Relationship between adult children and their parents

The roles of a parent and a child are not simply tied to a certain phase of life. Each of us is and will always remain somebody’s child. Similarly, a parent is somebody’s parent into old age. A family without conflict hardly exists. Different levels of conflict are part of parent-child relationships at all ages.

Within families in which alcohol has been consumed in abundance, there is a risk that a functional cross-generational relationship cannot be reached even over the decades. The roles remain obscure, and the senses of guilt and of duty still weigh on those who grew up in these families. Adult children of alcoholics may end up in a dual role, having to take care of their own offspring as well as their parents whose health may be on the decline. Do adult children of alcoholics have a chance or even a right to free themselves of the worries caused by their parents? The present article discusses the matter relative to the role of grandparents, their increasing need for care and the possibly still-ongoing alcohol consumption.

The concept of old age has changed over the past few decades. The elderly have become more active, still fulfilling their aspirations from their own starting points. Alcohol consumption is also part of the lives of an increasing number of the ageing population. The scale of different types of parent-grandparent relationships has extended. The assumption of previous generations concerning reciprocity in support and care between the generations is crumbling: It is no longer self-evident that grandparents participate in raising their grandchildren, functioning as a safe backup to turn to in need of help with, for example, babysitting or financial issues. On the other hand, grandparents cannot necessarily count on their children’s help as they grow older and possibly weaker. Additionally, grandparents’ alcohol problems make the already “loosened” care relationships between the generations even more difficult.

Many parents are faced with the question of whether their own parents, due to their alcohol use, are capable of looking after children or even meeting them. The situation may cause resentment because, according to the cultural pattern that the current adult generation grew up in, “grandma and grandpa” normally represent stability, warmth and safety.

Do grandparents have the right to meet their grandchildren, if they have previously got intoxicated in the presence of a child while the parents were elsewhere? A child’s right for a safe environment to grow up in is always the most important concern. This also applies to situations when the parents feel it would be important to receive the grandparents’ help in, for example, looking after the children due to circumstances such as work preoccupations or marital problems. A child may be exposed to traumatizing experiences also due to the increased risks of the elderly related to alcohol consumption (e.g. seizures, memory disorders or accidents).

At the same time, children have the right to a relationship with their grandparents. It is worthwhile to handle the situation in a practical manner. One way is to arrange, at least, short meetings after reassuring that the grandparents are sober at the time. One can also agree on certain safety measures with the child: for example, a means to leave if certain signs emerge in the grandparents’ behavior. After the visits to the grandparents’, the child can be asked in the “child’s own language” about details concerning the events that took place. Finding a satisfactory way to stay in touch and arrange meetings is in the best interest of all parties.

Coping with substance-addicted elderly parents is always oppressive and woeful. Unfortunately, it sometimes leads to having to cut all contacts with the grandparents’ of one’s own children. In some cases, the negative consequences of breaking with the grandparents are milder than the pain that arises from keeping in touch. Friends or ideally peer-support can be of help in figuring out solutions.

Be realistic in what you are able to do! You should not have to sacrifice your own adulthood. Trying to help your parents get sober is useless without their own motivation. A good rule of a thumb is the following: Disentangle yourself from the duty of getting your parents sober, but support them in the case that you find the right moment and they are genuinely motivated. Do not enable your parents’ drinking even if they use, for example, financial issues as incriminating excuses. Keep in mind that, first and foremost, you are responsible for your own well-being. Your well-being is among the most important things also in your child’s life!