When grandparents are caregivers or guardians of kids who learn and think differently

At a glance

  • Many grandparents are caregivers or guardians of kids who learn and think differently.

  • Grandparents can face unique challenges at home and also at their grandchild’s school.

  • When grandparents find a support network for themselves, it can help their grandchild thrive.

Being a grandparent of a child who learns and thinks differently comes with a unique set of challenges. That’s true no matter how much day-to-day involvement grandparents have with their grandchild.

When grandparents are legal guardians, there are added complications. Grandparents need to understand how the law protects them and their grandchild, and how special education works. They may also face financial stresses or demands because of their grandchild’s needs.

If you’re the grandparent of a child who learns and thinks differently, finding your own support network can be tough. So can talking with your grandchild’s parents or other family members. And simply understanding learning and thinking differences can be hard.

Learn more about these challenges and how to best support your grandchild.

Grandparents as caregivers

Many grandparents act as a primary caregiver when parents are working or are temporarily unable to care for their child. It can be a rewarding (and sometimes exhausting) role. But this role is very different from being the child’s legal or “custodial” guardian.

Caregivers don’t have legal rights to act on their grandchild’s behalf at school or with health care professionals. If you take care of your grandchild but aren’t the legal guardian, you may be able to talk with your grandchild’s teacher. But you need to be the legal guardian in order to sign off on or oversee your grandchild’s special education services.

Grandparents as guardians

Grandparents are guardians for nearly 1 million kids in the United States. (Another 1.9 million kids are cared for by other relatives.) The role of guardian often falls to grandparents when parents are unable to care for their child. The parents may be ill, out of work, using drugs, or in jail.

Being a legal guardian gives grandparents the same rights as a parent. So all the laws that cover special education and disability rights apply. That means guardians have a role in the evaluation process and, if their grandchild has an IEP, are part of the IEP team. They also have the right to dispute decisions the school might make.

Maybe you’re the guardian of a grandchild who’s moving in with you. Does the move mean your grandchild has to switch school districts? If that’s the case, it’s important to know that there’s no guarantee your grandchild’s services will automatically transfer. Ask your local school board what you need to do to ensure a smooth transition of services.

Financial stresses grandparents may face

Grandparents rarely plan for taking care of their grandchildren. Many end up cutting into their savings and retirement accounts to do so.

Kids who learn and think differently can bring extra financial pressures. They’re more likely to need things like private tutoring, independent evaluations, and behavioral counseling. Health insurance may not cover costs for physical and .

According to the Affordable Care Act, many of these costs are tax deductible. If possible, work with an accountant to make sure you get the deductions and allowances you’re entitled to.

Challenging behaviors grandparents may face

Some learning and thinking differences can create difficult behaviors. These include , , and .

Watch this video from Sixty & Me on what to do when grandkids have too much energy.

Other learning differences like can affect behavior indirectly. They can make kids feel very frustrated and cause them to act out. Kids who learn and think differently are also at higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

These challenges can be particularly tough for grandparents. Parents might not share information that would make the behavior easier to understand. And grandparents may not see eye-to-eye with parents about how to deal with behavior issues.

Guardian grandparents may see even more behavior issues. Their grandchildren may be coming from a chaotic or unsafe home life. They may feel angry and sad that their parents can’t take care of them. And they face losing routines and rituals they may have had.

Kids who learn and think differently are generally less equipped to handle these challenges. They may act out more and have meltdowns. They may have more trouble than ever focusing on schoolwork.

The school psychologist may be able to help with the transition. They may also have advice about how to help at home.

How grandparents can find support

Parents of a child who learns and thinks differently need support from people who understand. So do grandparents. But it can be especially hard for grandparents to find people to turn to.

It can be difficult to find other grandparents in the same situation to seek advice from or share information with. Friends or other family members may not know much about learning and thinking differences. Or they may have misconceptions that keep them from being supportive.

If you’re a grandparent and don’t have a built-in support network, you may need to create one. Feeling understood makes it easier to be supportive of your grandchild. And if you’re in a caregiving role, it can help you stay motivated to tackle daily challenges.

Our online community is a safe place for you to connect with other grandparents, parents, and other caregivers facing similar situations who know what you’re going through. Join topic-based groups and get helpful, personalized information in a safe, judgment-free community. You can also seek guidance from a team of trusted professionals, like licensed therapists, psychologists, teachers, and special education experts — all within the app.

If you’re in a guardian role, you can ask the IEP team if there’s a parent support group at school. The team may also be able to introduce you to parents whose child has similar challenges to your grandchild’s.

Try not to worry about the age difference between you and the parents of other children. Sharing stories, concerns, and advice is common ground enough.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for relief. If you’re the caregiver or guardian, you may find yourself running out of steam periodically. Reach out to other people. Perhaps a friend or an older child in the neighborhood can help with homework. Or maybe another family member can step in one night a week so you can take a break.

Kids who learn and think differently are just as smart as their peers. They just need more support. Learning more about these challenges will help your grandchild to thrive.

Find out about the supports and services kids can get at school. And get tips for boosting your grandchild’s self-esteem.

Key takeaways

  • Grandparents who are legal guardians have the same rights as parents.

  • Raising grandchildren who learn and think differently may bring financial pressures.

  • Grandparents can play an important role no matter how much involvement they have.


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