In the intricate tapestry of contemporary family life, an ever-growing number of grandparents find themselves assuming the crucial role of primary caregivers to their grandchildren. This shift in family dynamics, where grandparents become the guiding figures for teenagers, reflects the evolving nature of our societies. As these resilient grandparents navigate the challenges of parenting adolescents, their experiences offer profound insights into the unique journey they undertake. From our vantage point as social gerontology and senior behaviour experts based in Bangalore, we recognise the significance of this phenomenon and aim to share practical tips and empathetic guidance. This preface sets the stage for a firsthand exploration of the complexities involved, providing a supportive resource for grandparents facing the intricate task of nurturing and connecting with their teenage grandchildren.
Within these pages, we delve into the nuanced landscape of intergenerational relationships, offering a glimpse into the lives of grandparents who find themselves in the midst of teenage turbulence. The shared wisdom, gleaned from firsthand encounters, aims to resonate with those grappling with the demands of modern family structures. Through the lens of social gerontology and senior behaviour expertise, we invite readers to glean valuable insights, drawing strength and inspiration from the stories of grandparents facing the unique challenges posed by adolescent grandchildren.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

Becoming a grandparent is a remarkable experience, offering a fulfilling and sometimes a life-changing role. The initial months and years with your grandchild are filled with joy, relishing this new phase. However, gone are the days of rocking them in a swing or walking them to nursery. Now, when your grand children are entering adolescence you navigate the challenges of nearly grown-up individuals dealing with relationships, exams, bikes, and more. Despite their independence, you desire to stay involved. Explore ways to maintain a warm relationship with your grandchild and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

The bond between grandparents and grandchildren holds unique significance, contributing significantly to the family’s dynamics. In earlier times, grandparents provided stability, a sense of security, and steadfast support, positively impacting their grandchildren’s self-esteem, academic performance, and social standards.

However, the dynamics have shifted in the present era, especially as grandchildren transition into their teenage years. Many grandparents find it challenging to connect with their teenage grandchildren, exacerbated by physical distance. The once lively and communicative grandchild often transforms into a more reserved teenager, responding with brief, one-word answers. Conversations that once flowed effortlessly now feel strained and awkward, leading to a perceived drift in the special connection over time, especially as the grandchildren reach adulthood.

Many roadblocks like communication barriers, differing cultures and generational gaps add up to alienation between grandparents and their teenage grandchildren. But according to elder behaviour expert, Judy Parnes, this challenge can be overcome. “Lack of wisdom is a major drawback in our current society,” she told us in a telephonic interview. “That’s where grandparents have a role to play and, most importantly, engage. Yes, both parties should make an effort.”

A few years ago, we encountered a unique case of ‘grandparent-grandchild conflict.’ Janakiraman, an 88-year-old retired government doctor, lived alone in Mettur following his wife’s passing. Despite his mental faculties being intact, mobility issues made walking difficult. His son, the CEO of a TATA company, insisted on Janakiraman relocating to Bangalore after his mother’s death. Initially resistant, Janakiraman eventually agreed to the move under the mounting pressure from his son.

The challenge emerged a few days later when Janakiraman’s teenage granddaughters, unaccustomed to their Thatha’s presence, felt as if they were sharing the house with a stranger. Initial frustration escalated into intense conflict, with the girls and their mother insisting on Janakiraman’s departure. Though it wasn’t his business, Thatha felt uneasy about the girls wearing shorts and their overall behaviour, leading to the escalation of the conflict. Eventually, Janakiraman conceded to living in a care home, devoid of the family warmth he once knew.

Elders like Janakiraman need to recognise that times have changed, and cultural norms may differ between their upbringing and that of their grandchildren. Due to the ‘generation gap,’ disagreements may arise over how they dress or choose to live. It’s crucial to be non-judgmental, allowing teenagers to make their own choices just as you did. Expressing unwavering support lets them know you’re there for advice, friendship, and comfort, fostering a better connection.

Recently, a family of four from New Orleans arrived to admit their mother to our care home. When asked about their previous visits to Bangalore, they mentioned it was seven years ago due to the kids growing up. Both grandkids are now teenage girls, posing a challenge for many ‘new-generation’ grandparents who struggle to connect over distances, just like the family mentioned above.

An 82-year-old, Vandana Prabhu, faced the denial of seeing her only grandchild once she entered her teenage years. Karun Kamath, citing mosquito allergies, had valid reasons for keeping the daughter away. Now, that grandchild is married with two kids. Despite this, Mrs. Prabhu has accepted her ‘aloofness’ without expressing any discontent. In today’s world, numerous grandparents experience the unfortunate reality of being denied the opportunity to see their grandchildren due to vast distances and continents apart.

Is this the norm? Let’s hear from Karthick in Pune. “My grandparents have consistently gone out of their way to spend time with us since we were small, actively engaging in various activities. This has created a lasting bond, making us want to continue hanging out with them over the years, even as our circle of friends has expanded,” he shares. Reflecting on the past, Karthick recalls the days when his grandparents owned two textile shops in Basavangudi, South Bangalore. During school holidays, they would invite all four grandkids to spend the day, enjoying ice cream on MG Road and visiting Mysore together. Karthick cherishes these memories of hanging out with his cousins and grandpa.

“Despite being from an older generation, both grandma and grandpa strive to connect with us on a personal level, often tying our conversations back to the fact that I’m from Gen Z. They approach us as equals, showing genuine interest in our lives. Grandpa’s advice on staying relevant to teenagers is to adopt a mindset similar to ours when we’re together. As a cricket enthusiast, my conversations with grandma often revolve around matches and cricketers. This approach not only preserves fond memories but also inspires ongoing and meaningful conversations with our grandparents,” Karthick concludes, highlighting the positive impact of their relationship.

My grandparents reside along the Achenkoil river and had created a fantastic ‘grandkids space’ in our ancestral home, complete with a trampoline and a basketball ring with a board for us to hang out and play together during our visits. On holidays, we have the delightful opportunity to cruise on country boats. Nanny, known for her traditional Kerala dishes, surprises us with impromptu lunches. She’ll casually suggest, ‘Let’s meet at the ‘Engine Thara’ for pothichoru and evening snacks.’ Joshua, recalling his teenage years, shares, ‘My father allowed me to stay back in Mavelikkara for about six months, and that’s how I developed a deep connection with my grandparents.’

“In our childhood, my maternal grandmother would attend our swimming lessons by the river and share coffee afterward, her way of staying engaged in our lives. Joshua, now 51, considers his grandparents the best. However, he laments the changing times as he expresses regret for his kids missing out on similar experiences. Fortunately, technology helps bridge the gap, maintaining relationships despite the distance. Joshua’s parents, U.S. citizens and earlier settlers in the U.S., retired and resettled in Kerala. Despite the physical distance, they’ve made seven trips to the U.S. to visit their grandkids, fostering a close bond between grandparents and grandchildren.”

Leveraging her extensive experience with elders and their families, Judy, a highly regarded social gerontologist in the New Jersey area, possesses the insight to restore structure to families. According to Judy, a critical challenge faced by many teens today is the lack of relationships, often resulting in negative behavioural patterns like distancing from families, especially extended ones.

“It’s a reality that kids communicate differently now. They are glued to their phones or engrossed in TV shows,” she observes. Ironically, despite this, they yearn for someone to be a voice of encouragement and provide a place of solace. Judy urges grandparents not only to be a source of wisdom but also to listen actively to their grandchildren.

“I suggest grandparents emphasise listening to their grandchild’s heart with the intention of understanding, not responding or criticising,” she advises. According to Judy, when grandparents take this approach, everything else falls into place. Unfortunately, she notes that many grandparents tend to impose their views and criticise. Being non-judgmental allows you to eventually share your perspective naturally when your grandchildren seek it. Judy concludes, “What you deposit into their hearts during their teen years will make the difference,” emphasising the importance of thoughtful guidance.

Grandparenting your young grandson or granddaughter isn’t just beneficial for the child; it also brings numerous rewards to grandparents. Statistics highlight that grandparents with a healthy relationship with their grandchildren tend to live longer and experience fewer battles with depression and other mental health issues. The positive influence of adult interaction in a teenager’s life is crucial, and grandparents play a vital role in that support system. Karthick and Joshua exemplify a generation that values and cherishes the legacy of their grandparents.

Being present in their lives makes all the difference in the world,” summarises Judy Parness, offering the following advice:
1. Allow your kids to parent their kids, respecting boundaries and roles. Love your grandkids unconditionally and be supportive to the parents rather than adding difficulty.
2. Show genuine interest in your grandchildren’s world and the current situations they are navigating. 3. Your wealth of experience holds significant value; apply it to their present situations to capture their attention, fostering a connection and transferring your wisdom to them.
4. Embrace the reality of the ultra-modern AI era you live in; while there might be aspects to complain about, avoid criticising today’s world and the younger generation excessively. Refrain from playing the ‘back in my day’ card too frequently.
5. Be an influential presence in their lives.