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What about Grandma and Grandpa?

What about Grandma and Grandpa?

“I always looked forward to being a grandmother. I pictured myself holding a new baby, reading the books my children enjoyed to this child, and having a new life to love. I never imagined I would be so scared for a grandchild because his father is an addict” (Abbott, 2013). 


Stephanie Abbott, counselor and author, began a commentary for NACoA’s newsletter a decade ago about grandparents and children of addiction with this quote. This grandmother was saying what so many grandparents faced then, a precursor to what countless thousands are facing today.  Then, the primary drug addiction was alcoholism, and it ran from generation to generation in millions of families, leaving countless grandparents today who are yesterday’s children of alcoholics that never received help for the fear, confusion, and chronic emotional trauma that tormented them every day of their childhood.

But many of today’s affected grandparents, stressed and afraid for both their child trapped in addiction and their grandchildren, are those children of yesteryear. They struggled to raise their own children with the parenting tools they were dealt, often without an understanding of the family transmission of both the addiction disease and the destructive behaviors and trauma it engenders and passes on to the next generation. Today they have their own health problems, some rooted in childhood. Even in the face of our growing understanding of the powerful connection between adverse childhood experiences, adolescent mental health, and adult mental and physical health, their own physicians are not taking the time to ask about their childhood. How many have even bothered to review the massive amount of information generated by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study that continues to demonstrate that traumatic childhoods lead to unhealthy adults who should be referred to therapists trained in adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) therapy.

How many spiritual counselors ask about the childhood experiences of troubled congregants who are struggling with family issues, and then encourage participation in Al-Anon as a beginning of healing? Too many have survived their own childhood experiences only to be faced with their own children succumbing to the current epidemic. Just as they are bringing their grandchildren to live with them, they have much to grieve—the loss of their own childhood to parental alcohol addiction, the loss of their child to opioid or heroin addiction, and the loss of hope. Some have withdrawn from social contacts, frightened and ashamed, as the family disease traps them, adding to the grief.

Foster care systems in every county in America are bursting at the seams with the additional children of opiate addicted parents who have died, who have been jailed for drug-related activities, who are in court-ordered treatment or who are still on the streets. In many cases these children have been removed by the courts, and the number of foster parents is inadequate to support the number of children who need homes and nurturing parents. And so grandpa and grandma step in—or too often just grandma—filled with confusion, shame, sadness, and fear that they are not physically, financially or emotionally able to support and raise children again. If they were licensed foster parents working with the foster care system, they would be given some financial support, and have a child care worker assisting them with their needs and with getting the services the children may need. This is not only unjust, but it also sets up too many loving grandparents for struggles for which they are ill-equipped.  


Foster care workers and the general public are cheering the growing movement of grandparents and other family relatives taking responsibility for the children of their addicted family members. Many of those “stepping up” grandparents are personally on a path to recovery, and may even have substantial sobriety, have believed that their recovery is breaking the family cycle. Their recovery is an important gift to themselves and their children. However, a parent’s recovery does not alone protect children from following the family path to addiction. Anger, embarrassment, and shame resulting from their children slipping into addiction alienates them from their children, and these deeply felt feelings are supplanted by sadness and guilt when their children die from an overdose, and the grief deepens. Society sympathizes for a while, but moves on, leaving the grandparents, who are trying to put on a good face for the children, to wade into a world that they survived through their childhood without any orientation or support from the community. The community needs champions for these mostly silent, desperate families. Any one of us could reach out to our faith communities or to our neighborhood schools. 

There are many actions that can make an enormous dent in the “abuse and neglect” of society’s grandparents. The faith community can:

  • Establish and host weekly support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren
  • Develop a volunteer respite care team who can babysit while the grandparents go shopping, to a movie, out for a meal or visit a friend
  • Train volunteers to help grandparents develop new skills that nurture and enhance the children’s ability to feel emotionally safe and to prevent later attachment disorders
  • Advocate with the foster care system to provide these grandparents all the same support licensed foster parents receive
  • Bring in an expert in the child and family impact and special needs to heal from addiction’s ravages, and invite the general congregation to attend (because what these grandparents need to know about caring for children of addicted parents should also be known by every caring adult in the congregation)
  • Provide equipment and clothing (e.g., diapers, formula, and baby bottles) to grandparents with minimal resources and encourage the older children to participate in the faith community’s youth programs (invite them personally and intentionally)
The school can:
  • Provide a special welcome to the grandparents, helping children understand that the school respects and want to partner with grandparents for their comfort
  • Help grandparents understand that today’s educational ways may be different than they experienced, and guide them to support the child’s work appropriately
  • Help children understand that they are very special and that if bad things have happened in the past, this school is a place where good things can happen going forward
  • Help children to get into an educational support group, like student assistance groups, where they can learn there are lots of kids in their school who are struggling with a mom or dad who has this brain disease called addiction and that they are not alone and there are safe people who can help them
  • Guide children eleven years of age or older to Alateen
  • Provide regular education programs for staff about addiction, its impact on children, and what caring adults can do to provide support and hope
  • Be intentional in reaching out personally and with nurturing support
Grandparents taking on the responsibility of raising their addicted child’s children need comfort, understanding, and support long before their child overdoses or is arrested. Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and/or regular support groups just for them at a neighborhood church or senior center would be very beneficial. “The grandparent can be a haven of stability, predictability, and undemanding love, and they can help the child make sense of an unpredictable and irrational situation,” according to Stephanie Abbott (2013). But first they need to empower themselves by learning about the nature of this disease, which hijacks the brain and insidiously changes the person’s capacity to utilize rational judgment. And then they need to learn the effects on children and what tools are available for them to download or purchase (e.g., the Kit for Parents from NACoA, a booklet that is requested by more grandparents than parents).  


Stephanie Abbott reminds us all that “Parents are forever a part of a child, so the wise grandparent helps the child to understand that addiction is an illness, and—if there are any healthy parts of the parental relationship—tries to build on them” (2013). Children want to love their parents, but sometimes they need to do it from afar in the arms and homes of their grandparents. How successful that life will be may depend greatly on the response of neighbors, churches, doctors, therapists, and schools, all of whom have a role in that success. We cannot wait for the foster care system to develop and provide the needed support for both our impacted children and their loving grandparents. The need is urgent.      


Abbott, S. (2013). The grandparents and the COA. Retrieved from https://nacoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/grandparents-and-coa-SAbott-nacoa.pdf

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