Coping with Grandkids' Emotional, Behavioral and Substance Abuse Challenges

Kent grandmother Sharon Dysert-Ittner knows the anguish of families who struggle with the fallout of a child's substance abuse and behavioral challenges. Dysert-Ittner has more than 24 years of experience as a business analyst and project manager but none of the challenges she met in the financial industry compare to the struggles she and her husband face raising three adopted grandchildren.

Kinship caregiver Sharon Dysert-Ittner's experience raising grandchildren helped form a new organization.


Dysert-Ittner's lived experience as a kinship caregiver lead her to become a founding Board member of Guided Pathways—Support for Youth and Families (GPS), a new, family support nonprofit that empowers grandparents and other kinship caregivers to parent and advocate for children and youth who are challenged by serious emotional disturbance or behavioral health-related issues and/or struggling with substance abuse.

GPS employs certified peer counselors to assist and support family members to navigate multiple, often complex agencies and human services systems (basic needs, health, behavioral health, education, social services, juvenile justice, school, child welfare, etc.). GPS staff and families understand that the extra challenges faced by grandparents burdened by their own health issues and economic challenges add up to extra stress in dealing with their grandchildren's struggles.

GPS helps grandparents like Dysert-Ittner navigate the journey through multiple systems, including the mental health system, to successfully advocate for their grandchildren. "The struggles that families face are overwhelming, and any support group or program is beneficial," Dysert-Ittner says. "All families need a voice and the additional support when faced with challenges they have on their plate."

Dysert-Ittner's family is just one of many who need support. Let's look at the facts:

  • Severe mental illness that causes functional impairment affects one in 10 children and teens in the U.S.
  • Eighty percent of people with multiple mental health and substance abuse disorders report the onset before age 20.
  • Mental illness and substance abuse affect many children and teens age six to 17, but 79 percent of them do not receive mental health care (National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health).
  • In King County, 12 percent to 18 percent of students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 seriously considered attempting suicide in 2012 (Washington State Department of Health 2012 Healthy Youth Survey).

GPS provides services for families, with families, and by families. People with common life experiences have a unique capacity to help each other, sharing a deep understanding that might not exist in other relationships. 2014 program priorities include peer-to-peer support, family social events, parenting classes, and youth-peer support. Thanks to funding from King County Department of Community & Human Services—Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division, family social events and classes are admission-free and scheduled for community locations throughout the county.

For more information about Guided Pathways—Support for Youth and Families, our family social events and planned in-home and community-based services, visit

Contributor Susan Millender is executive director of Guided Pathways—Support for Youth and Families. Their mission statement: We are families helping families. We empower and support families and youth struggling with behavioral, emotional, or substance abuse challenges in navigating resources to achieve wellness and resilience.