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Living with Grandma Doesn't Always Work

Kids' behavior problems still show up if mother is a teen

MONDAY, April 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- While grandma's presence at home may be comforting, it doesn't always shield young children from the behavioral problems that plague the offspring of teen mothers.

A new study finds that three-generation households don't seem to prevent preschoolers from acting out, especially when they have a history of mistreatment and a mother with depression.

"Grandmothers have been looked on a source of important stability for teen mothers, which they often are," says Maureen M. Black, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and lead author of the study. However, grandmothers often play an infantilizing role in the family that prevents young mothers from becoming competent parents.

"When the grandmother steps in to do things, they may get done faster, but it communicates to the mother that she's not very competent, and it discourages her from learning those skills," Black says.

Ambiguity about who's in charge leads to conflict, Black says. "Sometimes children will act out to get attention" to cope with the clash, she says.

Since the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, teen mothers can't receive federal assistance unless they live with a guardian, ideally a parent. Jodie Levin-Epstein, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., says there's a growing understanding that such arrangements aren't always best for mothers or their children.

"The assumption has been that that's always good, and that the grandparents are the best bet," Levin-Epstein says. As the latest research suggests, that's not necessarily true.

According to the research group RAND, 2.5 million American children, or 3.6 percent, live in three-generation households. That figure hasn't changed in recent years.

The study, which appears in the April issue of Pediatrics, followed 194 poor young mothers -- who were 19 or younger when they gave birth -- and their preschool-aged children. About a quarter of the children, now ages 4 and 5, also lived with their grandmother. Nearly 40 percent of the children had been referred to child protection officials for "maltreatment," although two thirds of those cases were unverified.

Six in ten of the women were black, 73 percent were single, and 57 percent had not finished high school. Most were also receiving some form of welfare. Roughly a third of the mothers had significant depression.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found the children with reports of maltreatment and whose mothers were depressed had the most behavior problems, including hitting, being disruptive and screaming inappropriately.

Children with the fewest behavior problems were those with no history of maltreatment, a mother without mood problems, and who didn't live with their grandmother. Living with a grandmother raised the risk of behavior trouble to somewhere in between, regardless of the other risk factors.

In previous work, Black's group found less acting out in the children of young mothers with male partners -- often, but not always, the fathers of their children -- who lived in or spent a good deal of time with the family. However, grandmothers can scuttle that effect.

"Fathers and grandmothers don't mix terribly well," she says. "This is not new news."

The study was merely a look at one point in time, and can't say if grandma's presence causes behavior problems. It's possible, and perhaps likely, that young mothers with difficult children turn to their own mothers for help, Black says. "It could be that those moms who aren't functioning well, or who have kids with behavior problems, aren't making it on their own."

To be sure, there are times when three-generation households are crucial, Black says. For young women whose education was interrupted by pregnancy, the support of a grandmother can help her finish school -- one of the most significant predictors of life success.

What To Do: For more on child and family issues, try the Center for Law and Social Policy. To learn about three-generation households, try the research group RAND.

SOURCES: Maureen M. Black, Ph.D., professor, pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore; Jodie Levin-Epstein, senior policy analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy, Washington, D.C.; April 2002 Pediatrics; RAND, 2000
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