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5 Tips For Grandfamilies Facing Mental Health Concerns

5 Tips for Grandfamilies Facing Mental Health Concerns


The U.S. is in a state of mental health emergency in child and adolescent mental health, and a national mental health crisis for Americans of all ages. However, there is one type of family that is particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns: grandfamilies.

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

“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

Grandfamilies form out of events that separate children from their parents, such as 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%.

Front view of a happy African-American grandmother embracing her grandson at home

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, 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 have many layers of trauma and mental health challenges. Children come to grandfamilies with past experiences of trauma, such as 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 live with learning difficulties, chronic health conditions, and mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Grandfamily caregivers’ mental health is highly impacted when raising others’ children, which directly affects their physical health and general well-being. They experience chronic stress not only from the everyday stressors of child-rearing and difficulty 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 untreated mental and behavioral health conditions. More than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems also has a substance use problem, and substance use is 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. Here are some tips for accessing support.

Tips for Grandfamilies

  1. Explore employer-based support: More than half of grandfamily caregivers are in the labor force, and some employers offer support that can be helpful, such as mental health support and treatment through health insurance, Employee Assistance Programs, or employee support groups.
  2. 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.
  3. Obtain accurate diagnoses for mental health concerns: Accurate diagnoses for children and their caregivers can help understand behaviors and get appropriate treatment. In particular, understanding trauma is critical.
  4. Find a grand family support group: Connecting with other grand families for support and understanding is critical. In addition, support groups generally include education about challenges and resources. Find a support group or other local grandfamily support program by clicking on the GRAND Fact Sheet for your state, contacting the local Area Agency on Aging, or inquiring at a child’s school.
  5. Tap into respite care: Grandfamily caregivers need respite—a break from caregiving—to manage chronic stress, take care of themselves, and “re-boot.” 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. You can also search for a grandfamily respite program through the ARCH Respite network.

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

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