Caring for grandchildren when their parents are living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to help grandparents think about how to prepare for grandchildren coming to stay with them because the children’s parent is experiencing mental illness. It provides advice on maintaining family relationships and what to do when it’s time for children to return to live with their parents.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

When your grandchild comes to stay because their parent is experiencing mental health difficulties

There may be times when your grandchild’s parent is unwell and your grandchild comes to stay with you – for a short visit, a longer stay, or to live with you full-time. The conditions under which you are caring for grandchildren when their parents are living with mental illness can vary widely, from a mutual agreement to a legally enforced court order. Sometimes a grandchild’s parent may also come to stay.

As a grandparent, you have an important role in providing a safe and caring environment for the family. 

Talk about the stay

Whatever circumstances led to your grandchild staying or living with you, they 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 and hobbies. You will also need contact details for the child’s school and any other services involved, like childcare, and ask these services to make you the child’s emergency contact.   

Our care plans for children, and the While I’m Away app, enable you record helpful information about your grandchild to help manage their daily routines. Keeping these routines as stable as possible will help children to feel safe and secure.  

Maintaining relationships

It’s important for children to understand it’s their parent’s illness that causes particular behaviours and that spending time apart is about helping their parent get well – it’s not because their parent doesn’t want to be with them. As a grandparent you play an important role in reminding your grandchildren, where appropriate, of their parent’s strengths and on the importance of maintaining a relationship with them.  

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 with lived experience of this situation that may be useful for you:  

  • 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 the best for your grandchild regarding contact with their parents. Different people may have different opinions and you might need to carefully weigh up what is in the best interests of your grandchild.  
  • Facilitate visits that take place at a park, library or another venue to provide an activity for your grandchild and their parents, so they have something fun to do together.  
  • Shorter visits are sometimes better. Setting a time frame so that everyone knows when the visit will end helps set expectations so everyone is on the same page. For example, up to two hours is a decent amount of time without pushing the boundaries of the parent or child.  
  • Be conscious of stepping back and allowing your grandchild and their parents to spend time together without feeling they are being supervised.  
  • Do all you can to avoid or minimise any conflict with your grandchild’s parents in front of your grandchild.  
  • You could 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/video chat in between face-to-face visits.  
  • After contact with their parents, children are likely to feel a mix of emotions including confusion, anger, grief, sadness and loss. Often children will demonstrate this through their behaviour, which can be challenging. If needed, seek help about how to support your grandchildren to understand their post-visit feelings and find ways to express them in healthy ways.  

We reinforce to our granddaughter we are her grandparents. We spoil her but there are still rules and routines she needs to follow. 

Stuart, father of five, grandfather of four, Victoria

Before children spend time visiting with their parents it can be helpful (depending on their age) to workshop some conversation starters with them, as children might not know what to say. Children may feel pressure to be good or well behaved, and might worry about upsetting their parent.  Equally parents may be worried about their children’s reaction to them. Some examples of conversation starters are:  

  • ‘We are watching this great show on Netflix/TV – can I tell you about it?’  
  • ‘At school we have been…’  
  • ‘This week I have been…’  

You could also suggest that your grandchild take along:  

  • a drawing or their latest Lego creation to share with and show their parent  
  • a favourite book for their parent to read to them  
  • a boardgame to play. 

When it’s time for your grandchild to go home 

If your grandchild is living with you, they and their parents will usually want your grandchild to return home, if and when possible.   

As a grandparent you may have fears about returning your grandchild to their parents. It is important that you are able to talk about these with your grandchild’s parents and with support workers. You may also want to ask them how you can help your grandchild and their parents to re-establish their relationship after a period of living apart. Relationships Australia has free support that can provide advice on how to facilitate these conversations   

If your grandchild returns 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 organise your own counselling to help you process your feelings about the situation. Your GP is a great place to start and can help you access further support if required. 

Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.  

Relationships Australia provide services and supports to help people achieve respectful relationships of all different types. Trained professionals can guide you with strategies to help your grandchild’s transition to living at home with their parents be as successful as possible. Visit the website to find out how to contact a relationship counsellor for guidance and support. 

‘Being a grandparent carer, the hardest thing is not to knowing when to step in – but when to step out.’ 

Trevor, grandfather, South Australia

Providing your grandchild with a safe, loving home environment when their parent is unable to care for them due to mental health difficulties enables you to support the best possible health and wellbeing outcomes for both child and parent. 

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