More than 3 million older Americans are now raising their grandchildren as their own, even as they struggle with health problems and financial stresses, a new survey shows.
Not only that, the children they take in are more likely to be troubled as they struggle to adjust to new lives, the researchers found.
Still, these grandparents seem to be handling the challenges as well as biological parents do.
"Our study found that grandparents raising grandchildren -- despite having greater physical and mental health issues, and despite raising somewhat more behaviorally challenging children -- appear to be coping with the stresses of parenting just as well as biological/adoptive parent caregivers," said survey author Dr. Andrew Adesman. He is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
That's not to say it's easy. Researchers found that grandparents who take on a late-in-life role of parenting tend to be in worse physical and mental health than actual parents. They are also more likely to be single and to struggle financially.
But responses offered in the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health by roughly 46,000 caregivers in grandparent- and parent-led households suggested that grandparents are no more overwhelmed by the burden of caregiving than parents are.
Why are more grandparents finding themselves having to make this tough choice?
"The reasons for this are many, with fatal overdoses related to the opioid epidemic responsible for a significant proportion of these cases," Adesman said.
"Child abuse or neglect is another frequent reason for children being placed with their grandparents," he noted. "Other common reasons include mental health problems of one or both parents, or unexpected deaths due to health problems or motor vehicle accidents."
Adesman is to present his team's findings Monday at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, in Orlando, Fla. Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The survey enlisted nearly 45,000 parent-led households, of which about 5,000 were single parents. Grandparent-led families made up another 1,250 of those surveyed.
The researchers found that grandparent caregivers were more likely to care for black children and have a lower level of educational attainment. They were also more likely to say they had nobody to turn to for emotional support (31 percent of grandparents versus 24 percent of parents).
Children cared for by grandparents were more apt to lose their temper, argue, and/or become anxious or angry when confronted with change, according to the report.
But the researchers found no appreciable difference between grandparents and parents in terms of being bothered or angered by their child, and neither group suggested that caregiving was more difficult.
Amy Goyer, family and caregiving expert at AARP, observed that the roughly 5.7 million American children now being raised by grandparents are following a well-trodden path.
She noted, for example, that President George Washington and his wife Martha raised two of Martha's grandchildren.
Goyer also pointed out that, on average, first-time grandparents are in their late 40s, "so it's important not to assume these grandparents are older than they are."
But Goyer, who is the former head of the AARP's Grandparenting Program, also said that "the phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren has risen in recent decades, due to increased problems with substance abuse and addiction, incarceration, divorce and military deployment among other issues."
In that context, she suggested that the relatively positive findings are somewhat surprising, "considering the extreme challenges so many grandparent caregivers face."
Goyer pointed out that "this issue hits families in every socioeconomic level, but we know that grandparents with lower incomes struggle all the more with the extra costs. These children often have chronic health problems, mental illness. They have suffered trauma. They may be born addicted or suffer from attachment disorders. They tend to have more learning disabilities, and they may have more behavioral problems."
Still, grandparents have a leg up when it comes to experience, she added. "They do this out of love. They do it because they want to keep their family together. They are motivated, and they are survivors," Goyer said.
The bottom-line is that "children raised by relatives do better than those being raised in foster care," she said. "There is the continuity of family. A child's identity is so closely tied to their family and being with grandparents helps continue that. The love from a grandparent is a special thing."