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Addiction’s Unsung Heroes: Grandparents

Grandparents raising grandkids


Addiction’s Unsung Heroes: Grandparents

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Addiction’s Unsung Heroes: Grandparents

Clare is one of many grandparents in a difficult situation. Clare is retired and living on a fixed income in her mobile home. Her daughter’s drug and alcohol addiction has drained her of many things including her peace of mind and savings. After 5 trips to rehab her daughter, Kathy, is still not able to stop using. The courts have ordered Kathy’s 3 children to become wards of the state because she is not able to take care of them. Clare obtained legal guardianship to keep them out of the foster system.

While Clare is able to keep her grandchildren safe she is often left exhausted and wondering how they are going to make it week to week. Some days Clare sits down when she is alone and cries into a dishtowel. She loves her grandchildren, but they have become harder and harder to deal with.  Children in this situation may have the following symptoms according to American Associations for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT):

 The Children Are Affected

  • Because of their experiences with their parents, children being raised in grandparent-headed families often display developmental, physical, behavioral, academic, and emotional problems. Some of these problems include depression, anxiety, ADHD, health problems, learning disabilities, poor school performance, and aggression.
  • Grandchildren may also experience feelings of anger, rejection, and guilt. The degree to which grandchildren experience problems varies, although many grandchildren experience multiple problems.
  • Relationships among family members can also create stress for grandchildren. Visits from parents can be upsetting, and often leave grandchildren feeling hurt and confused. Due to their age difference, grandchildren may also feel disconnected from their grandparent caregivers. Finally, household rules and expectations can be a source of tension and conflict.

When the disease of addiction strikes a parent the effects are felt by the entire family. Children being a vulnerable population are often at risk. They need a stable, loving environment while the affected parent deals with the disease. The Grandparents often are unprepared for the reality of becoming a parent again. According to the AAMFT some of the struggles facing grandparents are:

The Grandparents Are Affected

  • Becoming the caregiver for a grandchild impacts all aspects of a person’s life. As a result, grandparents raising grandchildren face a number of challenges.
  • Grandparents often have legal difficulties related to obtaining guardianship, enrolling their grandchildren in school, and accessing medical care for their grandchildren. They may also have concerns related to custody battles with other grandparents or their grandchildren’s parents.
  • Because they often have limited financial resources, grandparents may experience difficulty providing adequate housing, food, and clothing.
  • Parenting may be challenging for custodial grandparents, especially when their grandchildren have problems. To be effective parents, grandparents need current information about discipline, child development, and childhood problems. Grandparents also need to transition from the role of traditional grandparent to that of parent.
  • Grandparents may have limited energy and physical health problems that make parenting difficult. Additionally, grandparent caregivers might feel anxious or depressed.
  • Grandparents raising grandchildren often have less time for themselves. They may also have less time to spend with their partners and friends. This loss of time can be stressful and can cause feelings of anger, grief, and loss.
  • It can be difficult for grandparent caregivers to manage their grandchildren’s parents. Parents may make unannounced visits and unrealistic promises. Grandparents may also struggle with trying to protect their grandchildren, while still allowing them to visit with their parents. Additionally, it may be disappointing for grandparents to see their child fail as a parent.
  • Grandparents may feel anger at their grandchildren’s parents, guilt about their parenting, or embarrassment about their family situation.

Why Grandparents Step Up

While it is difficult, Clare would not think of giving up her grandchildren to the foster system. Their older daughter, Beverly, checks in, but she has 2 children of her own and can’t take on 3 more. Besides she is resentful of how much her little sister taken from their Mother already.

Clare is part of a growing trend. The number of children being raised by their grandparents without any parent has doubled from 3% in 1970 to 6% in 2012 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Often there is an increase in the stress level of the home. AAMFT notes these are the signs someone needs help with their stress management:

Signs Of Stress

  • Anger or irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Pulling away from people
  • Constant worrying
  • Feeling sad all the time
  • Problems sleeping (too much or too little)
  • Worsening of health problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

In addition to raising children the parent often must deal with the stress of dealing with an adult child who is suffering from an addiction. According to, taking care of yourself is necessary. You can’t give what you don’t have. In order to be calm and in control it is important to look after yourself physically and mentally. Here are some suggestions from

Self Care Not Optional

  • A healthy you means healthy grandchildren. If you don’t take care of your health, you won’t be able to take care of your grandchildren, either. Make it a priority to eat nutritious meals, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep. Don’t let doctor’s appointments or medication refills slide.
  • Hobbies and relaxation are not luxuries. Carving out time for rest and relaxation is essential to avoid burnout and depression. Use your “me time to really nurture yourself. Choose activities that indulge your senses. Zoning out in front of the TV won’t revive you.
  • It’s okay to lean on your grandkids for help. Kids are smarter and more capable than we often give them credit for. Even young children can pick up after themselves and help out around the house. Helping out will also make your grandkids feel good.
  • and meet people dealing with similar issues. Good support groups allow time for personal sharing, but also take a positive outlook, structure sharing time, connect participants to sources of support, and help participants set and reach goals. To find a support group near you, visit the Web sites of the organizations listed under Resources.

Finding Support

Clare reached her bottom and called a friend one day when she could get out of bed. Her friend advised her to contact a local group of grandparents raising their grandchildren. The group was able to help Clare learn to care for herself and deal with all the additional stress.

Clare also asked her older daughter, Beverly, for help and found her willing to take the kids on occasion to give Clare a break. In exchange Clare would meet with Beverly for coffee so they could build their relationship, that had been strained by the disease of addiction as well.

Beverly and Clare made sure to include Beverly’s two children more since they had often been overlooked. Kathy entered rehab for the 6th time because losing custody of her children was a wake up call. Clare is looking for into different organizations that are available for all the children to receive support as well. Most importantly Clare has learned if she is not well-cared for, no one is. Even an unsung hero deserves love and support.



I was born into a large Catholic Family of 14 children in Upstate New York. I graduated with my degree in Professional and Technical Writing from University of South Florida. My recovery story began when I witnessed addiction in close relatives and friends. Unable to change them I began to focus on what I could change, me. Building a support system for myself I now strive daily to keep the focus on me. In my articles I sometimes share stories from my own experience, strength, and hope. It is my hope that others will find courage to see “the elephant in the room” and seek out help for themselves against this cunning,baffling,and powerful disease.

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