Gerontologist Recruiting Custodial Grand-families for Study
Custodial grandparents and their grandchildren are a unique and little-understood population, as are the physical and social health challenges they face. A Kent State University researcher has designed a program that could help to assess the well-being of families and provide resources to help them thrive.
Dr. Gregory Smith, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in Kent State’s College of Education Health and Human Services, is now recruiting participants, nationally, for the second phase of his five-year $2.8 million project, “Social Intelligence training for custodial grandmothers and their adolescent grandchildren,” funded by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Aging.
The project stands on the shoulders of two previous federally-funded studies Dr. Smith has conducted since he began researching custodial grand-families in 1996.
Custodial grandparents care for a grandchild full-time without involvement from biological parents, irrespective of formal legal status like adoption or foster care.
“Most of the researchers who study these families are gerontologists like me,” he said. “In the very earliest research on these families, we applied theoretical models and conceptual frameworks that we used to study family caregivers to older adults. Through my first study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, I caught on to the fact that this is really a parenting phenomenon.”
Dr. Smith’s current project focuses on custodial grandmothers of children aged 12-18 in collaboration with Dr. Frank Infurna of Arizona State University.
“Adolescent grand children had been largely ignored, so we’re the first nationwide intervention study looking explicitly at them,” Dr. Smith said. “Our focus on delivering our online program to the grandmother and grandchild simultaneously makes great sense because we know female caregivers have the greatest impact on adolescents’ social competence development, and adolescence is the peak period for developing social competence.”
Dr. Smith said social competence is negatively affected when people experience early life adversities like being abused by a parent, having a parent incarcerated, or the death of a parent.
“That throws off a person’s ability to attain social competence, which in turn prevents them from forming meaningful and helpful relationships with other people.”
Dr. Smith said these grandchildren are highly likely to have experienced early life adversities, given the reasons most of them are in their grandmothers’ care. He said researchers also suspect that so too have the grandmothers, “because these patterns of suffering early life adversities are transmitted across generations,” he said. “In turn, the lifelong distress associated with having experienced adversity in early childhood can negatively affect one’s ability to parent future generations.”
Dr. Smith said social intelligence training is thought to be especially effective in people who have experience early life adversities.
“So there’s a great deal of scientific basis for this study. Never mind the fact that these are custodial grand-families, ours is the first study of any type to look at the effects of delivering a social intelligence intervention simultaneously to a female caregiver and an adolescent child,” he said.