Teens, Drugs, and Mental Illness: How Grandparents Can Help (Part 1)

April 8, 2021

One of the hardest things to face is when a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or mental illness. Unfortunately, these things can go hand in hand. Perhaps the hardest of all is watching a beloved grandchild turn from happy and engaged into someone who seems erratic and out of control. 

Often when a teen is struggling, their parents will be as well. It’s difficult to face up to the facts; and it’s frankly, easier to live in denial. Even if parents are looking at reality, getting help is challenging at best. Sometimes parents are even struggling with drugs and mental health issues, too. You may feel that you have to take on the parental role as a grandparent (or have taken custody). 

When One Member Struggles, The Whole Family Struggles

These issues can be very lonely and isolating for the child, their parents, as well as you. There is still a lot of stigma around both mental illness and substance abuse. You may feel that you can’t talk to your friends or get advice because you don’t want to deal with people’s judgments. That’s fair. It’s good to want to protect family members’ privacy, too. 

If you feel alone, check and see if there are any Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings in your area. Many meetings are online or over the phone. It’s likely that you will meet people in these groups who will understand what you are going through and will offer support, friendship, and other resources. If the issue is mental illness, check out NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). They offer education and support groups for people with mental illnesses, as well as their family and friends. 

What Can a Concerned Grandparent Do? 

First, try talking to your grandchild. Kids often feel like they can be more open with their grandparents than with their parents. While parents may be busy with their jobs, grandparents are often retired and can spend more time with their grandkids. Grandparents also don’t have to enforce rules about bedtime, screen time, and homework. Their relationship with their grandchildren is therefore often much simpler and encouraging than the kids’ relationships with their parents. 

If you decide to talk to your grandkid, think about what you’d like to say, and most importantly resolve to listen. You can open with questions like, “You seem down lately. Is there anything bothering you that I can help you with?” or “Your grades are down a bit--is there anything going on?” Maybe you feel that you can be more direct and mention that you’ve smelled cigarettes or marijuana on them. Or you’ve noticed they have red eyes and are not focusing well. You know your grandchild and how they will respond to a soft start or a direct approach. 

Perhaps you feel that the teen is too far down the road of mental illness or substance abuse to be receptive to talking. In that case, you should think about talking to the parents. Again, think about whether a soft start or a direct question will work best. It may work well to offer to help. Parents in this situation will often feel very overwhelmed. You can offer to contact the family’s insurance company and get a list of therapists, in-patient programs, and out-patient programs. 

How Can I Help My Grandchild?

If you have the time, offer to call the therapists and programs yourself. It can be a daunting task for working parents to take on this emotionally draining task with everything else going on. Expect to leave a lot of messages. It can be helpful to write yourself a script so you don’t have to come up with something new every time. 

Managing the care of a grandkid with mental illness can be difficult, but with the right resources, your whole family will benefit. Watch for a follow-up article on this topic where we provide insight into treatment options and facilities that you and your grandchild can learn about. 

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