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How Do We Talk to Our Grandson?

Young Man Looking up at trees

1Sugarbear wonders how to talk with their grandson about a Loved One's potential jail time. He’s been asking questions but he's only 12 years old – how to approach this conversation?

© Anthony Fomin via Unsplash

My son spent some time in jail and is now in a long term recovery center. He is awaiting hearings and still might go to prison. My 12 year old grandson from another child has overheard conversations about his uncle from other family members and is fishing for details. What do I say? I don't know what is appropriate for his age.

Dear 1Sugarbear:

It is hard enough for adults to deal with the reality of a family member’s Substance Use Disorder, but it is so much more complicated for children. It can be especially challenging for grandparents and other relatives to know how to respond to a child’s very real questions about the situation.

Just the fact that you recognize the importance of taking your grandson’s age into account when deciding how to respond to him is a good sign. This shows that you are right on target in regards to coming up with a sensitive and appropriate response. In addition to his chronological age, I would consider his developmental level. Is he socially and emotionally typical for his age group or somewhat more or less mature? What has he been exposed to at this point?

I would start by asking him what he already knows. Be prepared to stay open and flexible as you enter this conversation. If you pose the question in an open-ended, nonjudgmental way, it will be most conducive to him answering you honestly. Ask what this experience is like for him? What feelings does it bring up? It is very important to validate his feelings and his experience. Make sure that the child knows that he can always talk to a trusted adult about his feelings.

Then ask him what he is curious about. It is important not to “sugarcoat” things. Be as honest as you can be, but don’t give him more information than he has asked for.  Flooding him with too much information could easily confuse or overwhelm him. Most importantly, let him know that you are listening carefully and paying attention to his concerns and his questions.

Let him know that addiction is a disease. Drugs or alcohol may initially make a person feel good, but some people may not be able to stop. They become addicted and this can prevent a person from feeling their feelings or from being as responsible as they usually would be. It keeps people focused on the substance, rather than on the things and people they normally most care about. Their behavior is not willful.

Impress upon your grandson that his uncle is getting help and that all the safe adults in the family are making sure he is getting the support he needs. Stress that it is not your grandson’s fault. He didn’t cause it, nor can he cure or control it.

I hope this is helpful and best wishes to you.

Leslie S. Leff, MEd., MSS, LICSW is a child/family psychotherapist at The Children’s Clinic of Cutchins Programs for Children and Families in Northampton, MA. She works from an attachment focused and trauma informed orientation with children who have experienced trauma and with their families. Leslie has been trained in Adoption Competency, Mindful Self-Compassion, and is a practitioner being certified in Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. She is a former elementary school teacher who has created and facilitates the Trauma Informed Practices for Teachers training program for educators.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)