Teens speak a different language, dress in weird costumes, and have their heads perpetually wired to a wide array of audio/visual devices. They're also faced with very different challenges and problems than you were at their age.
Despite this seemingly huge gap between your experiences, experts say that 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 kid as parents do," says Annie Fox, EdD, author of
Can You Relate? Real-World Advice for Teens on Guys, Girls, Growing Up, and Getting Along
and the alter-ego of teen cyberadvice columnist Hey Terra! Because of this position, you can serve as a sounding board, sympathetic ear, and trusted confidante to the teenagers in your life.
"Grandparents will probably have more time to sit and listen than a parent will, especially in a two-career family. It's often an enviable relationship," says Fox.
Creating a good relationship with your teenage grandchild isn't much different from getting along with anyone of any age. "The number one thing [to try to create] is a mutual respect between the teen and the grandparent," says Vickie Beck, a child and adolescent clinical nurse specialist with the University of Maryland and Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
One of the key things to remember, Beck says, is that teens are yearning for independence. The more authority figures crack down, the more they pull away. As a result, she recommends the "50/50 rule"—are you 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're not being judgmental. You don't need an agenda, says Fox. Just 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. "Communication is very much a two-way street," reminds Beck. "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're listening to, who they choose as friends, and what activities they're involved in, Fox recommends. Though your grandkids may seem to belong to a different world to which you can't possibly relate, don't discount your ability to connect. If you approach them with sincere interest and maintain an open mind, you'll likely find teens are willing to share and pleased at your interest, she adds.
When you're involved in a three-way relationship—you, your child and your grandchild—things can get a little tricky. Experts say it's important for you to realize where your responsibilities as a grandparent stop and the parent's responsibilities begin.
That means you'll need to keep your distance (and hold your tongue) on many issues. "The area of discipline should not fall into your lap. It's not your kid," reminds Fox. One exception: you have the right to set and enforce the house rules when kids are visiting at your home, says Beck.
Keeping your distance doesn't mean you have to keep your mouth perpetually shut; it means you support your son's or daughter's role as a parent. "You never want to undermine a parent's authority in front of a kid," says Fox. 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 decreed. "Don't put the kid in the middle. He'll just get confused," Fox explains.
If you do a good job relating to your teen, you may very 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 adds, "But don't tell Mom and Dad—they'll kill me!"?
Knowing when to keep secrets and when to break your silence can be a tough call, but your grandchild's emotional and physical safety takes priority over confidentiality. "When it comes to any potential safety or health issue, there is no issue of confidentiality," maintains Fox. "This may be the only chance you get to intervene."
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, says Beck, "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 in a mixed-up and dangerous world, says Beck.