Q: My mother is mentally ill and an alcoholic. She does not live in the same city as we do. I've taken my children, ages 5 and 2 ½...

Share story

Q: My mother is mentally ill and an alcoholic.

She does not live in the same city as we do. I’ve taken my children, ages 5 and 2 ½, to visit, but so far the visits have not gone well. I don’t want to sever ties with my mother and would like my children to have a chance to know her. My older child seems confused as to why her grandmother is the way she is and is beginning to ask lots of questions. What’s appropriate?

A: All parents wish for their children a cookie-baking, story-reading, park-taking grandparent who is attentive, loving and indulgent. Your mother will unlikely be this kind of grandparent. Yet the grandparent-grandchild relationship is strong, and lots of good can occur as long as you run interference between your children and your mother.

Your children can learn tolerance, empathy and understanding for people with mental illness and alcoholism. It’s important to explain to your children that some people have illnesses that affect their bodies and/or their minds.

If your mother had diabetes, cancer or muscular dystrophy, you’d likely explain those illnesses to your children without question. It’s your job to explain in bits and pieces your mother’s issues and to answer your children’s questions.

Be grateful your mother lives out of town, because you can control your children’s exposure to her, her diseases and the resulting behavior. If she lived next door or with you, your job would be much more difficult.

When you go for a visit, don’t stay at her house. Visit her when she’s at her best, whatever time of day that happens to be. You should avoid leaving your children alone with her. Doing so would be unsafe and confusing. With you there, you can make sure the visit goes well, and then later explain any confusing behavior that she exhibits. You can also offer the hope that medication, psychiatry and/or rehabilitation may help your mother on the road to better health.

Your children, particularly your eldest, know how most people behave. That child is fully aware that the behavior of her grandmother is different than what she’s experienced. Naturally, she has questions. She’s curious. If you don’t answer her questions or explain the situation, she’ll remain confused or seek information from someone else.

The most difficult part about mental illness and alcohol-induced behavior is that it’s erratic. A person will be behaving just fine and then, all of a sudden, her behavior will change, sometimes dramatically. Children look for consistent behavior from people. Erratic behavior that’s inconsistent catches their attention. Ask adult children who grew up with a mentally ill or alcoholic parent how they coped. Because of the shame associated with these illnesses, some family members try to sweep them under the familial rug. It’s better to bring them out into the open and discuss them with your children with all due respect given to Grandmother.

It’s a parents’ job to protect a child’s innocence. Then, as children grow up, parents can slowly teach them about the dangerous, perplexing and peculiar ways of the world. Alcoholism and mental illness in the family can shatter childhood innocence. Yet it would be worse if a child were left to her own devices trying to understand these diseases. With a trusted parent filtering information and answering questions, the likelihood is greater that the child will grow up with a realistic understanding of such illnesses.

Most important, communicate to your children that your mother can’t help herself, that alcoholism and mental illness are not flaws in her character but rather diseases. Consider attending a support group for family members of alcoholics and reading literature developed by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to:

Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists