“A Wild Roller Coaster Ride:” Raising Grandchildren with ADHD
Family living arrangements are increasingly diverse. For grandparents raising grandchildren diagnosed with ADHD, the challenges — and rewards — are immense.
Meet the Grandfamilies Living with ADHD
Trisha and John Herrity had already raised their own four children when they assumed custody of their six-month-old grandson, Justin, and, later, his younger brother, Brian. Substance abuse prevented the boys’ parents from caring for them. The Herritys scrambled to balance their unexpected child-rearing responsibilities with their careers, and to offer the emotional support the boys needed.
When little Justin displayed symptoms of ADHD, the Herritys recognized them immediately because one of their children, now grown, also had been diagnosed with the disorder. “By the time Justin was five, we recognized the signs,” says Trisha Herrity.
Nationwide, grandparents like the Herritys are confronting the unique challenges of raising children with ADHD and other conditions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 2.1 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren; more than 1 million of those are age 60 and older. For many, it’s a struggle to keep up with energetic, impulsive kids, to provide specialized support on a fixed income, and to straddle generation gaps involving technology and parenting practices.
“It’s a wild roller coaster ride,” says Christine Adamec, co-author of The Grandfamily Guidebook (#CommissionsEarned). She has raised her grandson, Tyler, now age 16, since infancy. “It’s never boring.”
ADHD, Trauma, and Specialized Support
School-age children in grandparent-led households are almost twice as likely to have an ADHD diagnosis than kids in parent-led households, according to a study published in 2020 in the journal Pediatrics. The study’s senior investigator and co-author of The Grandfamily Guidebook, Andrew Adesman, M.D., says women with ADHD are at higher risk for substance abuse and are more likely to experience unplanned pregnancies. These factors could result in women being unable or unwilling to raise their children, leading some grandparents to assume custody. Substance abuse and unplanned pregnancies are among the most common reasons for grandfamilies.
Children with ADHD often require specialized support — academic, behavioral, and emotional. The need for support is even greater for the children in grandfamilies who have endured adverse childhood experiences, including parental mental illness, substance abuse, familial violence, and neglect.
“When custody is transferred to a grandparent, it is always due to some level of family trauma,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., founder of The Chesapeake Center and author of Still Distracted After All These Years (#CommissionsEarned). “The grandparents will need guidance in how to respond.”
Grandparents Report Social Isolation
Assuming caregiver responsibility again is an unexpected plot twist for many grandparents who live on a fixed income, or who may retire early or scale back on hours to meet parenting demands. Trisha Herrity says that when her second grandchild moved in, she took a year off from work. As in many grandparent-led households, strains on family finances mounted as child-rearing expenses, from medical bills to education costs, kicked in.
For these reasons and others, grandparents raising grandchildren often need emotional support, as few of them planned on raising adolescents in their retirement years. But that support can be hard to come by. In Adesman’s study, nearly one in three grandparents said they had no one to turn to for encouragement and support. This reveals another common challenge in grandfamilies: social isolation. “As a grandparent, you don’t fit in with anyone your own age, since your peers’ children are grown and gone,” says Susan Talley of Menifee, California. “And you don’t fit in with the parents of the other kids because of the generation gap.”
And then there’s the physical toll: “My granddaughter wants to be constantly busy,” says Michael Jenkins of Aberdare, Wales, who is raising two grandchildren. “But at my age, I don’t always have the energy to keep up.”
In the years since these grandparents raised their own children, so much has changed: parenting practices, health beliefs, educational approaches, and, of course, technology. In Adesman’s study, almost half of the grandparents sampled said they were either unable to use, or had difficulty using, their grandchild’s school websites or portals. This barrier seriously impacts registering kids for school, reviewing homework assignments, and communicating effectively with teachers.
“Grateful for a Do-Over”
While the new landscape of parenting is tough to get used to, many grandparents raising grandkids with ADHD now see first-hand the benefits of early diagnosis and treatment, which in some cases eluded their own kids decades ago. “We know so much more about ADHD now,” says Nadeau. “I’ve heard many grandparents talk about being grateful for a do-over.”
Despite formidable challenges, Adesman says his study showed that, by and large, grandparents were doing very well in raising their grandkids with and without ADHD. “They often find it very rewarding and generally feel good about their decision,” he says.
In most grandfamilies, it seems, the effort required—and the rewards that come—are enormous.
“Sometimes it’s hard to go to the soccer game or the band concert because you’re tired and you’d rather stay home and rest,” says Adamec about raising her teen grandson. “But it is all worth it, a thousand times over.”
Resources for ADHD Grandfamilies
Here are a few sources of information and support for grandparents raising grandchildren:
- Generations United has a library of programs and ideas: gu.org
- HelpGuide, a nonprofit, offers articles on navigating the challenges of raising grandchildren: helpguide.org
- The site Grandfamilies.org provides legal resources and data
- The site RaisingYourGrandchildren.com offers support and information
Next Steps: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren with ADHD
- Download: Activity Ideas for ADHD Families
- Read: 10 Ways to Avoid Parenting Burnout
- Read: How to Find Parent Support Groups for ADHD Families
#CommissionsEarned As an Amazon Associate, ADDitude earns a commission from qualifying purchases made by ADDitude readers on the affiliate links we share. However, all products linked in the ADDitude Store have been independently selected by our editors and/or recommended by our readers. Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Nicole C. Kear is a consumer health editor at ADDitude.
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