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The opioid epidemic in the United States has harmed many people, including one major casualty too often ignored by the media: Children. One group that has stepped up to aid the children whose parents can no longer care for them is the grandparents of these children. Yet the children they now raise may have experienced many troubling events in their past lives, which is an important factor to consider. In a unique study recently published in an August 2020 edition of Pediatrics, the researchers studied adverse childhood events (ACEs) that children previously experienced in families that are now headed by their grandparents, compared to families headed by other children’s parents. (The children’s parents were drawn from the general population.) In this study, the researchers compared ACEs in 2,407 grandparent-headed households to those found in 78,239 parent-headed households from the general public. This large sample was nationally representative and used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As one might expect, some children who are now being raised by their grandparents had suffered a rocky past before their grandparents came to the rescue.
Past Adverse Childhood Events in Children
An adverse childhood event (ACE) refers to a specific serious issue that a child has experienced. Some examples of ACEs are the following: the child experienced a parent or guardian dying; the child experienced a parent or guardian serving time in jail; the child was a victim of violence or witnessed violence in the neighborhood; and the child lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs.
The researchers found some dramatic differences in the percentage of ACEs that children had suffered in each group. For example, the researchers found that 13 percent of the children now being raised by their grandparents had experienced the death of a parent or guardian compared to only about 3 percent of the children being raised by parents. In addition, nearly 36 percent of the children raised by their grandparents previously had experienced a parent or guardian serving time in jail, compared to about 5 percent of the parent-headed households. The researchers also found that nearly 30 percent of the children had lived with anyone with a drug or alcohol problem in the past, compared to 7 percent of the parent households. Some of the children had experienced violence, which is another ACE; 11 percent of the children now being raised by their grandparents had been victimized by violence or witnessed violence in the past, compared to 4 percent of the parent-headed households.
Number of ACEs
Some children have experienced a greater number of adverse events in their childhood than others, which can have a cumulative effect on the children. In this study, more than twice the percentage of children in grandparent-headed households (72 percent) had experienced at least one ACE, compared to 31 percent of the parent-headed households. Sadly, 17.5 percent of the children in the grandparent-headed households had experienced four or more ACEs in the past, compared to about 3 percent of the parent-headed households. Such children may need therapy to overcome their early life adversities, no matter how loving and caring their grandparents are.
ACE Exposure and ADHD in Preschoolers
Many researchers have found a link between past exposure to ACEs and the presence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In this study, after adjusting for social and demographic differences, ADHD was three times more prevalent among preschoolers raised by their grandparents than the children raised by the parents. But the good news was that there was no significant difference seen in school age children.
Implications for Grandparents
This study provided important information, indicating that many of the children grandparents are now raising have suffered serious traumatic experiences in their past. One thing the study could not show was the number of ACEs that the children in grandparent-headed households would have experienced had they remained in their troubled parent-led homes. It seems likely tht the percentage of ACEs would have been considerably higher in that circumstance, although researchers don’t like to speculate.
Another issue is that children who have suffered from one or more ACEs may act out, particularly when they are first placed with their grandparents, but even later when they feel more secure and safe. Yet many grandparents blame themselves for their grandchildren’s “bad” behavior. However, the reality is that the stage was set long ago when the child may have been damaged by drugs as early as the womb as well as by multiple ACEs. This is also why grandparents, many in their late 50s or older, who step up to raise their grandchildren, are among the often unacknowledged heroes of our society, parenting a vulnerable and important population of children who may have suffered greatly in the past.
More to Come
I will provide further information on this fascinating study in another blog at a later date, and hope that grandparents raising their grandchildren will find it to be useful and helpful information.