Supporting your grandchildren when their parent is living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed to help grandparents think about how they can help their grandchildren who have a parent experiencing mental illness. Grandparents are prompted to consider how, and to what extent, they can realistically be involved before offering support – and how to do so without compromising family relationships.


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.

Your role in your grandchild’s life can be an important one. Some grandparents may have the opportunity to support family during difficult times. When a parent is experiencing mental health difficulties, grandparents may be called on to step in to help care for their grandchildren. In some circumstances, grandparents might even become full-time ‘parents’, caring for their grandchildren for a period while the parents are unable to.

This resource aims to help you navigate the process of supporting your grandchild who has a parent living with a mental illness.

What to consider before offering to help

Ideally, you’d decide with your grandchild’s parent what support and involvement would benefit them and your grandchildren the most. Before discussing this it’s important to consider things such as:   

  • how you would like to be involved and to what extent, that is, whether you are able to have the grandchildren for a few hours a day, to stay for a few nights or longer term  
  • if your grandchild’s parents would like you to be involved, and if so, to what extent and how you might approach the parents about this  
  • who can support you while you are supporting your grandchild? Are there other friends and family or formal support services you can access?  
  • your own mental and physical health and how caring for your grandchildren might take a toll on your own health?  
  • your work and financial situation – are you able to have time off work or financially support your grandchildren if they stay with you for extended periods?  
  • other responsibilities you may have – will you be able to meet your sport or social commitments, which are important for maintaining your own mental health and wellbeing?  
  • the safety and wellbeing of your grandchild – considering the children’s ages are you able to maintain a safe environment for yourself and your grandchildren? 
  • what other people or services can provide extra support if you decide not to care for your grandchild when their parent(s) is unable to?  

Knowing your limitations is a strength. Your grandchildren will benefit from understanding what you are and are not able to do for them. 

Thinking about possible challenges ahead of time can help you to prepare or avoid difficult circumstances. Consider the following:  

  • Are there family relationship challenges that make respectful conversations difficult? If so, how might you manage these discussions to benefit all involved?  
  • Is there excessive conflict within the family that may be exacerbated by your involvement (despite your best intentions)? If so, are there other supports you can encourage to avoid being directly involved?  
  • Today’s parenting practices may be very different from what you are used to – are you prepared to educate yourself and be open to these so you can do what is best for your grandchild?  
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild full time for a period it is important to consider how you will manage when you need to hand the care back to their parents. Do you have a network of supports that can help you during this time?  
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild full time for a period, and they are under 18, you may need to establish if you have:  
    • access to the right to information – for example, medical information if you need to take them to the GP; or school information should you have to engage with their teachers; and 
    • legal/guardianship rights should you need to make significant decisions on behalf of your grandchildren.  
  • If your involvement means caring for your grandchild full time for a period, are you able to access financial and service support from the government or will you need rely on other family and friends to offer some help?  
  • If there is involvement from health and social services, do you feel confident to deal with these agencies?  

By thinking about these possible challenges, you can begin to prepare for any that may be relevant and find out where you can get support should these circumstances arise. 

Do you have a challenging relationship with the parent of your grandchild?

How you relate to the parents of your grandchild will impact on your grandchild’s emotional wellbeing and development. Cooperative relationships help children feel cared for and safe. When you demonstrate cooperation (especially throughout difficulties and conflict situations) you are also helping to teach your grandchild how to work through problems successfully.

Understanding what your grandchild’s parent is going through with their mental illness can be difficult, and you might not have all the information you would like. It may also be hard not to criticise, judge or simply wish they could do better for their children. It is important to remember that having a mental illness is not a choice.

If you are finding it challenging it may be helpful for you to talk with a trained professional about strategies to encourage positive relationships. Relationships Australia is a great source of information and provides relationship services and supports to anyone that needs help with maintaining sustainable, respectful relationships. You can call Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 for the cost of a local call or visit

Is it better to offer help from a distance? 

Do not feel ashamed if you believe that it may be best for you to have limited contact with your grandchild. Offering limited support, or supporting them for a limited time can help, and it is far better to have honest conversations up front about what support you can provide.  

Consider if there are other things you can do to help your grandchild and their parent/s from a distance. You may have the capacity to pay for a session of ‘after-school care’ every fortnight for your grandchild. Or, if you have mutual family friends they could deliver some meals on your behalf. Sometimes offering whatever support you can while maintaining some distance is the best option for everyone. 

It’s not knowing how much support to give; it’s sometimes knowing how little support to give. Sometimes stepping back is more important. 

Ann, mother of five, grandparent of four, Victoria

Even if you decide to take a step back, it is understandable that you may still have concerns or questions about your grandchild and their parents, and how they are coping It may be useful to talk these feelings through with a counsellor or another professional, but it’s important to understand that they won’t be able to report on your grandchild or their parents, as this is confidential information. They will, however, be able to help manage your own thoughts and feelings on the situation.  

If you and your grandchild’s parent (and their partner if present) decide that their child should live with you there is a lot to consider. Our resource Caring for grandchildren when their parent is living with mental illness provides advice on handling this transition.    

When a grandchild’s parent is experiencing mental health difficulties it can be hard to know the right way to help. Even with the very best intentions relationships may be strained. Taking the time to think about how your grandchild and their parent(s) need you to assist them can help reduce everyone’s stress levels, while enabling all involved to feel like they’re getting the right support. 

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