When Your Grandchild's Parent is Addicted

You may feel powerless, but you have the power to help the kids get through this

Parents who abuse drugs and alcohol can't always care for their children. They may be too ill to be the kind of parents they should be. They may be in treatment. They may be in jail. When substance abuse hits a family, grandparents often step in to care for the children who are left behind. These grandparents put their lives on hold so they can provide their grandchildren with a stable home and the love that they need so much.

Are you a grandparent? Are your adult children abusing alcohol or drugs? Then you know that every member of your family is in crisis. Your adult son or daughter needs help. And your grandchildren are hurting. They feel alone and unloved. They don't understand why mom or dad can't take care of them.

As a grandparent, you may hurt inside too. You may feel angry at your child. You might feel guilty because you think it's your fault that your child has an addiction. You may be ashamed that this has happened to your family. You might be sad and depressed.

It's Not Your Fault

You can help yourself and your grandchildren get through this difficult time. But first, you need to know two important facts about substance abuse.

First, you did not cause your son or daughter's addiction. Neither did your grandchildren. Other people don't cause addiction. It is a disease. This is so important to remember, let's say it again — It's not your fault!

Second, you and your grandchildren cannot cure someone else's addiction. You can encourage your son or daughter to seek treatment. But you don't have the power to make your child better.

What You Can Do

It's normal to feel powerless when someone in your family has an addiction. You can't make the addiction go away. But there is still a lot you can do. You can help your grandchildren cope with what is happening to your family.

First, you can be there for your grandchildren. Let them know that you love them. Show them that they can always count on you. Explain to them that their parent is a good person who also loves them. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can make some people sick and cause them to do bad things, even to the people they love.

Second, you can talk openly and honestly about what is happening to the child's parent. It won't be easy to talk about these things. But it is the best way to help your grandchild understand what is happening to all of you.

When to Talk

When should you start talking to grandchildren about drugs and alcohol? The sooner the better. Children can learn healthy habits when they are as young as three years old!

The best time to talk about substance abuse is when you and your grandchild are alone and relaxed. But you can't always wait for the perfect time. You must be ready to talk about drugs and alcohol whenever the subject comes up. One of your grandchildren may mention that another child in school got in trouble for having drugs. You and your grandchildren may be watching a television show that features drug dealers. Don't let these "teachable" moments pass you by.

Make sure you have up-to-date information about drugs and alcohol. There is a lot to learn. You should be able to describe different drugs and what they do. Find out the facts about inhalants. Don't ignore new drugs like Ecstasy. The more you know, the more a child will respect what you have to say. That's true especially if they see you as being well informed, and not as "preaching" at them.

What you say to a grandchild will depend on what age that child is. When speaking to a very young child, keep it short and simple. Older children will be ready to hear more details. The Children of Alcoholics Foundation offers these suggestions:

Talking to a Pre-School Child

When you are giving medicine to a pre-school child, explain that "you only take medicine when you are sick." Teach young children to brush their teeth, wash their hands, and eat healthy food. Give them tips on how to solve everyday problems. These lessons don't relate directly to drug and alcohol abuse. But learning these good habits now may help children say "no" to bad habits later on.

Talking to a School-Aged Child

  • A school-aged child can handle the basic facts about drugs and what they can do to you. Make sure the child knows the difference between medicine and illegal drugs. Tell the child what your rules are about drug and alcohol use at home. Make sure the child knows the rules about drug and alcohol use at school. In addition, help your grandchildren express feelings in a healthy way. Children who can express their feelings won't need drugs and alcohol to numb those feelings.

Talking with Teens
A teenager needs to know how drugs and alcohol can affect their lives. Offer tips on how a teen can deal with peer pressure. Help the teen learn how to deal with anxiety. That way, they won't be tempted to use alcohol and drugs when they feel stressed. Explain to teens that their family history puts them at a greater risk for addiction. They can't afford to experiment!

A Final Note

Don't be afraid to tell your grandchildren what you think about drug and alcohol use. Children want to hear how you feel. They want to adopt your values. The more you share, the better able your grandchildren will be to make good decisions — and avoid costly mistakes.

This article originally appeared on aarp.com.

Also see: When Your Grandchild's Parent is in Prison

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