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Bridge the Gap with Teen Grandkids

True or false: Grandparents hold a special place in their grandchildren's lives -- until the kids become teenagers.

If you said "true," then let the experts on grandparenting set the record straight. "Sometimes we just assume that older people and teenagers don't want to be around each other," says Donna M. Butts, executive director of Generations United, which promotes positive interaction between generations. "It may take patience and acceptance to develop that relationship, but if you can get past the stereotypes, you see that both ages need to feel needed, listened to and acknowledged."

That's quite true, says Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting and author of several books on grandparenting, including The Grandparent Solution. He notes that today's teens spend a lot of time with each other but are often isolated from older adults.

"You might say there's an 'elder hunger' for the wisdom of older people. When grandparents share their time and life stories with adolescents, they also share their heart and spirit. That's a powerful and rewarding experience for both generations."

If you want to develop a closer relationship with teen grandchildren, the key is arranging for one-on-one time, without parents in the picture. "When you can spend that individual time with your grandkids, that's when the magic happens," says Dr. Kornhaber. "When a parent is present, there's a different dynamic, and the grandparent can get lost." Taking a day trip or learning a new activity together offers great bonding opportunities. Here are some suggestions:

  • Explore the world from each other's perspective. Take a field trip to a neighborhood where you grew up to see what's there now. If you have photos of what it looked like years ago, share them and talk about how it has changed. Likewise, ask your grandchildren to show you their school, favorite store or hangout. Discuss what each of you enjoys and dislikes about your life now and in the past. How have times changed or stayed the same? When you can, attend your grandchildren's school functions or athletic events and cheer them on.

  • See a movie, play or sporting event together. Before you pick an activity, make sure it suits your grandchild's interests. Afterward, go out to eat and discuss what you watched. Ask for your grandchild's opinion and listen closely without interrupting.

  • Get back to nature. Go hiking, fishing or sightseeing in an area that offers a change of scenery. Take pictures to remember favorite spots and your time together. Use the quiet time to begin a relaxed dialogue. Ask about some of your grandchild's favorite things: music, food, TV show, vacation spot, role model and dreams for the future.

  • Volunteer together. Find a common interest -- such as a love of animals or concern for the environment -- then volunteer your time with a related nonprofit group. Do you both have a flair for the dramatic? An intergenerational drama troupe may welcome your talents. Look for volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood that interest you both.

  • Teach each other. If your grandchild is a computer whiz, ask for help learning to use the Internet or setting up a personal website where you can share family stories or history. Offer to teach your grandchild how to knit or paint or cook a favorite family recipe. Play some music and demonstrate favorite dance moves.

 

If your teenage grandchild seems quiet or slow to warm up to you, be patient. It takes time to build a meaningful relationship. Adolescence is often a time of turmoil, but that makes a grandparent's role even more important, says Dr. Kornhaber. "To teens, the unconditional love and acceptance they receive from grandparents provides a natural sanctuary from stress at home or at school."

What if your own grandchildren live too far away for regular visits? Consider volunteering your time with youngsters locally, through a school district, community mentoring program or youth center.

"We call that 'caring where you can,'" Butts says. "It means so much to both generations, even if younger kids don't fully realize it at the time. In later years, that time together will become a treasured memory."