Professors study custodial grandparent trend through grant

Kelsey Misbrener

More grandparents are acting as full-time parents for their grandchildren than ever before, said Greg Smith, professor of lifespan development and educational sciences.

Kent State received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a Custodial Grandparent Study. Smith said the study will focus on the psychological difficulties that both custodial grandparents, those who care for grandchildren full-time, and grandchildren suffer because of the unusual parenting situation.

Smith, the principal investigator of the project, said the study is important for three reasons.

“There’s growing numbers of these families,” Smith said. “The grandparents are at risk for a lot of stress, because this is coming at them at a time in their life, you know, when they thought their parenting duties were all over with. And then the kids are at a great deal of risk because of trauma they may have experienced as a result of their parents’ behavior.”

The problem isn’t specific to a certain part of the population. It cuts across social class, race and age, project director Karie Feldman said.

Smith said the growing amount of custodial grandparents is primarily due to parents with substance abuse problems.

“Because of that, a lot of these kids have been either abused or neglected, so they’re at increased risk for a lot of behavioral and emotional problems,” Smith said.

The directors of the study will start by recruiting 126 custodial grandmothers throughout the state of Ohio. Smith said they chose to focus on grandmothers because they are usually the primary caregivers.

They will meet in groups of seven to nine once per week for 11 weeks and participate in activities led by group leaders. A mental health professional and a fellow custodial grandmother will act as leader and co-leader of each group.

Feldman said some activities will be parenting-related while others will focus on nutrition.

“We’re really offering them free support,” Feldman said. “We’re saying, ‘Come to these groups, have a chance to talk about the issues that you’re having. We’ll give you some resources.’”

According to the project outline, the mental health professionals will continue to follow up on the participants’ progress a year after the meetings to see if the children and grandparents have better emotional health.

Smith said this study is important because custodial grandparents may have an “outdated” parenting style.

“We have new understandings about parenting, so they may not have caught on,” Smith said. “Kids have changed, you know, being a 12 year old now is different than it was, you know, when their kid was 12.”

Smith researched custodial grandparents for many years with colleagues in Baltimore, Texas and California. Those colleagues will also receive some of the grant money and conduct similar experiments.

“The bottom line is, most of these grandparents really love these kids, you know, so it’s not like they’re not doing a good job or aren’t trying to do a good job,” Smith said.

Contact Kelsey Misbrener at [email protected].