Help grandchildren with substance abuse

If a grandchild is using alcohol and/or drugs, you may wonder what you can do to help. The answer is straightforward: You can learn to listen to the child in a way that is completely nonjudgmental.

Children don’t want to grow up. They don’t want to take responsibility for their behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Adolescents struggle to separate from their parents, even though they know they need them. This conflict can be painful.

Many children ease their pain with alcohol and drugs in ways that are self-destructive and also hurtful to others. Because of the separation conflict grandchildren experience with their parents, your status, one generation removed from the children, gives you an advantage.

How do I know there may be a problem?
You may know about trouble well before you know it. If you sense there may be a problem — and well ahead of obvious behavioral changes, like aggression and rapid weight loss or gain, to name a few — chances are there is a problem.

You may experience fears and pain connected to a grandchild’s destructive behavior. Your own pain is your first clue — a signal your body is giving you that there is sometng to pay attention to. The body is never wrong — respect the message it is sending.

How can I help when I may not have any legal rights?
Trust is essential in any relationship. The chances of your grandchild staying open to your love and support at this time are good. They need someone to talk to, and may not be able to ask for that.

Most adolescents believe that their parents do not understand them. They are vulnerable and don’t even know it. You may recall your own difficulties during this time in your life — this is valuable information to them. Telling them about yourself is another opportunity to build trust.

How can I help?

  • Start by working on a strong, honest relationship with the child. This relationship does not necessary include the parent.
  • Set up a time when you can talk with your grandchild privately. Do not discuss the nature of what you have to say at this time with him/her — or with anyone else. This helps to establish stronger trust between the two of you.
  • Ask the child’s permission to speak with him or her frankly. Take care not to invade the child’s personal boundaries.

Next page: Beware pitfalls

Speak with love.

  • Tell the child you love him or her.
  • Tell the things you admire about the child. Be specific — kids need to hear good things on a regular basis. They tend to remember criticism more easily than praise.
  • Mention your concerns and fears about drink and drug use. Be specific about times and places when you notices inappropriate behavior.
  • Mention that you are speaking to him or her because you care what happens.
  • Offer your support. Tell them you will listen to whatever he or she wants to tell you.
  • Mention that you hear their pain and unhappiness. You may even be able to share similar feelings that you have had.

Then listen! This may be difficult, because your own anxiety to fix the child may get in the way. It is critical to remember that it’s not up to you to fix anybody. The child will probably be defensive, blaming parents, teachers and friends — and may not be ready to express pain and fears. Your job is to hear what they may be unable to say.

What pitfalls should I be aware of?
The biggest stumbling block for you might be that you’re fearful of talking about this problem. Pretending and denying there is a problem are ways we avoid dealing and facing it.

Remember that you are not responsible for solving the problem. You are responsible for taking care of yourself. By taking care of your pain, you can often help another do the same.

Your own child — the parent — may see you as meddling, particularly if alcohol or drug abuse is an issue for him or her. You will need all your diplomacy to establish your efforts as supportive, not critical of her or his parenting.

Getting too involved with another person’s problem is always a danger. Find a support group. Al-Anon is a good place to start.