Even if you're not a parent, you can play a significant role in a kid's life. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, mentors and coaches can all help guide a child toward healthy choices at every stage of life.
For younger children, you can reinforce messages about eating healthy and staying active. And, as kids get older, your advice can help steer them toward positive decisions when they're up against tough choices. Wondering how you can build a better relationship with the child in your life? Put the following tips to work—and enjoy the benefits for years to come.
You have a conversational leg up on most people in your grandchild's life; you have the inside scoop on what his parents were like as kids! Help take the pressure to be perfect off of kids by telling them stories of their own parents' shortcomings when they were younger. The fact that Dad didn't make the varsity soccer team but discovered he loved to draw soon after can be a big boost to your grandchild's own self-esteem.
Aunts and Uncles
As kids get older, they tend to think that their aunts and uncles are somehow just a bit cooler than their parents. After all, they usually get to stay up past bedtime at your house, and the no-soda rule? It's out the window. The cool factor you possess can help your niece or nephew feel comfortable opening up to you. Let your niece know that unless you think she's in danger, the things she talks to you about will stay just between the two of you. The best way to find out if something is bothering a tween or teen? "Keep it simple," says family therapist Dr. Jane Greer. An easy conversation starter: "You don't seem like yourself lately. Things going okay?"
Coaches and Mentors
Since coaches and mentors typically get to know kids in performance-related activities, from sports to the school newspaper to debate team, they can notice changes in behavior and motivation. Use those changes as an opportunity to talk to the child you know and find out what's going on in his or her life. If a child seems off his game or is just acting out of sorts, pull him and ask questions like "What's going on today?" or "How come you're not paying attention?" suggests Bob Caruso, CFO of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and a basketball coach for teens. If you're not satisfied with the answer or your concerns continue, call the primary caregivers to see if they too have noticed any changes in their child.
From a Distance: Out-of-Town Relatives
You may not get to see your niece, nephew or grandchild every day, but for long-distance relatives, the conversational opportunities still abound. From the time kids are small, ask to speak to them on the phone, and as they grow, let them know they can always call you to talk. Once the child has an email address, write to him/her regularly with questions about his or her life. A simple "How was school today?" or "I love when you tell me stories about things you do with your friends" shows your young relative that you want to know what's going on in his or her life. And don't forget: kids of all ages love to get mail—especially if they're too young for an email account. Let them know you're thinking about them on a regular basis by sending a note their way that says, "Have a happy week," "I'm proud of you!" or simply, "I'm thinking about you."
If You're Worried
"I think it's a really essential part of children's upbringing to have other significant adults—a teacher, extended family, older siblings—that they know they can be open and be themselves with. It gives them room to be real, to have the space to really express themselves, and to develop free from any judgment or fear of punishment."
— Jane Greer, Ph.D.,
marriage and family therapist
Worried about the child in your life? Then it's important that you talk to him, says Dr. Greer. "If you are concerned that there is something going on, be very genuine and very open and say, 'Hey, how are you doing? Is everything okay? You seem a little not yourself. You seem a little low energy. Anything we can talk about?' And then you might throw out a question or two, 'How are things going with your friends?' or 'How are things going on the dating scene?' depending on how much that niece or nephew has already shared with you."
"If the child is not ready to talk," says Greer, "continue by saying, 'Okay, I'm just going to check in and, of course, you know I'm here.' And then take the responsibility to make the phone calls, to send the emails, to stop by for the visits so that she not only hears that you're there for her but really feels that you're there for her and sees it."
But if you're truly worried and feel there's a real problem, like drug use or depression, it's better to be safe than sorry. While you want to maintain the trust you've developed with the child, his/her safety must come first. Contact his or her parent to share your concerns and see if there's any way you can help.
If you have regular interaction with a child, you'll be able to observe changes in behavior that could signify a mental health issue or problem with drugs and alcohol.
For more information about signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use, please visit our Drug Guide.