Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Addicted Parents: What to Do

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two grandparents raising grandchild sitting on bench outside blowing bubbles

Caring for a child can be overwhelming sometimes, especially when that role is thrust upon you suddenly. Across the US, there is a growing trend of grandparents stepping in for their addicted child and taking on the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren. For older individuals who haven’t raised a young child in many years, this might feel like unfamiliar territory. However, with a few tips, you can become a solid, reliable figure in your grandchild’s life.

The Effect of the Opioid Epidemic on Families

There are more than one million grandchildren being raised by grandparents primarily due to the opioid epidemic.

Addiction has a devastating ripple effect on the entire family, including children of addicted parents. There are several reasons that individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) might need their extended family to help raise their child. The parent might be spending time away at a residential treatment program, have erratic and harmful behaviors, be incarcerated, and, in some cases, might no longer be able to support their child financially. As a result, the child grows up in an unstable living environment without the proper love and nurturing they need to develop both mentally and emotionally.

In certain situations, if the parent is neglectful or they pass away from SUD, it’s common for their children to end up in foster care homes. In fact, the number of children entering the foster care system due to parental drug use has more than doubled since 2000. Studies show if birth parents cannot take care of their children, living with a relative can provide a stable environment for a safe, healthy childhood.

When grandparents begin raising their grandchildren, the family dynamics shift. For example, a grandparent might have a stricter method of disciplining that clashes with what the child is used to. A grandparent may also have an everyday routine with their spouse, something that gets disrupted when a child is thrown into the mix. Compared to parents, grandparents face other unique challenges such as limited access to resources and support services. With all this in mind, there are steps you can take to make sure both you and your grandchild thrive in this new relationship.

What Can Grandparents Do to Care for Their Grandchildren?

Grandchildren coming from a household impacted by addiction might be filled with a lot of mixed emotions. Be patient during this time, as some children may need extra attention, struggle with emotional and behavioral issues, or are dealing with trauma.

1. Establish Stability

A child of an addicted parent likely grew up around chaos and instability. As their main caregiver, you should prioritize meeting their everyday basic needs. This means providing clothes, shoes, toiletries, a place to sleep, and everyday necessities for your grandchild. You should also enroll them in school if they are living in a different school district. Aside from basic needs, you can also establish a stable foundation by coming up with daily routines such as set times for bed, chores, and homework. Having a schedule allows children to know what is expected of them while they adjust to this huge life change. Lastly, make sure to praise positive behaviors and provide fair consequences for negative behaviors.

2. Prioritize Openness and Honesty

Depending on your grandchild’s age, sooner or later, they will notice their parent’s sporadic presence. In some cases, the mother or father might not be present at all. When it is appropriate, be honest about their parent’s struggle with addiction. Let the child know that there are dangers and consequences associated with using drugs or alcohol. You can teach them how to use healthy coping strategies when they encounter stress in their lives. Keep an open dialogue going about their parents and try your best to answer any questions they may have about addiction. Most importantly, remind your grandchild that the situation is not their fault and that they are loved by everyone in your family, including their parent.

3. Maintain Respect for Addicted Parent

As difficult as it is, it’s important you hide any resentment or negative feelings you have toward your child’s parent. Speaking negatively about the parent in front of your grandchild can damage their self-esteem and confuse them. One thing you can do is avoid using words like “addict” or “junkie” as these terms are stigmatizing and make it seem as if their addiction is the parent’s only defining quality. Instead, refer to their mother or father as someone struggling with “substance use disorder” or “the disease of addiction.” Of course, you are allowed to be upset about the circumstances, but it would be best to share your feelings privately with another family member or friend rather than the child.

4. Consider Seeking Counseling for the Child

Living with an addicted parent is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Children who grow up with high ACE scores are at risk of developing mental health issues like depression, PTSD, or substance use disorder later in life. While identifying and addressing a child’s trauma is a vital part of the healing process, you do not have to deal with it on your own. Seek out a therapist for your grandchild so they can work through their trauma and negative emotions in a healthy way. A professional can help your grandson or granddaughter overcome obstacles they may encounter in school, friendships, extracurricular activities, and their relationship with you as their caregiver.

5. Research Support Services

Grandparents raising grandchildren may be eligible for a variety of services and supports including financial assistance, food and nutrition programs, free or low-cost medical care, and housing assistance. Check out the resources below:

  • Generations United: Offers a variety of information and resources for grandparents raising grandchildren.
  • Provides legal resources and policy information for grandparents raising grandchildren.
  • AARP Grandfamilies Guide: Offers a comprehensive guide including information about how grandparents can obtain assistance from a variety of professionals and organizations.  The website also offers various support groups.
  • AARP Grandfamily Resources: List of public and private resources for grandparents raising grandchildren. Topics include education, childcare and children’s special needs, family challenges, finances, health, housing and safety, legal, support, and work.
  • Information and community for grandparents raising grandchildren.

What Can Grandparents Do to Care for Themselves?

Grandparents raising grandchildren find themselves in a highly complex position. Naturally, you feel compelled to protect your grandchild from their parent’s substance use. On the other hand, you also care about the well-being of the parent, especially if they are your own child. This quickly becomes conflicting because it might feel like you are constantly playing two different roles.

Before you know it, your whole life is consumed with taking care of your loved ones. But keep in mind that your own health is just as important! Luckily, there are ways to help you navigate this stressful time.

1. Stay in Touch with Loved Ones

Just as it’s important for your grandchild to have a trusted support system, you need one as well. Reach out to extended family members and friends that can help you manage day-to-day activities. If you have multiple responsibilities to juggle, consider asking your loved ones for help. If you need someone to drop your grandchildren off at school while you go to a doctor’s appointment, don’t be afraid to ask someone to drive the kids. Having a strong support network means you can share your feelings and thoughts with people who can listen and offer advice.

2. Join a “Grandfamily” Support Group

There are free support groups for “grandfamilies” to meet with other individuals going through similar situations. You can share your struggles and accomplishments as you navigate raising your grandchild with a community of people who understand. You can also talk about how to handle scenarios that may pop up with the addicted parent, such as parent-child interactions. Mountainside offers a free family and friends support group every Wednesday night.

3. Set Aside Time for Self-Care

We often neglect to do kind things for ourselves. This can be something as simple as waking up 15 minutes earlier than the rest of your family to read a book outside. Or going for a walk every afternoon. You can even create a room in your house dedicated to relaxing. Self-care should be incorporated into your everyday routine to nurture your mental well-being so you can be fully present in your grandchild’s life.

Whether your caregiving role is temporary or long-term, your grandchild ultimately needs you in their life, and there are many beautiful moments that you will be able to share with your grandchild over the years. With the right support and care from their grandparents, children can thrive in their new family dynamic. For additional information on grandparents raising grandchildren, read this comprehensive resource packet from Generations United.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.