Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Butler Center for Research - July 2018
Shot of a little girl and her grandmother enjoying a piggyback ride at the park

Download the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Research Update

Grandfamilies, or kinship families, are those in which children live with and are being raised by grandparents, relatives or other adult extended family members. Grandparents play an important role in providing safe and stable homes to children who cannot remain in the care of their parents. Due to a parent's substance use disorder, death, disability or military deployment, grandparents can provide a continuum of care ranging from childcare to taking full responsibility for raising their grandchild.

The Numbers and Characteristics of Grandfamilies in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2016, 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under the age of 18 living with them.1 There were nearly 6 million children under the age of 18 living in a household maintained by a grandparent in 2016. Of those 6 million children, nearly 2.6 million were under age six.2

While there is great diversity within these family groups, some grandparents are more likely to be raising their grandchildren than others. Grandparents who live with their grandchildren tend to be:

  • Younger
  • Less educated
  • More likely to be divorced or widowed
  • More likely to be in poverty
  • More likely to be unable to work due to illness or disability.3

In addition, grandparents raising grandchildren are represented at higher rates among Black, American Indian and Alaskan Native racial and ethnic minority groups, though rates have been increasing among White, non-Hispanic grandparents.3, 4

Why Are Grandparents Raising Grandchildren?

Grandparents take over responsibility for the care of their grandchildren due to a variety of parental difficulties and stigmatizing family events including abuse and neglect, incarceration, physical and mental illness, death, military deployment, deportation, adolescent pregnancy, divorce and abandonment.5 Economic instability has also been associated with growth in multigenerational households.4 Parental substance abuse, whether as a result of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, or today's opioid epidemic, has long been cited as one of the most common reasons that grandparents raise their grandchildren.6

Challenges and Stressors

Researchers have found that grandparents face numerous challenges that contribute to adverse physical and mental health outcomes. Commonly reported stressors include poverty or economic distress,7 the lack of a legal relationship to the grandchild,8 inadequate housing9 and social isolation.10 Strained family relationships may be another source of stress, and include marital distress11 and conflict with the grandchildren's biological parents over the nature and extent of their involvement with the grandchildren.12

There is consistent and substantial research evidence that grandparents raising grandchildren experience significant levels of depression.13, 14, 15, 16 These rates of depression have been shown to be higher than those of single parents and those of the general population.17, 18

Impact of Grandparent Caregiving on Child Well-being

Despite many challenges, children fare well in the care of their grandparents. Compared to children not cared for by relatives, they have more stability, are less likely to run away and are more likely to report feeling loved.17 When children cannot remain with their parents, placing children with grandparents or other relatives reinforces safety, stability and well-being; reduces trauma; reinforces a child's sense of identity; helps keep brothers and sisters together; honors family and cultural ties; and increases the likelihood of having a permanent home.17

Importance of Supportive Services for Grandfamily Success

When caregivers in grandfamilies are offered supportive services, the social and mental health outcomes for the children involved improve substantially.18

Examples of key support services include:

  1. Information and referral assistance such as kinship navigator programs, 18, 19 that provide a single point of entry for learning about housing, household resources, physical and mental health care, and financial and legal assistance.
  2. Physical and mental health care for older caregivers and children including programs covered by Medicaid and Medicare. Quality counseling and trauma-informed mental health services have been shown to improve outcomes for both caregivers and children.20
  3. Affordable legal services so that grandfamilies, whether they are inside or outside the foster care system, can access a continuum of legal relationship options and understand both the legal and practical differences of adoption, guardianship and legal custody.
  4. Lifespan respite programs that provide coordinated, community-based respite care services for family caregivers who provide care for children and adults with special needs.
  5. Financial support services, including access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); Social Security retirement, disability, and survivor benefits for both the caregivers and for the children; and Supplemental Security Income for low-income caregivers and children who are disabled.


Grandparents raising grandchildren are important resources to their families and communities. Finding ways to assist and help grandparents raising grandchildren is critical to supporting some of the most vulnerable families.

Due to a parent's substance use disorder grandparents are raising their grandchildren.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Experience

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation understands the many ways families can be impacted by addiction and offers a number of support services to help families learn healthy coping skills. Through phone-based coaching sessions with a licensed addiction counselor, our Connection® for Families program provides support to family members in need of their own recovery support. Our Family Programs offer education and guidance through presentations, discussions, guided goal-setting and fellowship with other family members affected by addiction. The Caring Family Group is offered monthly and is free of charge at Hazelden Betty Ford in Plymouth and St. Paul, Minnesota, locations. This is a place to gain support and encouragement, and discover new insights and addiction recovery resources.

Questions & Controversies

Question: Where can grandparents find help?

Response: Grandparents may want to join a support group for people with family members who have addiction and substance use issues such as Al-Anon Family Groups ( Al-Anon also has Alateen groups for children whose parents have substance abuse disorders. The Children of Alcoholics Foundation ( has resources on their website to help relatives raising children of parents who are addicted. Grandparents may also want to get personal counseling from a therapist who can help both grandparents and grandchildren learn how to cope with substance abuse in the family. Generations United ( offers many resources, and ( is a national legal resource for grandfamilies.

How to Use This Information

Grandparents: Despite the challenges you may face as a family, children fare well in your care. It is important that you seek services that can help you cope with your family circumstances. Use this information to help recognize and meet your needs and the needs of your grandchildren.

Service Providers: Recognize that most grandparents cherish their grandchildren and want what is best for the child. While many strengths, challenges and needs are shared by diverse grandfamilies, the level, length and types of help they need can vary. Networks of aging services agencies and other community supports can play a critical role by providing help to families headed by older caregivers.


  1. U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey. (2016). Sex of grandparents living with own grandchildren under 18 years by responsibility for own grandchildren and age of grandparentTable B10056. Retrieved from
  2. U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey. (2016). Grandchildren under 18 years living with a grandparent householder by age of grandchild, Table B10006. Retrieved from
  3. Ellis, R.R., & Simmons, T. (2014). Coresident grandparents and their grandchildren: 2012. Current Population Reports, P20-576, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC. Retrieved from
  4. Livingston, G., & Parker, K. (2010, September 9). Since the start of the great recession, more children raised by grandparents. Retrieved from
  5. Hayslip, B., & Kaminski, P. L. (2005). Grandparents raising their grandchildren: A review of the literature and suggestions for practice. The Gerontologist, 45, 262-209.
  6. Generations United. (2016). Raising the children of the opioid epidemic: Solutions and support for grandfamilies. Retrieved from
  7. Baker, L. A., & Mutchler, J. E. (2010). Poverty and material hardship in grandparent-headed households. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 947-962.
  8. Generations United. (2015). The state of grandfamilies in America. Retrieved from
  9. Fuller-Thomson, E., & Minkler, M. (2003). Housing issues and realities facing grandparent caregivers who are renters. The Gerontologist, 43, 92-98.
  10. Sampson, D., & Hertlein, K. (2015). The experience of grandparents raising grandchildren. GrandFamilies: The Contemporary Journal of Research, Practice and Policy, 2 (1). Available at
  11. Smith, G. C., & Hancock, G. R. (2010). Custodial grandmother-grandfather dyads: Pathways among marital distress, grandparent dysphoria, parenting practice, and grandchild adjustment. Family Relations, 59, 45-59.
  12. Goodman, C. C. (2003). Intergenerational triads in grandparent-headed families. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, 281-289.
  13. Minkler, M., Fuller-Thomson, E., Miller, D., & Driver, D. (1997). Depression in grandparents raising grandchildren: Results of a national longitudinal study. Archives of Family Medicine, 6, 445-452.
  14. Musil, C. M., Warner, C., Zauszniewski, J., Wykle, M., & Standing, T. (2009). Grandmother caregiving, family stress and strain, and depressive symptoms. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 31, 389-408.
  15. Whitley, D. M., Fuller-Thomson, E., & Brennenstuhl, S. (2015). Health characteristics of solo grandparent caregivers and single parents: A comparative profile using the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, Volume 2015, Article ID 630717.
  16. Whitley, D. M., & Fuller-Thomson, E. (2017). African-American solo grandparents raising grandchildren: A representative profile of their health status. Journal of Community Health, 42, 312-323.
  17. Generations United. (2016). Children thrive in grandfamilies. Retrieved from
  18. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2012). Working with kinship caregivers. Retrieved from
  19. AdoptUSKids. (2015). Lessons from the field on services for adoptive, foster, and kinship care families. Retrieved from
  20. Rubin, D., Springer, S. H., Zlotnik, S., & Kang-Yi, C. D. (2017). Needs of kinship care families and pediatric practice. Pediatrics, 139(4):e20170099.
  21. Houston, D. M., & Kramer, L. (2008). Meeting the long-term needs of families who adopt children out of foster care: A three-year follow-up study. Child Welfare, 87, 146-170.
  22. Generations United. (2017). In loving arms: The protective role of grandparents and other relatives in raising children exposed to trauma. Retrieved from