Research recap by Gaby Novoa
February 9, 2021
STUDY: Ashley Martin, MD; Daniel Albrechtsons, MD; Noni MacDonald, MD, MSc, FRCPC; Nadia Aumeerally, MD, MSc, FRCPC; Tania Wong, MD, MSc, FRCPC, “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren,” Paediatrics & Child Health (May 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/30DE5ou.
Families are diverse, complex and evolve over time. These dynamics are exemplified in grand-families, in which grandparents are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren with little or no parental involvement. Counted in the Census as “skip-generation families” (also sometimes called “kinship families”), the term “grand-family” is being used by a growing number of support organizations for grandparents who raise grandchildren.
Grand-families have unique experiences, dynamics, strengths and realities, which researchers Ashley Martin, Daniel Albrechtsons, Noni MacDonald, Nadia Aumeerally and Tania Wong explore in a recent study, “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren.”1
Diverse pathways lead to formation of grand-families
Families adapt and transition to grand-families for many reasons, including mental illness and/or addictions; the absence, incarceration or death of a parent(s); or to provide support in the event of adolescent pregnancy. Similar to findings from other countries, research shows that grandparent primary caregivers in Canada are more likely to be female, out of the labour force and of lower socioeconomic status.
While grand-families are not a new phenomenon, data from the 2016 Census shows that they are home to a growing number of children in Canada (nearly 33,000 children under 15 lived in grand-families in 2016, up 32% since 2001).
“Becoming parents again” is a qualitative look at the lived experiences of grandparent carers based on semi-structured interviews with grandparent primary carers from 10 households in the Halifax Region. The authors note that the study participants were exclusively from urban environments and the majority were Caucasian. Therefore, grandparent caregivers from other ethnicities, cultures and contexts will be essential to further research on the topic, particularly First Nations families, who are overrepresented among grand-families.
Five major themes emerged in the interviews:
Changes in family dynamics: Grandparents consistently described significant role shifts within their family dynamics once they became primary caregivers and had taken on a parental role, while the biological parents adopted a stereotypical grandparent role of “spoiling their child during limited visits.”
The grandparents reported that these changes in family structures affected their relationships with their spouses, children and other grandchildren, expressing feelings of stress and guilt for not being able to meet everyone’s needs. Grandparents describe as “invaluable” the help they receive in cases where they have children, other than their grandchild’s parent, who can offer support and respite.
Psychosocial impact on grandchild and grandparent: Early adverse experiences for grandchildren often lead to the formation of grand-families. The grandparents interviewed said that the urgency in which children were placed under new care led to challenging behaviours for which the grandparents felt ill-prepared to manage.
The Department of Community Services (DCS) was involved in the cases of eight of the 10 grand-families interviewed, with reasons for intervention including the parents’ mental health and/or addiction issues or sudden death. These grandparents expressed complex feelings of sadness and anger toward their children for the resulting impacts on their grandchildren.
Challenges of parenting later in life: All grandparent caregivers discussed the difficulties of raising children as aging adults and the impacts that their chronic health conditions had on parenting. Many expressed feeling exhausted and felt it challenging to balance self-care while caring for grandchildren and spouses.
Many also spoke about the fear of dying before their grandchildren are old enough to be autonomous. The generational gaps between grandparent and child, rather than parent and child, was also noted, particularly in dealing with new and unknown technologies, such as setting boundaries around social media and screen time.
Resilience inspired by the love of family: Despite the challenges described, all interviewed grandparents said that caring for their grandchildren has profoundly impacted them in positive ways and that they had no regrets in assuming care. Their grandchildren’s well-being was cited as their top priority, and the unique relationships fostered out of the formation of their grand-family was described as one of the most fulfilling aspects of their lives. Ultimately, acting out of love inspired a sense of resilience among the study population.
Lack of resources: The majority of surveyed grandparent households (90%) expressed disappointment in the lack of community and financial supports and services available to them. Grandparents described it as emotionally and financially challenging to navigate the court system and DCS while establishing custody of their grandchildren. One expressed frustration over these interactions: “If you say you’re going to take this child and look after them and you’re the grandparents, it’s different than if I had stepped in as a foster parent. There’s no help for you.”
Since becoming a parent again was unplanned, many grandparents had to delay retirement plans and continue their participation in the paid labour force. Most families underlined financial difficulties, with minimal support from the child’s parent or the government, all while balancing work and caring for a young child.
Greater awareness of grand-families can facilitate evidence-based support
Intergenerational relationships are important for family well-being and can protect youth from risk, especially in the case of early adverse experiences, which are a common pathway leading to the formation of grand-families. While such family dynamics come with their challenges, studies nonetheless have reported that 90% of custodial grandparents would take responsibility for their grandchildren were they given the choice again. “Becoming parents again” highlights the challenges faced by grand-families in Maritime Canada that are indicative of similar experiences across Canada and the United States.
Greater awareness of grand-family experiences can facilitate the development of evidence-based supports and services, or the modifications of existing programs, to recognize and respond to the needs and realities of diverse family arrangements.
Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family
This research recap was reviewed by Tania Wong and Christina Murray.
- Ashley Martin et al., “Becoming Parents Again: Challenges Affecting Grandparent Primary Caregivers Raising Their Grandchildren,” Paediatrics & Child Health (May 2020). Link: https://bit.ly/30DE5ou.