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Many children of drug and alcohol users live with their grandparents. Vicky Brooks highlights the impact this can have on grandparents and the family as a whole. Ed.

Grandparents as carers

Support networks are typically poor. Feelings of stigma and shame are associated with approaching others for support, and grandparents can feel uncomfortable around other parents, as they are often much older and feel stigmatised by the substance misuse. Their social life often diminishes as friends are unlikely to be in the same situation, and compared to their peers they have reduced energy levels, and reduced money for socialising at a time when their peers often have more.

Hidden Harm, a report into the needs of children of problematic drug users indicates that 200,000 to 300,000 children in England and Wales come from families where one or both parents have serious drug problems. Only 37% of fathers and 64% of mothers from these families are still living with their children1


It has been estimated that there are more than 200,000 family and friends carers (a carer who is either a family member or a friend) in the UK, most of whom are grandparents bringing up their grandchildren under formal (for example fostering) or informal arrangements, because the parents are no longer able to fulfil that role2


Grandparent carers face many complex difficulties in their lives, and typically place their own needs behind those of their grandchildren (and perhaps the substance using birth parent too). Practical difficulties include the financial cost of bringing up a child at a time when income is likely to be reduced (in retirement or due to the need to reduce the hours worked due to the carer role) and navigating through the legal processes involved in care proceedings. Specialist agencies such as the Family Rights Group and Grandparents Association can help by advising on these issues. Grandparents may experience housing issues - property is often too small, children share bedrooms and homelessness is common in the case of the drug user - and often have to fight for council accommodation.

1 Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2003), Hidden Harm, Responding to the needs of the children of problem drug users HMSO

2 Estimate from the Family Rights Group cited in Saunders and Selwyn (2008). Supporting Informal Kinship Care. Adoption and Fostering Journal, 32 (2): 31-42.

Grandparents have to cope with the emotional issues of their grandchildren, such as a sense of rejection, abandonment and loss. Grandchildren are at a greater risk of problematic drug and alcohol use and of bullying at school and there is potential for negative impact on a child’s educational attainment. There may also be issues of domestic violence. Grandparents experience uncertainty about how much the grandchildren know about the family situation, and face dilemmas over what children should and should not be told. Guilt may lead grandparents to overcompensate with grandchildren in an attempt to make up for their perceived failings as parents.

grandparents to overcompensate with grandchildren in an attempt to make up for their perceived failings as parents

“Guilt may lead ”

Families have to manage complex family dynamics and shifting family roles; grandparents become parents again, parents become children again, and grandchildren care for their drug using parent until they are placed under the care of the grandparent. Many grandparents are still heavily involved in supporting the user – and even when the user is absent, their use still impacts on the wider family.

Conflict is common. For example siblings are sometimes resentful of the time, energy and attention given to the user and they may blame themselves. When there is substance misuse in a family relationships often break down, and people take sides. Grandparents often agonise over whether they are doing the right thing by caring for their grandchildren.

Grandparents’ relationship with their birth children is often fraught with problems: the user may blame the grandparent and


their upbringing for their use and the grandparent may feel exploited, conned and kept in the dark by the user. This may be compounded by a substance user’s involvement in the criminal justice system, mental health difficulties, or involvement in sex work. There are often divided and changed loyalties for the grandparent; the priority that was once the child, changes to the grandchild.

There may be conflict with the parents or grandchildren over contact: grandchildren may not want to see their parent; parents may not want to see their children; parents may fail to turn up for arranged visits; parents may fight grandparents for custody; and there may be conflict due to grandchildren’s desire for contact with parent/s when this is deemed unsafe by the grandparent.

There are increased physical demands when bringing up a child in later life and deteriorating health impacts on ability to care for grandchildren. There are risks to health from drug use and drug using behaviour, such as blood borne viruses and violence and some grandparents may even be disabled or raising a disabled child. Families experience worry over the practical implications of the grandparent dying or becoming unable to parent.

Experienced emotions (for example de- pression, stress, anxiety, worry, loneliness, desperation) may also be somatised.

As they are no longer a grandparent, but are now a parent again grandparents may also experience pain, loss and bereavement for their own hopes and expectations due to loss of retirement or career, and for hopes and expectations for dependents, whilst sometimes grieving for a child who died through substance use (and in some cases delaying or inhibiting the grieving process to care for grandchildren).

However, it is important to note that grandparents commonly feel a sense of pride in bringing up their grandchildren, are glad their grandchildren are loved and valued, that they can provide them with moral guidance, cultural connection and identity, security, love, routine, they consider themselves to be the next best thing to the birth parent(s), feel relief knowing grandchildren are safe, and have ‘fun’ raising them.

Vicky Brooks, Project Grandparents Project Coordinator, Adfam

For more information on the Adfam Grandparent Carers Project please visit the Adfam website:

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