When your grandchild has a parent with a mental illness

Some considerations and suggestions

Your role in your grandchild’s life can be an important one. For parents who become unwell with mental illness, grandparents often step in to help care for their grandkids, or even become full time parents for the second time around.

Some things to consider

  • How you would like to be involved and to what extent
  • If your grandchild’s parents would like you to be involved and to what extent
  • Who can support you if you are supporting your grandchild
  • Your own mental and physical health
  • Your work and financial situation
  • Other responsibilities you may also have
  • The safety and wellbeing of your grandchild
  • Are there other people or services that can provide extra support if you decide not to care for your grandchild.

Possible challenges

  • If there are family relationship challenges that prevent respectful discussions
  • If there is excessive conflict within the family that may be exacerbated by your involvement (despite your best intentions)
  • Today’s parenting practices may be very different from what you are used to
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild for a period of time, how you will manage when you need to hand the care to their parents?
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild for a period of time, you may not have the right to information, financial support or be able to make decisions about your grandchild
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild for a period of time, you may not be able to access respite
  • There may be involvement from health and social services.

If these challenges are part of your family, how will you work through them? Who will help?

Cooperative relationships

How you relate to your grandchild’s parent will have a huge effect on their emotional wellbeing and development. Cooperative relationships help children feel secure. When you demonstrate cooperation (especially throughout difficulties and conflict situations) you are effectively teaching your grandchild how to work through problems successfully too.

For helpful support or advice Relationships Australia may be able to help you.

If you prefer not to care for your grandchild

Do not feel ashamed if you feel that it may be best for you to have limited contact with your grandchild, or if you feel you can only offer so much or for a limited time. It is far better to be honest and have these conversations up front.

You may still have concerns or questions about your grandchild and their parents. It may be useful to talk these feelings through with a counsellor or another professional (although they won’t be able to find out other people’s confidential information for you).

There may be times when your grandchild’s parent isn’t well and your grandchild comes to stay with you – for a short visit, a longer stay, or to live with you full-time. The circumstances by which a grandchild comes to stay or live with their grandparents vary widely, from a mutual agreement to a legally enforced court order. Sometimes a grandchild’s parent may also come to stay.

Read some fantastic advice below from other grandparents that can help the stay run smoothly (no matter how long the stay).

Talk about the stay

Whatever the situation which led to your grandchild coming to stay or live with you, your grandchild will benefit if you are able to have open, honest and respectful communication with their parents. You can prepare for your grandchild’s stay by asking their parent about the child’s routines, favourite foods, friends, hobbies and so on.

You will also need the contact details for the child’s school and any other services involved like childcare. Our care plan for kids and young people contains a lot of this information and may be useful to complete.

Keep relationships going

Deciding on the best way for your grandchild to stay in contact with their parents can be challenging. Remember that the decisions should be guided by the best interests and wishes of your grandchild, as well as the readiness of their parents.

Here are some tips from other grandparents, parents and children that may be useful in your situation:

  • Talk to your grandchild and find out how they feel about contact with their parent. Children may be concerned about their parent or may not want to see them unwell. Remember that maintaining a connection, although challenging, can be easier than trying to rebuild one.
  • Talk with your grandchild’s parents and any services involved about what is in the best interest of your grandchild regarding contact with their parents. Different people may have different opinions and you may need to carefully weigh up what is in the best interests of your grandchild.
  • Organise visits to take place at a park, library or another venue that can provide an activity for your grandchild and their parents and give them something fun to do together.
  • Shorter visits are sometimes better. Setting a time frame so that everyone knows when the visit will end can reduce tension and disappointment.
  • Be conscious of stepping back and allowing your grandchild and their parents to spend quality time together.
  • Avoid conflict with your grandchild’s parents in front of them.
  • You may choose to help your grandchild keep a visual diary (drawings, pictures or photos) of what they have been doing since they last saw their parents. This can be a great icebreaker and provide your grandchild and their parents with things to talk about during the visit, or for the parents to take with them after the visit.
  • You might also be able to support your grandchild to talk with their parents by phone in between face-to-face visits.
  • After contact with their parents, remember that children can be confused, angry or feeling grief and loss – this might be expressed in their behaviour. In addition, parents may feel they have let their child down and may also express emotions or behaviours that might be misinterpreted.

When it’s time for your grandchild to go home

  • If your grandchild is living with you, they and their parents usually want your grandchild to return home, if and when possible. It’s important to work towards this rather than try to maintain your grandchild living with you.
  • As a grandparent you may have fears about your grandchild returning to their parents. Talk about these with your grandchild’s parents and with support workers. If your grandchild does return to live with their parents, discuss how you can keep in touch. You may feel a sense of grief and loss about these relationship changes and it may help to discuss these feelings with a support worker or a friend. You may also want to ask them about how to help your grandchild and their parents to re-establish their relationship after a period of living apart.

Resources for grandparents

  • It’s always good to know you aren’t alone. Meet with other grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren or with other parents of adult children who have a mental illness: MyTime for grandparents offers national peer support groups for those who have full-time care of their grandkids.
  • Make use of childcare services to give yourself a break. The government subsidises childcare for most families. Visit MyChild website for more information.
  • Find out about any financial support that you are entitled to as a grandparent carer. See Centrelink’s information on support for non-parent carers.
  • The parenting for grandparents and other relative carers may also be useful.


Download Free COPMI Resources

For use by families where a parent has a mental illness, their supporters, and services who work with them.