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Raising Grandchildren To Stay Off Drugs

QUESTION: I am raising two granddaughters, whose parents are both drug addicts. How can I keep them from doing drugs themselves? One is in primary school, and the other is beginning middle school. I am afraid they are destined to follow their parents' example. Are there any suggestions you can give me? I really would like to help these girls avoid the path their parents have gone down.

ANSWER: You are raising your granddaughters because their parents are incapacitated by their drug addictions. Do not be shy to clarify for them the nature and devastation that drugs can have on our minds and our bodies. You are in a powerful role to make a difference with your grandchildren!

While you are not telling them not to love their parents, you must be clear that both parents have made a very serious mistake in their lives, which has hurt those around them. Be clear that it is a mistake your granddaughters are NOT predestined to repeat! The difference lies in drug education, available in more effective programs for children than ever before. Do not take a fatalist approach. Instead, challenge your granddaughters to make good and healthy choices from the start!

Begin by teaching a healthy respect for the body. It is never too early for drug prevention. And primary-grade children benefit from learning to keep their bodies healthy. Teaching respect for our bodies at an early age is a protection against drug abuse later. What we put in our bodies should be good for us and help us grow. At this age of development, kids are fascinated with how things work. They want to know how their bodies operate. They are ready to understand what happens to their bodies when drugs are ingested. Give them the facts about drug use, and explain how anything taken to excess, even aspirin, can be dangerous.

Point out that alcohol and tobacco use are illegal for children, to protect their developing bodies. Use of alcohol and tobacco will be a choice reserved for when they become adults. But do not stop there! Help your grandchildren develop healthy coping skills for dealing with rejection, disappointment, even failures when they occur. And teach them alternative, healthy ways to relax and unwind, so they will have strong coping skills when they do enter adulthood.

Generally, when children leave primary grades, they enter a larger, less protected school environment. Preteens are gradually growing more independent, a process which continues through adolescence. This is a crucial time to develop the ability to make healthy and informed decisions about their future.

Talk to your preteen about the ways that drugs and alcohol are promoted in the media. Use opportunities that arise, such as song lyrics, television shows, or advertising that suggest drugs, tobacco, or alcohol are glamorous and successful methods for coping with life stress. For example, many television dramas (Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, and others) portray a generalized use of alcohol, with professionals drinking routinely as a ritualized ending to a workday. Point these subliminal messages out to your grandchildren, and separate myth from reality.

Be willing to talk about their disappointments in their own parents, but help them separate themselves from these negative patterns. And teach them NOT to feel shame for their parents' behavior. They cannot control the choices their parents made, but they can make better choices for themselves! Use the Al-Anon programs in your area, where they can talk with other young people about their parents' addictions and separate themselves from responsibility for their parents' lives. Regular attendance at an Al-Anon group would also provide needed emotional support for you, too!

You are in the ideal position to make a difference. The number-one reason children give for not taking drugs is that a caring adult does not want them to! Children who have positive and strong connections with a primary caretaker (grandparent, aunt, uncle, mentor) do not want to jeopardize that relationship. It matters that one caring adult believes in them. Given a strong relationship with your grandchildren, the following points will help protect them from drug abuse:

  1. Help them deal with peer pressure. Be willing to listen and talk about their needs to belong and fit in. Help them rehearse strategies for saying "no" or walking away from friends at school who may be pressuring them to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Even if their parents succumbed does not mean that they are destined to make the same mistake. Let them know that much more is known now about drug addiction, and that their education about it will help them make the right choice.

  2. Help them build positive social relationships. Friendships are very important to children. Stay connected to their social lives. Know their friends. If your granddaughter's friends use drugs, it is highly likely that she will, too. Be aware of unsupervised situations. Help your granddaughter resist friendships that are not in her best interest, and develop activities and friendships that are.

  3. Help them learn coping skills to deal with disappointments. Talk with them about sad and angry feelings that arise due to things that are not working out in their lives. Work to help them deal with frustration and rejection in a positive rather than self-destructive manner. Point out the difference between constructive versus destructive coping.

  4. Help them build self-esteem. Some form of academic and social success is critical. Help your grandchildren succeed at school. Address learning problems or difficulties with their teacher, and work out a program of study that will ensure they meet realistic goals. Find extracurricular activities that give your grandchildren a sense of accomplishment and acceptance in a group -- for example, swimming, sports, Girl Scouts, or other activities. These areas can buffer social rejections they may experience at school.

  5. Identify activities that help them relax and feel good. Music, art, or sports activities can help a child let off "steam." Help your grandchildren develop healthy outlets to release pressure. Point out that leisure activities are ways to cope with stress! Help them identify how they can "feel good" in a healthy way.

  6. Have honest and open discussions about drugs. Get informed! Learn facts about drugs through programs at your grandchildren's schools or other sources. Let your grandchildren know they can come to you for help and information.

If your grandchild does make a mistake, help her get back on track. Do not condemn her. Instead, condemn the behavior, set consequences, and get help from a well-regarded children's drug treatment program in your state, such as those available substance abuse resources in Montana. It is possible one or both of your granddaughters could test themselves against drugs. If this happens, be prepared to take early action rather than throw in the towel. Early treatment can nip destructive patterns in the bud.

Your continued belief in their ability to make the right choices in the long run will help them internalize the education you are giving them. You may not be able to help your own child, but you do have an opportunity to help your grandchildren turn this pattern of addiction around. After all, what are grandparents for, if not to help steer with a wiser eye!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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