Setting Boundaries With Addicted Grandparents

Adult daughter tries to pursuade her mother to quit smoking
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Times have changed. In the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s, it was not uncommon for parents of young children to smoke and drink alcohol around them. While a few still do, many younger parents choose not to drink or smoke at all, and rightly so. Recognition of the health harms of secondhand smoke on babies and children and awareness of the impact of role modeling on future behavior discourages younger parents from drinking and smoking around their children.

But for grandparents who smoked throughout their adult lives, and are now in their 60s, 70s, or older, many feel they do not need to quit.

Many people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol underestimate how much they consume, and do not believe their behavior or their alcohol consumption is problematic.

Some believe the risks of smoking and drinking are exaggerated, as they think because they have not been diagnosed with a serious illness, that they are in good health.

Hard though it is to understand, even some of those who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, including conditions directly related to smoking and drinking, refuse to change their behavior concerning these substances. Yet it can be difficult for younger parents to confront their own parents, or even ask them not to drink or smoke around their grandchildren, for fear of offending or angering their parents.

The Need for Boundaries

Setting boundaries with parents are difficult for the adult children of people with all kinds of addictions.

The roles are reversed when you set boundaries around your parents' behavior. Setting boundaries around parents smoking are particularly difficult, because smokers cling to their "right" to smoke while exposing your child to increased risks of smoking themselves, and of the health risks of secondhand and third-hand smoke.

Alcohol can be even more problematic if your parent drinks and becomes intoxicated around your child or children. While past generations may have "laughed it off," parents are now more knowledgeable about the impact of drinking on youngsters. Not only may it encourage them to think of drinking as normal and harmless if grandma or grandpa does it, but drunkenness can lead to inappropriate language or behavior, which can lead to a range of outcomes, from embarrassment to abuse.

Making excuses for your parents rarely works. Kids can sense their parents' discomfort, and it can be difficult to explain away your parents' behavior to your children, or even to answer their questions about their grandparents' behavior in a way that feels honest and informative. Allowing these behaviors to continue can lead to rifts in the family which, ultimately, could impact your feelings about your children spending time with their grandparents at all.

As an adult child, you are no longer obliged to follow your parents' instructions or to tolerate their unacceptable behavior. As a parent, you have a responsibility to protect your own children from the harmful effects of smoke and seeing an influential adult, their grandparent, smoking, or drinking alcohol. Therefore, you must set boundaries with your parents smoking in order to protect your child.

When to Set Boundaries

Before you assert yourself with your parents, It is helpful to get clear on exactly what you find unacceptable, the reasons for this, and what you would like your parents to do instead.

There is a big difference between your parent absentmindedly lighting up in front of the grandchildren, or drinking alcohol early in the day, and becoming intoxicated and violent. If either of your parents becomes aggressive, violent or verbally abusive to you or your children, you should withdraw your children from spending any time with them until their behavior changes, or your child becomes an adult.

You are neglecting to protect your child if you allow them to be with someone abusive, even if you love that person and believe they should spend time together.

Similarly, you should not allow your children to spend time with a grandparent who uses illicit drugs. Doing so exposes your child to the modeling of drug using behavior, making it more likely your child will use drugs him or herself. Children can also be harmed by accidentally or experimentally using drugs themselves, which they may be able to do if they are in an environment where drugs are taken. They can also be hurt or infected by paraphernalia such as lighters and needles.

Choosing a Safe Location to Meet

You may find that your parent is more respectful of your boundaries in your home than in their own home or in some public places more than others. Choose your meeting locations accordingly, and don't give in to pressure from your parent to come to them, only to have them smoke around you and your child because it is "my house, my rules."

You may also be able to avoid a confrontation with your parent by selecting places for your children to spend time with your parents, where it will not be easy or even possible for your parents to smoke, drink, or use drugs. There are many public venues which provide entertainment and activities suitable for families, which do not allow smoking or public intoxication, such as shopping malls, libraries, playgrounds, restaurants, and movie theaters. The great advantage of choosing these locations, and meeting your parents right inside, rather than outside the building, is that the enforcement aspect will be taken care of by someone other than you.

You can also involve your child in deciding where they are going to meet their grandparents, by giving them two or more options of safe locations, from which they can choose.

That way, when you communicate the location of choice, you can explain to your parent that the activity was something your child has specifically asked to do with their grandparent. This can be an effective way of keeping your child away from your parents' bad influence, while at the same time, encouraging them to develop a close relationship.

How to Set Boundaries

When setting boundaries with your parent, start with the most gentle boundary setting, and work up to more assertive and rigid boundaries only if your initial efforts fail.

First attempt: Ask your parent not to smoke or drink in front of your child (or in front of you if it bothers you). If your first attempt is successful, and your parent does not smoke or drink in front of you or your child, you don't need to set any further boundaries.

Second attempt: If your parent smokes or drinks in front of your child, remind them of your previous request, and say that if they insist on smoking or drinking, you will take your child away from their presence. If you think your parent will react in an explosive manner, you might choose to do this away from your child, so that you don't upset your child, or open yourself up to manipulations from your parent (such as, "Look, you are upsetting the children!").

Follow up with a frank discussion with your parent, perhaps on the phone, about how important it is to avoid exposing your child to secondhand smoke, or to alcohol, and suggest trying to work out an agreement whereby they can refrain from smoking or drinking during a specified period of time, or in a situation that will allow your parent to take a "smoke break" away from your child. But remember, third-hand smoke—which refers to the particles and gases that are left over after a cigarette is extinguished and remain on virtually any surface in an area where someone has smoked—also carries risks to your child.

Final attempt: If your parent continues to smoke or drink in front of your child, or engages in manipulations to pressurize you into tolerating them smoking or drinking, I would suggest you limit physical contact between your parent and your child. This might seem harsh and may be distressing for both of them, but it sends a clear message about the importance of this issue.

What it boils down to is how much your parent values time with their grandchild—if they care about spending time with your child, they will quit or at least restrain their smoking. In spite of what your parent may say, they are fully capable of functioning without smoking or drinking, even if it is for a brief period of time, such as an hour or two, which is typically as long as most young children will want to be engaging in an activity.

If your parent is very heavily addicted to nicotine, they can use nicotine replacement during the time they are with your children, such as nicotine gum or a nicotine patch. And if they are unable to function for a short period during the day without alcohol, it is likely that they have a very serious problem with alcohol.

A Word From Verywell

It can be hard to stand up to your parents. You don't want to embarrass them, nor do you want to provoke an argument, particularly one you can't win. However, it is worth persevering to find a way to bring your parents and children together for the sake of their relationship, without exposing your children to their harmful influence.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Clarke, J. & Dawson, C. Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children. (Second Edition). Center City: Hazelden. 1998.
  • Katherine, A. Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day Fireside. 2000.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.