Grandchildren being raised by grandparents often spend months or even years of their lives bouncing from one home or situation to another. Inconsistency and a constant sense of the unknown can fuel anxiety, anger and aggression in them.
Take the Grishabers.
Jane Ann Grishaber is 83. She recently adopted her five-year-old great-grandson Caydn. Grishaber said she hopes she can make it to her mid-90s when Cayden is 15 or 16, so he gets a good start in life.
“The biggest challenge is looking forward and getting the proper guidance,” she said. “Because when I raised my six children it was a whole lot different than it is now.”
Grishaber met me at Kenna Elementary School in a preschool classroom. His teacher last year (Caydn is a kindergartener) was Deborah Hall. Hall said kids like Caydn need structure and consistency.
“Children thrive in structure because it helps them then organize,” Hall said. “If you’re in an organized setting, your thoughts become organized, you can retrieve information much easier than something that is completely unstructured.”
Grishaber said Hall helped her implement structure in her home and develop a continuity of expectations for Caydn. That was incredibly valuable to her, because in addition to being rusty on her parenting skills, Caydn had some anger issues when Grishaber first got custody of him.
“Well, when he first came he would hit himself a lot and he would get moody,” she said. “And he didn’t cry a lot, but he didn’t smile a lot either, he wasn’t real happy.”
Experts said it is not unusual for kids coming from backgrounds like Caydn’s to exhibit behavioral issues in the beginning. Tracy LeGrow, a psychologist at Marshall University, said one of the most common problems children in these situations face is anxiety.
“So, separation anxiety: these may be kids that have bounced around with their parents and other relatives or bounced back and forth between their parents and grandparents, so sometimes they’re really worried about where they’ll be next,” said LeGrow.
LeGrow said she also sees a lot of kids struggling with aggression, but thinks this is closely connected with their anxiety.
“If you don’t know what’s expected or you don’t feel secure – it’s kind of fight or flight…. You get that side of things where kids are acting out,” she said. “It’s maybe based in anxiety, but it comes out in aggression or anger.”
Experiences like Grishaber’s are not unusual. About one in 14 children in West Virginia are being raised by someone other than a parent.
Kim Lawrence, the psychologist for Kanawha County preschools, said that in addition to teaching, teachers often have to be behaviorists.
“If I look at last year’s data, we have more than 50% that I’ve worked with, that I’ve done referrals for community mental health support, that are being raised by grandparents,” she said.
Community mental health support is usually a psychiatrist or behaviorist who can work more intensively with a child if he or she needs it. Lawrence said the kids who most need that help are the ones who were exposed to drugs in the womb.
“Most commonly, we have found that the IQ is intact with these children that we work with, [but] social, emotionally, they are at a 2 1/2-year-old versus a 4-year-old level,” she said. “So we are [seeing] toddler behaviors for children who know their ABCs and can count.”
But Lawrence said wait times for community mental health services can be upwards of eight months, which is a long time to wait for families that are already struggling to cope.
Grishaber did end up taking Caydn to a child psychologist when she first got custody of him, but said the visit was more for her reassurance that she could actually take on a 3-year-old at the age of 80, rather than due to his struggles – which mostly resolved after structure and consistency were introduced into his life.
For her, it’s clear she is able to handle it. Now, two years later, Caydn is a precocious, bubbly 5-year-old, who, as she says, keeps her feeling young.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.