Addressing the Complex Challenges of Custodial Grandmothers

William Merchant, Ph.D., assistant professor in Applied Statistics and Research Methods, has seen how his field — which may seem to be all about numbers and data — can impact people in the most personal ways. Applied Statistics and Research Methods is a “systematic way of looking at problems and situations so that that their moving parts can be rearranged into a way that can be studied and understood,” he says.

Merchant, whose affinity for numbers is equally weighted with his love for the work he’s doing and the difference it can make, studies the topic of custodial grandmothers. When a child needs to be placed in care, often because of tragic or stressful circumstances, it’s usually grandmothers who step in to provide care to their grandchildren. It’s a difficult shift in roles, moving from grandparent to full-time caregiver and disciplinarian, and the challenges — from income to age — can weigh heavily on both child and grandmother.

“The best takeaway for me as a researcher is that you can design a study that truly has a positive effect on your community while also collecting important data for the scientific / academic community.”

–William Merchant, Ph.D.

The number of families with custodial grandparents in the United States is estimated at nearly 938,000 families. In their study, Merchant and his colleagues point out that only a handful of studies have looked at the parenting practices of custodial grandmothers, and yet understanding the challenges, stressors and pressures on the family and how they navigate the situation is crucial not only for the children but for their caregivers as well.

Merchant’s study involved more than 340 custodial grandmothers from four states (California, Maryland, Ohio and Texas), and he looked at parenting and disciplinary practices, as well as areas — like depression and anxiety — that paint a more detailed picture of how grandmothers and grandchildren were coping. The study measured participants’ responses to interventions such as counseling and support groups.

“We found that overall, their mental health outcomes were not that great. A lot of depression, anxiety and physical challenges come with taking on full-time childcare at such an old age and coupled with often stressful circumstances,” Merchant says. “The most valuable result (of the study) was that all of the interventions improved some aspect of the grandmother or grandchild’s well-being.”

Merchant says they found that interventions aimed at improving mental health or parenting skills were helpful in both areas. Another positive? The study helped to build a support network between grandmothers, fostering friendships that have continued beyond the study.

–Debbie Pitner Moors