If you're worried your grandchild might be getting involved in drinking or using drugs, it can be difficult to know what to do.  You might be picking up on mood swings, or you might notice that they’ve got a new set of friends they’re spending time with that you're not sure about.  Try not to jump to conclusions, but in most circumstances you should consider raising your concerns with their parent. If there’s a reason you can’t do this, encourage your grandchild to talk to you or someone else who can help.

If you’re going to talk to your grandchild, remember that it’s important to listen to them too. If you’re worried about drugs, make sure you understand enough about them, including why young people might experiment, so you can talk to your grandchild in an informed way. Get your information from reliable, credible sources such as the website Frank.  Bear in mind that it’s common for teenagers to experiment with drugs. Only a small proportion of those who experiment will develop a drug problem.  Try not to be emotional or judgemental as this could ruin your chance to have a conversation. Being able to communicate with the young person is key to preventing and limiting the problems caused by alcohol and drug misuse. 

If you find out that your grandchild has tried alcohol or drugs, your first reaction may be anger or panic. Wait until you’re calm before discussing it with them, and do so in a way that shows your love and concern rather than anger. Be supportive – if they are drinking or taking drugs, you need to understand why. Make it clear that you’re there for them, and are willing to help them with any problems they’re having.

If a grandchild confides in you and feels they can’t talk to their parents, you need to decide whether this is something you think they need to know.  If it is, discuss with your grandchild why you think they need to know, and encourage them to tell their parent, offering to be there if they want.  If you do have to tell their parents against their wishes you may lose your grandchild’s trust, but ultimately parents are responsible for their children, and you should respect those boundaries.

Worried about a parent’s drug or alcohol use?

Parental drug or alcohol use is one of the most common reasons why grandparents or other family members step in to care for a child.  Someone who misuses alcohol or illegal drugs is not necessarily a bad parent or unfit to look after children.  However, a child’s needs for care will frequently conflict with a parent’s needs for drugs or alcohol. Life is likely to have been difficult for the child, and if you have concerns about their wellbeing you should contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 for advice.

Children affected by a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse may have very particular needs – counselling or family therapy to help build and maintain family relationships, help with particular medical and behavioural conditions (for example if the child is affected by foetal alcohol syndrome) and help to address their attitudes to and experiences of substance misuse.

Children often experience feelings of guilt and see their parent’s drug or alcohol misuse as in some way their fault. They may have taken on inappropriate caring roles at an early age and become ‘young carers’ for a parent. This can affect their education and peer relationships.

You may also be concerned about the impact of parental drinking or drug misuse on teenagers’ own attitudes to and experimentation with alcohol or drugs.

The presence of one stable adult or a close bond with at least one adult carer (parent, sibling, grandparent) and a close support network beyond this will help protect children against the impact of a parent’s drug or alcohol misuse. Clear family rules and a successful school experience also help to protect a child.

Children need to have space to talk about their feelings, and to understand that they didn’t make the problem start and they can’t make it stop. What their parent does is not their responsibility or fault.

For further help with drug or alcohol issues, try one of the organisations listed here.