Tuesday, May 15, 2018

60 Minutes on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Reading Between the Lines

On Sunday, 5/13/18, the news magazine show Sixty Minutes aired a new story about grandparents raising grandchildren which focused entirely on the epidemic of opioid addiction as the primary cause of the middle generation taking such poor care of their kids that the grandparents had to “take over.” 

The show reported that there are now over one million grandparents raising grandchildren because of their own kids’ failings

This hearkens back to my very first post on my Psychology Today blog, back on June 22, 2011, in which I discussed the already skyrocketing incidence of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of their dysfunctional children’s abdication of the parental role (rather than in those cases of temporary needs like a military deployment). Note that this post was written well before the current brouhaha about the opioid epidemic.

I discussed the idea that the children were, in a sense, being “gifted” to the grandparents, who seemed to the children to have a pathological need to raise children despite continually complaining about it.

I wrote that the major apparent (pardon the pun) reasons were because the children:

1. Carry the psychiatric diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and neglect, abuse or otherwise endanger their children. 

2. Have antisocial traits and end up in jail (antisocial personality disorder is also a Cluster B personality disorder just like BPD). 

3. Are addicts or alcoholics. Many of those folks may also exhibit significant Cluster B personality traits at one time or another, although in addicts the traits may disappear if and when the addict cleans up.

As most of my readers will know, I believe that the parents’ intrapsychic conflicts over the role of raising children is by far the most important cause of cluster B symptoms and acting out by their children and adult children. 

Furthermore, the grandchildren in these cases are also being subjected to its manifestations and might later develop the same disorders themselves.

In a previous newsmagazine show from around the time of the earlier post, grandparents raising their grand kids were heard to say how much they loved taking care of the grand kids, but how chasing after them made them soooooo tired! And clearly if we heard that, so did the grand kids. So the grandparents end up doing to the grandchildren the same problematic things that they did to their own children.

Some of these grandparents were interviewed on the Sixty Minutes segment, and the reporter discussed how they were plowing through their retirement savings, having to downsize and not go on previously planned vacation trips, arguing more between themselves, and even worrying about how they would find the money to treat their own illnesses like, in one case, cancer.  Again, if we heard this, so do the grand kids. In fact, one child was asked what the grandparents were giving up in order to take care of them, and replied, “Grandma had to give up dating. She says it all the time.”

Two grandparents protested, “We can’t not do it [take care of the grand kids]; they’re our family!”

When it described what went on before the grand kids were “rescued” by their grandparents, the story did a good job of describing how older siblings would have to become so-called “parentified children” for their younger siblings, and how they felt they had to grow up too fast. I described what can happen in that situation in a previous post.

So was there any evidence that these grandparents may have engaged in problematic relationships with the absent parents that affected the middle generation’s irresponsible behavior with their own kids? Well, no direct evidence, but a couple of things were mentioned in passing that might suggest that this was the case.

In two of the described cases, the grandparents spoke of keeping track of what was going on with their kids and grand kids as the parents became homeless and crashed at various shady dives and crack houses along with their children. Rather than simply calling protective services to investigate, one set of parents bought their child a van and put a tracking device on it, while another set said they camped out across the street from one of said crash pads to make sure that their grandchildren were not being abused. Apparently all night long!

We don’t know for certain how long this sort of “tracking” was going on, but my guess is: a long, long time. As readers recall from my previous posts, the parents’ conflicts over their parental role in many (but not all) of these cases leads them to vacillate between severe over-involvement and severe under-involvement with their kids. One of these two poles often predominates much (but not all) of the time. This creates the double message to the children, “I need you-I hate you.” Constant tracking is one manifestation of the over-involved polarity.

So am I dismissing all of the so-called evidence that opioid addiction is a biogenetic disease over which these parents have no control, and that it has nothing at all to do with family dynamics? Well, yes. If you believe these people have absolutely no control over their drug use, you would also have to believe that:

1.     12 Step Programs like AA and NA could never work. Especially when the addict has "hit bottom" (that is, when the addiction is at its worst).   

2.  The way the drugs makes them feel is so all-encompassing that they lose all ability to reason and the ability to appreciate the harm they are doing to themselves and their own children, or lose the ability to care about that at all.     

3.  If you pointed a gun at them and told them that if they picked up the drug or drink in front of them you would shoot them the moment they did, assuming they believed you and were not overtly suicidal at the time, then they would have to go ahead and let themselves die.

Do you really believe those things?