Grandparents adore their grandchildren – without judgment – and the grandchild adores them. This means that grandparents have a unique opportunity to approach the topic of drugs and alcohol with this generation, in a way that is unlike parents who are the enforcers of discipline. Grandparents can have open and honest conversations with kids without judgment, yelling, criticism or punishment.
The conversation on drugs and alcohol won’t just happen by itself. Grandparents should begin by establishing a bond, so this important conversation becomes a natural part of that close relationship. Grandparents can connect with their grandchild initially on their terms and in their world; depending on the age and interests of their grandchild, they might go shopping, play board games or cards, or pick a TV series that they watch together each week. Kids and teens also love to learn new skills, and grandparents are the perfect teachers. Grandparents can teach the child cooking, gardening, crafting or sailing — the opportunities are endless. The goal is to bond and make memories, not to nag or criticize. If an activity is not fun for either grandparent or child, find something new.
Grandparents can use this time together to show an interest in their grandchild’s life – listening, asking questions, offering love and encouragement. This is not an opportunity to give advice or opinions – that is the role of parents. Kids will be much more likely to open up about important topics if they see their grandparents as nonjudgmental figures without criticism. Grandparents can also take advantage of technology and social media to connect with their teen grandchild, including texting, video chatting and becoming online ‘friends.’ They can embrace the chance to enter their grandchild’s world in a way that may not be natural to them, but is a fundamental part of the teen’s life.
A good relationship between grandparents and children means that they can offer opinions about illegal substance use without seeming like a nag. They don’t need to be afraid to express their opinion against underage drinking or dangerous substance use. Research shows that kids are swayed by the opinions of important adults in their lives. Children won’t want to disappoint their grandparents, so they will be less likely to indulge when they hear clear disapproval. In addition, grandparents can look for good opportunities to talk to their grandchild about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, such as discussing a news item about a drunk driving accident or story of someone (especially another teen) who had relationship, school or job failure after using drugs.
Once the topic is on the table, grandparents should be open to listening to their grandchild’s stories. They may hear about a friend who got ‘wasted’ or someone who was “grounded for a month,” and listen without expressing disapproval. The child may then want to discuss his/her own struggle to fit in and seem ‘normal,’ but yet not indulge. Grandparents can be prepared with practical advice such as “hold a cup and pretend to drink,” or “offer to be the designated driver.”
They may listen further and hear stories from their grandchild that worries them – talking about their own overindulgence in alcohol, illegal drugs or even prescription pills. They should resist the urge to yell, criticize or lecture their grandchild. This is the tricky part – they must also resist the urge to keep their grandchild’s secret. Above all else, the grandchild’s health and safety is of paramount importance. But, grandparents shouldn’t go behind the child’s back to his/her parent. Instead, they should explain that they need to talk to mom or dad, then offer their support throughout the process, and discuss the best ways to talk to the parent. The child may, at first, feel angry or betrayed, but as long as grandparents continue to be loving and supportive, the relationship will bounce back, and their special bond will continue for many years to come.
Dr. Susan Bartell
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized psychologist and author specializing in kids, teens and families. You can learn more about her at www.drsusanbartell.com.