Substance Abuse in the Family

Grandparents Can Unwittingly Enable Drug Abuse by Family Members

Grandparents must safeguard their medication to prevent substance abuse in the family.
It's vital that grandparents keep medications away from family members who might be tempted to misuse them. Photo © Peter Dazeley | Getty Images

"She gets her hair from her mom. Her eyes from her dad. And her drugs from her grandma's medicine cabinet." This shocking tagline, from the Lock Your Meds ad campaign, highlights one role that grandparents can play in family substance abuse -- that of the unknowing supplier. On the other hand, grandparents can help prevent abuse. But it's important that they stay informed about the changing face of drug abuse.

Be Responsible

In the last decade or so, prescription pain killers have become the drug of choice for many abusers, especially opioid drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Some users get pills from "pill mills" or the Internet, but government agencies estimate that 70% get their pills from friends or family members. Younger users, lacking transportation and credit cards, often take meds that belong to others. They may mix medications, a practice that makes treating an overdose extremely difficult.

Because of the conditions often associated with aging, many grandparents have a supply of highly desirable drugs. It's important that they are knowledgeable about medication safety and take all precautions to keep their medications out of the hands of others, including their own grandchildren. Precautions that should be taken include:

  • Medications should be kept in a locked medicine cabinet or lockbox.
  • Medicine should be counted periodically to make sure that none has been taken.
  • Medicine prescribed for a particular illness or injury should not be kept for later use.
  • Unused medicine should be disposed of safely, following the guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration.

Be a Good Role Model

It is difficult for grandparents and other adults to take the high ground about drug abuse if they engage in questionable practices where medication is involved.

No one should have to suffer pain unnecessarily, but no medication should be taken without an analysis of its benefits versus its rewards. Where pain killers are concerned, grandparents are not exempt from becoming addicted. Even if they never become hooked, they may suffer from other side effects. Physical therapy, appropriate exercise and other non-drug solutions may offer adequate relief for many conditions. By choosing such therapies, grandparents are not only doing themselves a favor but also serving as good role models for their grandchildren. On the other hand, grandparents who save pain killers and other medications "just in case" and who self-medicate send the wrong message.

Be the Anti-Drug

In the fight against drug abuse by young people, parents are sometimes labeled the anti-drug. Although there are exceptions to every rule, children are less likely to abuse drugs if their parents express their disapproval of substance abuse and if their parents are involved in their daily life. Grandparents can add to this effect if they are actively involved with their grandchildren. Additionally, concerned parents monitor their children's activities, friends, conversations and use of social media.

Grandparents can help here, too, as long as they are careful not to overstep boundaries. Here's a small sampling of behavior to watch for:

  • Teens use words that don't make sense. Users have slang terms for drugs. It's difficult to keep up with their terms as they change frequently, but statements that don't quite make sense are red flags.
  • Teens have friends who drop in but then seem eager to be gone. A drug deal takes only a few minutes, and that could be the purpose of the visit.
  • Behavior that is out of the ordinary is another marker, and it can range from drowsiness to euphoria.
  • Teens who change their circle of friends and lose interest in schoolwork are exhibiting two classic signs that can point to drug use.

It's important to remember that most teenagers are occasionally cranky, sleepy or hyper, and teenagers can exhibit any of the behavior listed above and be completely drug-free.

It's a pattern of odd or altered behavior that should alert parents and grandparents. Learn more about signs of drug use by teens. It's also important to realize that, although teens are the group at highest risk, drug abuse is a possibility in both pre-teens and young adults. Signs to look for are much the same in these other age groups.

Special Issues for Grandparents

Grandparents have special reasons for working against drug abuse. Although specific statistics are hard to come by, among grandparents raising grandchildren, a large percentage are in this position due to drug abuse by the parents. As difficult and stressful as raising grandchildren can be, it is preferable to the situation of other grandparents, who have become estranged from their children due to drug abuse issues and who have lost contact with grandchildren. Substance abuse plays havoc with the natural family order, in which parents raise their children with loving contributions by grandparents.

Substance abuse affects families in many other ways. Family members may:

  • Die of overdose
  • Suffer from addiction-related health problems
  • Drive unsafely with family members in the vehicle
  • Steal from family members
  • Put family members at risk of violence from dealers and users
  • Be incarcerated for drug use.

Some Startling Statistics

Recently poisoning deaths, mostly drug-related, passed up traffic accidents to become the leading cause of injury-related deaths, according to a report by the CDC. This dramatic upswing in drug-related deaths mirrors the increase in prescription drug abuse, primarily in opioid pain relievers. The situation is severe enough that it has sparked White House and governmental involvement in creating a plan to attack prescription drug abuse.

According to a survey conducted by Hazelden, one-third of American families reported an addicted person in their immediate family, while 44% reported more than one addicted person. One in six of those surveyed reported that every member of the immediate family had a substance abuse problem.

More Resources

The immediate crisis may center on opioids, but prescription drug abuse takes many forms, as shown by this list of commonly abused drugs. 

On the Wagon, a website by the National Organization of Students Against Substance Abuse, has helpful information and many links on its page about prescription drug abuse