Having Better Conversations with Your Teen Grandchildren

Parenting or grandparenting a teen can be hard. Yet research shows that teens often trust — and confide in — their grandparents more than anyone else. Why? Grandparents so often just listen. Listen and ask questions based on what they hear.

Rabbi Jonathan Saks says that the Hebrew verb sh’ma (listen, hear, heed, pay attention to, understand) appears 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy [mostly in the context of Jewish law and belief in God]. He writes that “… in Judaism listening is a deeply spiritual act,” “the very act of listening is a form of respect,” and “listening is a profound affirmation of the humanity of the other.”

Here are 6 steps to having better conversations with your teen grandchild.
They are adapted for grandparents from The School of Hard Talks by Dr. Emily Kline and team (see credits at end).

1. Just listen
Grandparents often win teens’ trust when they ask rather than tell. Teens, just like adults, want to be heard and not criticized or blamed. They want to feel capable and confident in their abilities and to take charge of their lives. Grandparents are in a unique position to respectfully and non-judgmentally hear their teens’ thoughts and feelings.

2. Fight the Righting Reflex
The Righting Reflex is the impulse to fix your teen grandchild’s problem or to point out solutions. Or when we minimize their problem and tell them not to worry or insist that their view isn’t right. We do this because we hate to see them struggle, feel upset, or do things that could negatively impact their physical or mental well-being.

Instead, allow your teen to figure out a solution. You might say any of the following, “How do you want to handle it?” “It sounds like you are feeling overwhelmed.” “Tell me more.” “Help me understand what’s getting in the way of ____.”

3. Use reflections
A reflection is a statement, not a question. It reflects back what you heard your teen say. A good reflection will help your teen feel understood. It also gives you a chance to make sure you understand what they were saying.

For example, the teen might say, “Why do I always have to help fold the laundry? I have a million chores. My sister never helps with anything.”

There are three different types of reflections:

    1. Simple reflections repeat back what you just heard using similar words. (“You feel as if you have a million chores.”)
    2. Complex reflections take an educated guess at what the other person might mean but is not saying aloud. (“You feel it’s unfair.”)
    3. Feelings reflections focus on the emotions that the other person might be trying to convey. (“You feel as if Mom/Dad/I treat you and your sister differently and it upsets you.”)

4. Ask curious questions
Try to use open-ended questions that show you want to understand what your teen is saying. Here are some examples: “What do you wish I knew?” “What is your biggest concern?” “What do you see as the pros and cons?” “What do you enjoy about video games?”

These are not yes or no questions or a question your grandchild can get wrong. These questions are not threatening nor judgmental; for example, you might say, “Help me understand why English class has been so rough this year” vs “what’s your current grade in English?”

Ask powerful questions that tap into your grandchild’s values. Some examples: “What is most important to you?” “Help me understand what this means to you.”

5. Use affirmations
Affirmations are a special kind of reflection in which you call attention to the value or strength underlying your child’s words and behavior. Affirmations help to build your child’s confidence and are a nice opportunity to express your love and admiration without getting an eye-roll in response. For example, “That was a tough one, but you figured it out.”

Affirmations don’t evaluate whether your teen met your expectations; they are not praise.

Some examples:
“You are so smart” (praise) vs “you studied really hard and it paid off” (affirmation).
“You’re a good kid for calling me” (praise) vs “it was really kind of you to take time to call me” (affirmation).

6. Help your teen find solutions
Once you’re sure your grandchild is feeling understood, it may be time to start encouraging them to find solutions. Solution-focused questions can elicit their own ideas about how they might approach their dilemma. Here are two great solution-focused questions. “How do you want to handle that?” “What have you already tried?” Perhaps brainstorm by asking, “What else might work?”

If you need to give advice, gauge their interest by asking explicitly, “can I make a suggestion?” If they agree, after offering your advice or suggestion hand back control by asking, “so what do you think you’ll do next?” The more attentively you listened as they vented or described the problem, the more likely they will be to accept your recommendation.

Our sacred text Pirkei Avot 2:1 asks, which is the “straight path” that we — in this case, our teens — should choose for ourselves? The answer: A path that honors the person choosing it, and that brings honor to others.

A note from Dr. Emily Kline:

Grandparents have the advantage of loving their grandchildren without holding the weight and worry of parents. That’s why grandparents can offer treats like an extra cookie or late bedtime; they know the kids will turn out just fine in the end. As children become teens and then adults, you can “spoil” them with nonjudgmental attention, careful listening, and confidence that they will find their way. 

The School of Hard Talks was created by Dr. Emily Kline and the Motivational Interviewing for Loved Ones (MILO) lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Medical Center in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) Children’s Behavioral Health Knowledge Center. 

This course is a resource for busy parents looking to improve their relationships with their teen and young adult children.

Dr. Emily Kline is a psychologist at Boston Medical Center and an Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. She is the author of the upcoming book Lessons from the School of Hard Talks: How to Have Real Conversations with Your Kids.

Photographic Credits
Photographs of teen girls and father and son (bottom)
 courtesy of Pexels
Other photographs by Stephanie Fink