems of support remain difficult to navigate and access – if not impossible – due to high costs, lack of availability of qualified mental health providers, lack of culturally appropriate services, stigma, ageism, and more.

Children and their grandfamily caregivers can have many layers of trauma and mental health challenges. Children may come to grandfamilies with past experiences of trauma – such as a parental substance use disorder and other untreated mental health conditions, neglect, abuse, the trauma of being separated from their parents, and more – which can cause significant mental health concerns even when they are safely living in a grandfamily home. Children who have experienced trauma may live with learning difficulties, chronic health conditions, and mental health conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Grandfamily caregivers’ mental health, physical health, and general well-being also is highly impacted when raising others’ children. Caregivers could experience chronic stress not only from the common stressors of child-rearing and difficulties navigating relationships with the child’s parents, but also from housing strains, financial pressures, social isolation, food insecurity, lack of self-care, and other issues brought on by the sudden responsibility of raising children.

Birth parents of children living in grandfamilies often experience undiagnosed and/or untreated mental health conditions. More than 1 in 4 adults living with serious mental health problems also has a substance use problem, a key reason that children come into the care of relatives.

The pandemic, increased racial violence, war, and other events in recent years have added even more layers of stress and trauma for grandfamilies.

Research shows that improved access to mental health supports and concrete material supports (such as financial, food and nutrition, housing, etc.) improves mental health outcomes for children and caregivers in grandfamilies.

Tips for grandfamilies

Explore employer-based support: More than half of grandfamily caregivers are in the labor force, and some employers offer supports that can be helpful. Employers may offer mental health support and treatment through health insurance, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), or employee support groups.
Utilize school and community-based mental health supports: School counselors and social workers can often help provide support or point grandfamilies to appropriate mental health services. Community-based mental health programs can also be helpful.
Obtain accurate diagnoses for mental health concerns: Accurate diagnoses for children and their caregivers can help with understanding behaviors and assist with getting appropriate treatment. Understanding trauma is particularly critical in these situations.
Find a grandfamily support group: It’s critical to connect with other grandfamilies for support and understanding, and support groups generally include education about challenges and resources. Find a support group by clicking a state on the GrandFacts: Fact Sheets for Grandfamilies page, contacting the local area agency on aging, or inquiring at a child’s school.
Tap into respite care: Grandfamily caregivers need respite – a break from caregiving – in order to manage chronic stress, take care of themselves, and “reboot.” Even a few hours can make a big difference. Respite care may be provided through in-home care, center-based care, camps, therapeutic recreation programs, Head Start, state-funded pre-K, community centers, YMCA, afterschool programs, or faith-based organizations. Also try searching for a grandfamily respite program through the ARCH National Respite Network.

Learn more about the mental health concerns of grandfamilies and find resources to help families in Generations United’s 2023 State of Grandfamilies’ Report, Building Resilience: Supporting Grandfamilies’ Mental Health and Wellness, at gu.org, and gksnetwork.org.

Jaia Peterson Lent is the deputy executive director of Generations United.

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The views and opinions expressed in this blog solely belong to the author, and external content does not necessarily reflect the views of Mental Health America.

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