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Relative Caregivers

If you are a relative – kin – taking care of a child, then you are what is called a kinship caregiver. Maybe the child is your grandson. Maybe it is your niece, your grand-nephew, or your cousin. The fact is, more and more relatives are taking over when a parent’s drug or alcohol use has left them unable to take care of their own children.

Think about how you feel. You might even want to take out a piece of paper and write down all the emotions that you have about kinship care giving and parental substance abuse. Try to focus on the emotions that relate specifically to these issues. Here are some of the feelings many caregivers in your situation share:

Guilt – A common reaction, although based on misunderstanding, is guilt. As you wonder how such problems developed in your family, you may worry about things you did or said in the past. Especially if you are the parent of the substance abuser, you may wonder if mistakes you made as a parent may have lead to the substance abuse.

Try to remember, nothing you may have said, done, not said, or not done can cause substance abuse. Substance abuse is caused by the actions and choices of the substance abuser. Even if you made mistakes – even if you were yourself a substance abuser – you did the best you could at the time, with the abilities you had then. Now you’re more experienced and more stable, and have a chance, perhaps, to make a fresh start with a child who needs you. Let go of the past, forgive yourself, and move on.

Shame – Another common reaction, although also unnecessary, is to feel ashamed and embarrassed about the problems in your family. You may even find yourself avoiding old friends, because you don’t want them to know your family’s sad news.

Be aware that you are not alone with this problem. Substance abuse is the nation’s #1 health problem, and it affects millions of families. There are families struggling with substance abuse in virtually every church, school, community group and neighborhood in the nation.

Instead of staying silent, you might try speaking up, mentioning matter-of-factly that your family is affected by substance abuse. Few people, if any, will be shocked – and you may be surprised to learn how many others have dealt with the same issue. Your friends will probably appreciate your honesty, and your openness may bring you together in new ways.

Sadness – If you feel a deep sense of sadness, it’s no wonder. You’ve watched someone you care about destroy his or her own life. You’re caring for a child you love, whose own young life has been affected painfully. And you’ve taken on huge new responsibilities, perhaps losing freedom, friendships and favorite activities.

Your sadness is natural, so look for ways to find comfort. A support group can be an important source of understanding and encouragement. There may be other ways you’ve healed sadness in the past, such as turning to friends, prayer, or soothing activities. Join a support group for kinship caregivers, or write in a journal. Cry, if it helps – that’s nature’s way of letting out the sadness. Remember that the road to peace of mind takes time, but is made of many little steps. Try to be patient, and remember that the worst of the pain will pass with time.

If you do find yourself so overwhelmed by sadness that you can’t face life’s demands, talk to your doctor or a counselor. If sadness turns into deeper depression, you may need medical help, counseling, or both to help turn the tide.

Anger and betrayal – is another completely natural response. Your life is intertwined with a substance abuser, and substance abusers may say or do cruel things, lie, break promises, and even threaten violence. You may also find that the child in your care acts out in ways that can be infuriating, saying mean things, breaking family rules, and worse.

Your anger is natural, but it helps to direct it carefully. Try to focus on the true cause of family problems: it’s substance abuse that’s causing all these problem behaviors.

Even the child’s negative behaviors may be caused by the long-term effects of the parent’s addiction. That doesn’t excuse the behaviors, or mean you have to put up with them – but it is, at least, a comfort to realize that it’s not meanness personally directed at you. The child, and the child’s parent, may be sorry and even ashamed of any poor behavior, but be unable to say or show it.

As with sadness, a good immediate help with anger may be to turn to a support group, trusted friends, or some of each. This time, though, you may need to blow off steam rather than shed tears. For this reason, it’s especially important to turn to people outside your family circle – people who care about you but aren’t involved with the person or problem that’s frustrating you. It’s especially important not to vent your angry feelings about the parent to the child, or about the child to the parent. Look instead for a person or setting that you can trust as caring, confidential, and not personally involved.

Regaining some control

You may also want to explore if there is anything you can do to gain control of the situation, especially where you feel taken advantage of. (Remember, being taken advantage of is a two-way street.) Try the following brief exercise:

Think back to a recent incident where you felt as if you were taken advantage of and ask yourself the following:

  • What happened and what were you thinking? Why?
  • What did you say? Why?
  • How did you act? Why?
  • How did you feel afterward?
  • Did you have any sense – any warning signs – that you were headed towards a situation where you were going to be taken advantage of? A feeling in the pit of your stomach? A phrase that the bio-parent used that indicated what would come next? The timing of the encounter?

Use these warning signs in the future to help you stop the scenario from progressing, and take back some control.

Depression and anxiety – Do you feel blue, down much of the time? Do you have trouble enjoying activities that used to give you pleasure and joy? Do you feel irritable or easily upset by things that you used to take in stride? Are you having trouble sleeping? Have your eating patterns changed significantly? You may be experiencing depression.

Depression is not unusual for caregivers. Most caregivers feel sad about the circumstances that led to the need for kinship care. You may blame yourself for the parent’s problems and the child’s difficulties. You may feel guilty about things that happened in the past. You may wonder if things will get better in the future.

But please remember that the parent’s substance abuse problem is not your fault. Addiction results from bad choices, and the parent is responsible for their choice to use alcohol or drugs.

Sometimes even a support group isn’t enough to keep these feelings in check. If you are experiencing the symptoms of depression described above, perhaps it’s time to seek out a counselor who can help.

Stress – If you are like most caregivers, you give—and give—and give—to your family, and you only think about yourself later (if at all). With so many things to do, you may feel stressed and anxious or worried a lot.

You are not alone—caregiving is a stressful job. Many caregivers experience high stress and anxiety levels as a result of caring for their young relatives and coping with a substance abusing parent. Try not to blame yourself for these feelings—they are the result of your situation, not your fault.

Although it’s normal to have these feelings, you don’t have to live with stress or anxiety that’s so severe it interferes with your sleep, work, or enjoyment of life.

Remember that it is extremely important for you to take care of yourself. Mind your physical, mental health, and spiritual health, and seek support.

  • Make sure to keep up with your doctor’s visits
  • Eat right
  • Try to make time for exercise and friends
  • Use your faith community as a resource

Although this advice may seem very basic, it will go a long way toward improving your sense of well-being.

If you are doing all of this and still feeling like your situation is out of control, it may be time to talk to your doctor or a counselor about your stress. You don’t have to suffer.