My in-laws are alcoholics. My husband and I do our best to set boundaries. The problem: Our child wants to do “grandparent camp” like his friends do for a week or two this summer. Our son and my in-laws have asked for this repeatedly. We cannot trust them and we don’t want him around drunk people daily. When and how do we tell our tween that he can’t be alone with his progressively-getting-worse boozer relatives? What can my husband and I say to his parents that politely yet firmly makes clear they should stop asking?
Anonymous / Boston
This is what you say to your child (translated into your own appropriate family patois): “Grandma and Grandpa have a disease called alcoholism, and because of that it’s not safe or healthy for you to be alone with them. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and it’s not your fault, it’s just the way things are, which is too bad. You can be mad about it if you want! It’s definitely not fair. Sometimes I get mad at diseases, too.”
Your son has surely already picked up on emotional tension and strange moments with his grandparents. Start talking to him, like, yesterday to help him make sense of his intuitions and develop a healthy idea of what adult behavior should look like. Otherwise you’re just gaslighting the poor kid.
And while you want to shut down the “grandparent camp” requests — is this the official phrase now? I like it — you want to keep the lines of communication open wide. This is not one conversation, because this is not a one-off awkward situation with the winos down the block. Your son is growing up in a family marked by the dynamics of addiction and may have a genetic vulnerability to alcoholism himself. Even if all this weren’t the case, the preteen years are when all parents need to start the drugs-and-addiction talks.
So there are many conversations to be had, and it’s not too early to be having them. Al-Anon and Alateen can give you a good place to start, as can a family therapist. A book that I’ve found to be extraordinarily insightful is Lance Dodes’s The Heart of Addiction.
This is what you say to the grandparents: “Jeremy will not be having unsupervised visits with you. End of discussion,” or “Until you are both sober and have been for X amount of time, there will be no unsupervised visits with Jeremy. End of discussion.” I’d recommend the former, but you know the situation best.
That is polite. It is not what they want to hear, but it is polite. And firm. Will they keep asking? They are aging alcoholics, so probably, yes. You will say “Asked and answered” and if they perseverate, exit the conversation.
You may or may not be able to keep the relationship between your child and his grandparents intact. The health of that relationship is not entirely within your control, nor should it in any way be your first priority — your child, your own well-being, and your marriage come before that. If your in-laws cut ties over reasonable boundaries — or behave so badly that you and your husband are forced to cut ties, temporarily or permanently — that is their unfortunate choice. It sounds as though they’ve made many. I wish you well.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.