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Successful Aging: When a grandparent should step in to help a grandchild

Q. I have a 16-year old granddaughter whose parents are going through a very difficult time in their marriage. This is affecting my granddaughter and I don’t know whether I should interfere. She has gone from straight A’s to D’s on her report card. Her parents don’t set boundaries or limits for her. For example, she spends too much time on her phone, does not complete her homework, stays up too late and consequently doesn’t get sufficient sleep, often misses school and is subject to her parents continuous fighting. I have a good relationship with my daughter, her husband and my granddaughter. I am not sure what role I should play or if I should be intervening. Your thoughts? E.R.

Dear E.R.

The good news of the situation you described is that you have a good relationship with your daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. That’s a positive starting point.

Some aspects of your granddaughter’s habits can easily apply to a large percent of teenagers. Forbes reports that teenagers in the U.S. spend about nine hours a day in front of a screen. The average amount of sleep they get is between seven and seven and a quarter hours. Studies show they need nine or more hours.

When it comes to young children, there seem to be some commonly accepted rules when grandparents should interfere: That is, rude behavior by the child; possible developmental delays that parents either don’t notice or choose to ignore; or poor nutrition caused by too many sweets and sodas.

And then there are the big ones that demand intervention: Physical or sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse or mental health issues and imminent harm to the child.

Under the best of conditions, being a teenager can be hard with all of the emotional and physical changes that occur. Dealing with parents in a stressful environment, the normal developmental changes that go with adolescence, the demands of school as well as the social aspects of being a teenager can lead to what is called a perfect storm.

There are two types of relationships that are relevant: between the grandparent and the teenage grandchild and between the grandparent and the adult parents.

Between grandparent and teenage grandchild: Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of teens, children, and families writes of several opportunities for grandparents to build a bond with their teenage grandchildren.

  • Focus on fun and play since the parents have already set the rules.

  • Let a teenage grandchild know how important he or she is to you.

  • Share a lifetime of experience and wisdom.Help a teenager understand his or her parents. One might share funny stories about them when they were teenagers or share family photos from over the years.

  • Offer a safe space when a teenager needs to relax, decompress and even get a bit spoiled.

One condition to intervene that is mentioned for a young child also applies to a teenager. That is the condition of “neglect.” My guess is that your daughter and son-in-law do not feel they are neglecting their daughter. Yet being ineffective or ignoring signals could be construed as a form of neglect. That rationale is good cause to intercede.

Between grandparents and adult parents: A number one rule for a grandparent is “don’t criticize.” The challenge is to have a conversation about concerns without blaming, judging or making the parent defensive. One approach is to ask your daughter and son-in-law how they think their daughter is doing, discussing some of the behaviors and possible causes. Share your observations and become a resource, a partner in helping to solve some of the problems.

Consider redefining your role. Could you be helpful with homework and then have a meal together? Could you have your granddaughter spend more time with you?

Also, be aware of the signs of depression. Your granddaughter might benefit from seeing a therapist or counselor and so might her parents.

We hope that your daughter and son-in-law will hear your comments, embrace you as a resource and make some changes. And hopefully, your granddaughter will respond well to these changes and take responsibility for her behavior. Ultimately, we hope she thrives. Such is a wish for all grandparents. We feel the hurt of a grandchild in our hearts.

Thank you E.R. for your good question. Your children are fortunate to have such a caring grandmother. Sending you and your family best wishes.

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