Teens speak a different language, dress in trendy clothing, and have their heads perpetually wired to a wide array of audio and visual devices. They are also faced with different challenges and problems than you were at their age.
Despite this seemingly huge gap between your experiences, grandparents can and should connect with their teenage grandchildren. Grandparents can be a voice of love, experience, and reason, without the judgmental approach that colors so many interactions between teens and their parents.
There's an advantage to being a grandparent. Grandparents don't feel the same urgency to mold a child as parents do. Because of this position, you can serve as a sounding board, sympathetic ear, and trusted confidante to the teenagers in your life. Grandparents often have more time to sit and listen than a parent will, especially in a two-career family.
Creating a good relationship with your teenage grandchild isn't much different from getting along with anyone of any age. The most important thing to foster is a mutual respect between you and your teen grandchild.
One of the key things to remember is that teens are yearning for independence. The more authority figures crack down, the more they pull away. Ask yourself if you are correcting, criticizing, or directing them more than 50% of the time. If so, back off and make sure you have an equal amount of neutral interactions where you are not being judgmental. Try to connect with your grandchild on mutual ground.
Don't take it for granted that you're a good conversationalist just because you can talk to your grandkids for hours on end. You need to be able to listen, too. In order to understand teenagers, you've got to understand what's going on with them. And that means asking questions and listening to the answers.
Express interest in what they are doing, what music they are listening to, who they choose as friends, and what activities they enjoy. Though your grandkids may seem to belong to a different world to which you cannot possibly relate, don't discount your ability to connect. If you approach them with sincere interest and maintain an open mind, you will likely find teens are willing to share and are pleased by your interest.
When you are involved in a three-way relationship—you, your child and your grandchild—things can get a little tricky. Experts say it is important for you to realize where your responsibilities as a grandparent stop and the parent's responsibilities begin.
That means you will need to keep your distance on many issues. The area of discipline should not fall into your lap. However, you do have the right to set and enforce house rules when your grandchildren are visiting your home.
Keeping your distance doesn't mean you have to keep your mouth perpetually shut. It means you support your son or daughter's role as a parent. Avoid undermining a parent's authority in front of a child. If you have concerns about your grandchild's behavior or his parent's choices, bring them up with the parent in a private and in a way that is not confrontational.
Other taboos? Commenting in a negative manner on a parenting decision or suggesting that your grandchild disregard what the parent has just decided.
If you do a good job relating to your teen, you may well find yourself in the esteemed position of friend. That's terrific when things are going well, but what do you do when your 16-year-old granddaughter confides that she thinks she's pregnant, and then asks you not to tell her parents?
Knowing when to keep secrets and when to break your silence can be a tough call, but your grandchild's emotional and physical safety take priority over confidentiality.
If you're faced with one of these situations, let your grandchildren know they have a choice. They can break the news to their parents, or you'll do it. And if they force your hand, let them know up-front you're going to let their parents know. You may risk your friendship with the child, but the safety of the child has to come first.
Despite the possible pitfalls, grandparenting a teen is a special role. Cherish it. You provide a sense of continuity and history. You provide reassurance and comfort while your grandchild navigates situations in life.
Foundation for Grandparenting
Mental Health America
Mental Health Canada
Getting along better by understanding individual differences. Foundation for Grandparenting website. Available at: http://grandparenting.org/resource/getting-along-better-by-understanding-individual-differences/. Accessed October 17, 2013.
Grandparents as spiritual guides. Foundation for Grandparenting website. Available at: http://grandparenting.org/resource/grandparents-as-spiritual-guides/. Accessed October 17, 2013.
Grandparents/grandchildren—a spiritual connection. Foundation for Grandparenting website. Available at: http://grandparenting.org/resource/grandparentsgrandchildren-a-spiritual-connection/. Accessed October 17, 2013.
How to be a better grandparent: tips on building great relationships with your grandkids. HelpGuide.org website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grandparenting.htm. Accessed October 17, 2013.
Last reviewed October 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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