Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol may suffer a variety of emotional effects. These include:
- Ambivalence: Children typically love their parents, even when they may dislike the way alcohol or drugs make them behave.
- Confusion: Children of substance abusers never know what to expect, because they never know when a parent is going to be under the influence.
- Lack of Trust: Because alcoholics and substance abusers often promise and fail to deliver, children sometimes grow up feeling that they can’t trust anyone.
- Guilt: Substance abusers often blame their behavior on other family members. It’s only natural for children to wonder if they are at fault, even when they are not named.
- Shame: Since it’s natural to identify with family members, children may take the shame of addiction on themselves.
- Worry: Once children reach a certain age, they realize that substance abuse has consequences, including accidents and run-ins with the law. They may worry that their parent will be incarcerated or die. They may also know that abusers sometimes lose their parental rights, and they may worry about losing their family.
Of course, statistics also show that children of substance abusers are more likely to have such problems themselves. Still, the majority of such children do not end up as substance abusers, and the presence of loving grandparents can be a positive force working against the repetition of the cycle.
Substance abuse in a family also affects a child’s psychological and social functioning. Children feel at fault or feel that they must try to fix things. When children react in this way, they often feel a lot of pressure. They may feel that they must be perfect in every way. Grandparents can help by taking any opportunity to point out that the situation is not their fault and that they do not have the power to fix it. They can encourage their grandchildren to do their best but let them know that it’s also okay to mess up occasionally.
At other times, children under-perform or act out. This is a more difficult syndrome for grandparents to handle. They can try to stave off academic difficulties. There are many ways that grandparents can support their grandchildren in school. A truly troubled child, however, will need counseling or therapy. Grandparents can sometimes get parents to agree to such measures if they refrain from tying the child’s behavior to a parent’s substance abuse.
Children whose parents abuse alcohol or drugs are often reluctant to bring friends home. This reluctance can impact their social development. Grandparents can help by sometimes including their grandchildren’s friends in outings and visits. This is a practice that needs to be developed early on, however. If grandparents don’t include friends when their grandchildren are young, it’s unlikely to work when they try to include the friends of tween or teen grandchildren. Yes, many grandparents would prefer to have their grandchildren all to themselves rather than sharing time with their friends. Still, what is best for the grandchildren should be the controlling factor.