Helpful Hints for Grandparenting Teenagers

Making the Most of Your Special Role

teen granddaughter and her grandmother
Grandparents may have to work a little harder to bond with teens. Photo © Gurpal Singh Dutta | Getty Images

Teenagers have such a reputation for being difficult that even grandparents may be inclined to give them a little extra room. Ironically, however, teenagers need family relationships just as much as other children and may even have a special need for relationships with their grandparents. Since grandparents are one step away from parents, they can provide teenagers with a perspective that parents sometimes lack. Of course, grandparenting teens also presents pitfalls to be avoided if a grandparent is to maintain healthy relationships with both generations.

Here are some of the things grandparents can do:

Listen and empathize. Most of the time, when teenagers seek an ear, they want a sounding board, not solutions. Talking about situations in their lives can help them sort things out, even if the listener doesn’t say a word. Most grandparents, however, will want to insert a tiny observation or bit of advice now and then, which doesn’t hurt if done non-judgmentally.

Tell about similar experiences. Sometimes teenagers feel that they are the only ones with certain problems. Telling about a time when you or another relative had a similar problem can bring perspective. Keep the stories short, and be alert for signs that your teenager is uninterested. If he or she is uninterested, wind the story up quickly, as you probably are wasting your time.

Open up your heart and mind. Teenagers who are struggling with becoming adults often are hungry for discussions about current events, philosophy, love, politics, religion and the meaning of life. If you and your children disagree about politics or religion, don't demean the parents' point of view but feel free to explain your own.

Don’t criticize your teenager's appearance. You may not like or approve of your teenage grandchild’s manner of dressing, hair style or body ornamentation such as piercings, but stay mum. One of two things is true: either the parents have no problem with the issue, or they have are unable or unwilling to control it. In either case, you will be spinning your wheels if you criticize and possibly damaging your relationship with your grandchild as well. That doesn’t mean you can’t answer in a tactful way if your grandchild asks your opinion, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Do learn something about their world. Don't feel that you have to be fully conversant with your teenager's favorite TV shows, movies, music and culture, but do occasionally venture into their world. You might want to choose one TV show or one band that your grandchild likes that you can also relate to. Part of your appeal is that you are not another teenager, so don't compromise that. But sharing some of your teenager's culture shows that you regard the relationship as a two-way street.

Don’t be a party to bashing the parents. If a grandchild wishes to vent about his or her parents, it’s okay to listen, but don’t join in. In fact, it’s okay to gently remind the grandchild of the parents’ merits.

Don’t be a fink. If your grandchild tells you something, don’t pass it on to the parents unless it is a serious matter involving health or safety. It’s a good idea to get those guidelines established before they become an issue. Let your grandchild know that you will keep confidences unless doing so will put him or her at risk.

Be aware of messages you send through gifts. A granddaughter who loves clothes may love a new sweater, but if you give her a book, you are saying that you know she has a serious side as well.

Be interested in their education. Ask questions about their classes. Show interest in grades. Open a dialogue about their post-secondary plans. You may want to volunteer to go on college visits with older grandchildren.

Support your grandchildren in their extra curricular activities. Due to distance or other conditions, you may not be able to attend all their sporting events or other performances, but go when you can. If attending sporting events, follow the rules of good sportsmanship. Contribute to fundraisers if you are financially able.

Feed their bodies. Teenagers love to eat, and eating together can be a bonding experience. Cook for them if you like to cook, but eating out or getting takeout will work as well. Do encourage healthful eating habits, but do so through the foods you offer and by being a good role model, not by criticizing their food preferences.

Allow grandchildren to help you. Being given a job to do can be satisfying for grandchildren, although they may be initially resistant. Offer a suggestion such as, "How about setting the table while I make the salad?" It's especially gratifying to your teen if he or she can help you learn to do something, like downloading music or playing a video game.

Finally, stay current with technology as much as possible. It's great to need a little help in the tech arena, and grandchildren are usually happy to assist. Don't be negative or dismissive about their technology habits, or you risk alienating them. Besides, teens are unlikely to change their ways. A better option is to explore using technology to stay connected with your teen grandchildren.