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(Grand)Parenting Children of Active Addicts

How do you support your grandchildren without enabling their addicted parent(s)?

One of the most difficult conversations I have with the loved ones of an addict/alcoholic is how to walk the fine line between being supportive and enabling. Enabling is protecting an adult from the natural consequences of their actions. It’s difficult to avoid because it’s counter intuitive not to protect the people we love (even when it’s from themselves).

Unfortunately, enabling an addict is rarely a black and white issue. When the fate and well being of others (especially children) is negatively impacted by the addict continuing to use, we feel compelled to act. This is very much a gray area. We can speculate that taking care of an addict’s children makes it all the easier for an addict to use. Yet knowing that their children will suffer, we cannot stand idly by. For many of us, this is exactly how we find ourselves (full time or part time) raising our children’s children.

Not Having a Plan

Some of us give support out of compassion, others from guilt. We often feel responsible for the choices our adult children make (we’re not). This leaves us with a sense of obligation that often leads to resentment. Our downfall is most often silently waiting and hoping that things will get better instead of seeking accountability from the addict and support for ourselves.

Loving an active addict means living with a certain amount of unknowns and instability. Rarely have I met a family who carefully planned how they’d support their children and grandchildren under the shadow of addiction. Typically it’s something that starts as an urgent need and becomes an ongoing but unclear commitment.

Making it Manageable

Clear boundaries and limits are the keys to making challenges in life as manageable as possible. As uncomfortable as it often is for us to accept and express what our limitations are, failing to do so sets precedents we find hard to break. Get on the same page with yourself and your partner before attempting to make a plan or setting ground rules with your addicted adult child. The pitfall is that those active in addiction are masterful in their ability to manipulate.

Setting boundaries is as simple as saying, “Here is what I am willing to do (A, B, C) and here is what I’m not willing to do (X, Y, Z).” The consistency with which we maintain boundaries determines their success. Please bear in mind that as long as our loved ones stay active, they are likely to test every limit we set. Stay the course!

Walking the Fine Line

Even for those of us who have raised children, it’s easy to forget that kids living with addiction always know more than we think they do. As we compensate for the unavailability of our adult children, we sometimes seek to protect our grandchildren from the truth. Rarely have I seen this be helpful to a child and it tends to increase the stress of caregivers exponentially.

Instead of watering down the truth, tailor it to the child’s developmental level. It’s appropriate to say that their parent(s) are sick. It’s okay to admit that we don’t know when they’ll be better. Reassuring the child(ren) does not mean promising that the addict/alcoholic will be OK, but rather that we’ll ensure that the child is safe and cared for.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Communicate clearly with your adult child regarding expectations and boundaries.
  • Express your feelings very simply and directly.
  • State your needs with regard to what you provide their children.
  • Express desire to support efforts toward sobriety and recovery.
  • Become knowledgeable regarding resources for your adult child and share them.
  • Please consider consulting with a social worker in your community regarding laws that relate to emergency medical care for children and how to best manage your family’s challenges.


  • Give cash or receipts for items purchased.
  • Walk on eggshells or protect your adult children from any truth.
  • Be reactive. Take at least a minute before agreeing to anything. Consider options and offer to respond as quickly as possible. Decisions made under duress are often regrettable.
  • Tolerate threats or abuse of any kind.
  • Pretend that things are fine when they’re not.
  • Be ashamed. Your son/daughter lives with a disease and their addiction did not result from mistakes you may have made in raising them.
  • Feel guilty when you find yourself angry with the people you love. You’re only human.

Getting Into the Solution

We need information, resources, and kindred spirits in order to get through difficult times. The value of getting support from the good men and women of Nar Anon and Al Anon cannot be overstated. We understand what you’re going through and benefit from giving support as well as from receiving it. Addiction is a global problem and a community problem. It is not something any individual or family ought to face alone.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: Thanks! Jim

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