Saturday, 21 June 2014

Grandparents: What role can they play in preventing alcohol and other drug use?

Increasingly I am seeing more grandparents attend my Parent Information Evenings. Some are now their grandchild's primary caregiver and are really struggling to deal with adolescent behaviour, coming to the talk looking for any tips that may assist them to navigate through this difficult time. Many others come with their sons and daughters who now are parents of teens themselves and are there simply to support their own child as well as to find out a little more about this complex issue.

Last week I received the following email from one of those grandparents and I thought I would share it with you ...

I am just writing to thank you for your presentation last night. I am a 70 year old grandmother of three teenagers and attended your session last night with their mother (my daughter). We both learnt so much. Sometimes I am just terrified about the behaviour of adolescents that I read about in the paper and see on the TV news, so it was refreshing to hear that so many of our young people are not engaged in this activity. You talked about the role parents play in influencing their children's behaviour, I was wondering whether there is any information available about what role grandparents can play? There are so many people of my age that I know who are either bringing up their grandchildren or playing a much greater role than I think grandparents did in the past, it would be great to know if there was any research on just what we can do ...

So what positive influence can grandparents have on their grandchildren in terms of alcohol and other drugs (or as one resource I found calls it - what is 'The Power of Grandma and Grandpa'!)?

Firstly, it is important to remember that many older Australians feel completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs. Ecstasy and many of the other newer substances simply weren't around when they were young and so asking them to sit down and have a conversation with a grandchild about this topic may be a really difficult ask for some. So if it's not necessarily direct discussions about 'all things drugs' that makes a difference (although that would be great if Grandad feels confident having those chats!), what is that grandparents can do? Well, it's all about the quality of the unique relationship that can exist between a grandparent and the child ... put simply, having a strong, positive relationship with a child can give them a feeling of 'connectedness' and this in turn builds 'resilience'. Resilience assists them to cope with adverse situations they may encounter as they go through life and helps to ensure that if they come into contact with alcohol or other drugs, they are, at the very least, able to 'bounce back' and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

No-one can deny that children often have a very special relationship with their grandparents. Unlike their parents, they're not around all the time, they don't make the family rules and, despite their age, are often regarded as much more laidback. They can also 'play dumb' on controversial topics really well and, as a result, often get away with asking those direct, embarrassing questions that parents could never ask! It is also important to acknowledge that the role a grandparent may play in a young person's life changes over time, and like parents, adolescence is a time when the relationship can change quite dramatically, with many teens drifting away from Grandma and Grandpa to some extent. But if grandparents can stay connected to their grandchild during the early years of adolescence and continue to have a healthy, positive relationship with them for the next few years (particularly if not all is great between the teen and their parent), the evidence suggests that this can be extremely helpful.

One US resource, 'The Power of Grandparents', has a couple of great suggestions of how to stay connected:

"Try doing what your grandchildren likes doing ... Go to the movies, the mall, go shopping for clothes or take them to a show or museum. Watch TV or do some cooking together - maybe it;s the things that their parents don't have time to do with them."

"Teenagers enjoy trying new things and it's a great way to bond - they're very receptive. And they often open up and talk during these activities -and that's how you'll find out what's going on with them. "I know a 14-year-old who loves to go to her grandparents' house to work in the garden, play cards and watch old movies together .. She loves it - it's a relaxing escape from her hectic life."" 

Another area where grandparents can be extremely useful is in discussion around family history of alcohol or other drug problems. A grandparent can often be viewed as the 'gatekeeper' to family history and if there are issues such as dependence or mental health issues in their background it is vital that children are told that they may be at greater risk of developing such problems. Of course, these conversations need to be handled carefully and conducted at the appropriate time and are usually led by parents, but in their 'gatekeeper' role, grandparents may provide great support to parents in getting this important information across to young people.

Even though parents are generally recognized as the most important and long-lasting influence on children, there can be no doubt that grandparents can also play a critical role due to the special bond many of them have with their grandchildren. The evidence is clear that strong family bonds, clear boundaries and a supportive relationship with at least one adult can reduce the likelihood of a young person getting into trouble with alcohol and other drugs. As The Power of Grandparents says:

"This unique relationship between grandparent and grandchild provides an ideal opportunity for sharing, connecting and discussing many important topics - including the dangers of drugs and alcohol."

For those of you who are interested I have listed a number of Australian organisations and resources that provide support for those amazing grandparents who are acting as the sole carers for their grandchildren. Unfortunately, there is little, if any, information on these sites specifically to do with alcohol and other drugs but they are well worth a look anyway:

Grandparents As Parents (GAP)
Grandparents As Parents Again (GAPA)
Kinship Care (Grandparents As Parents)
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (NSW)

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