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Grandkids Who’ve Known Trauma

Helping Grandchildren Who Have Experienced Trauma

By Jaia Peterson Lent

“One thing I have noticed is that most people go to grandma’s house and get spoiled, but for me, it was the only safe place I had.  Getting to live with grandma was like going to ‘grandma’s house’ all the time. I had more love there than anywhere else in my life.” – Chad Dingle, raised by a grandmother.

More than 2.5 million grandparents are raising grandchildren across the U.S.  Like Chad, the vast majority of the children come into their grandparents care after experiencing trauma.  Trauma results when a baby, child or youth is exposed to multiple harmful events such as child abuse or neglect, the death of a parent, or living with a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol.  In short, trauma happens when the person who was supposed to be caring for and protecting you as a child, fails to make you feel safe.

Research shows that children who have experienced violence or other trauma are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems. Without intervention, those children are 12 times more likely than those without significant trauma to have serious negative health outcomes in adulthood such as cancer or ischemic heart disease.

And the impact of trauma starts at a very young age.  In babies and children, exposure to violence or other traumatic experiences often results in screaming, fear of adults, sadness, irritability, sleep problems or acting withdrawn.

When it became clear that her grandchildren were not safe with their parents, grandparent caregiver Delia Martinez began caring for her grandchildren. They were 6 months, 1 ½ and 2 ½ years old.  “I thought because my grandkids were babies they were not going to have any problems.  Boy, was I wrong!” Delia explains, “ They had problems with separation anxiety; it was so painful to see them go through this. I had to tell them a hundred times a day how much I loved them and was never going to leave them.”

The good news Delia’s consistent presence and loving words made a difference. In fact, like Delia grandparents and other relatives who step in to care for children are uniquely suited to the supportive adult a child needs to help mitigate the impact of trauma.  Compared to children in foster care with non-relatives, children in foster care with relatives have more stable and safe childhoods, experience fewer school changes and are more likely to report they “always feel loved.” They also keep their connections to brothers and sisters, extended family and their cultural identity.  These outcomes align with research on family-based protective factors that promote resilience among children who have been exposed to violence.

traumaIn other words, research shows grandmas and grandpas may be especially able to help children heal.

Yet grandparents raising children who have exposed to trauma still need help. Grandparent caregiver Jan Wagner explains, “One thing I know to be true: you can’t love away the effects of trauma from neglect and abuse. Our children need the same amount of intensive therapy and services as traditional foster placement and we, as their caregivers, desperately need the same to help them heal.

Unlike traditional foster parents who have social worker to guide them and are usually offered specialized trauma training and a range of supportive services to help them with the children, grandparents raising children are often saddled with the responsibility with few resources.

Fortunately, available help is increasing across the community, and with it, we will see more and more children thriving in the loving arms of grandparents.

And Chad Dingle is living proof that that is a good thing. Now married and working full time with a second child on the way, he is now the first to credit his grandmother (now adoptive mother)  for his success, “It took me a long time because I was rebel as a kid. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that (my mom/grandmother) did save my life. She is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. “

Resources to help relative raising children exposed to trauma:

Support Groups – Visit www.grandfactsheets.org to learn about support groups for grandparent raising grandchildren near you.

Trauma-Informed Services – The National Center for Trauma Informed Care has a list of hotlines and referral networks to help you find professionals who are trained to work with children impacted by trauma.

State of Grandfamilies Report –  Generations United’s  report- In Loving Arms: The protective role of grandparents and other relatives in raising children exposed to trauma provides an overview of facts, stories, model programs and recommendations to help grandfamilies raising children impacted by trauma.

Addition resources for grandfamilies can be found at www.grandfamilies.org.


Jaia Peterson Lent is Deputy Executive Director of Generations United, a national organization dedicated to improving lives. Home to the National Center on Grandfamilies, Generations United is a leading voice for issues affecting families headed by grandparents or other relatives


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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