Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: What NOT to Say to Your Grandchildren!

upsetting grandchild
Photo by fizkes/shutterstock

This is an unabridged version of a column I wrote for GRAND Magazine.

Summertime, for many families, means more time together for grandparents and grandchildren. To help grandparents increase the chances that these special times with their grandchildren are comfortable and happy for everyone, I compiled a list of communication showstoppers – that is, things grandparents want to avoid saying to their grandchildren. I also include suggestions for what to say instead.

Yes, the grandchildren can push grandparents’ hot buttons, but not using certain phrases, such as the following, may head off some conflict.


  1. Don’t say, “It’s not that big a deal . . . that you weren’t invited to your friend’s birthday party . . . that you can’t go to overnight camp . . .” At that moment it is a very big deal to your grandchild, so instead say, “This must feel like such a huge disappointment to you.”
  2. Don’t say, “Let’s not tell your parents about . . . this purchase we made against their wishes . . . the movie we took you to see that they did not want you to see.” You never want to put your grandchildren in the position of keeping secrets from their parents.

    Instead, say, “We need to check this out with your mom and dad first.” It is okay to plan a surprise: “Let’s not say anything about your mom’s surprise party until party day.” Surprises are fine, whereas secrets have a conspiratorial feel to them.

  3. Don’t say, “Don’t you ever . . . use that rude tone of voice with me again . . . hit your sister again.” Instead, say, “Did you intend to hurt my feelings . . . hurt your sister and make her cry?” Give your grandchild a chance to say, “Yeah, but, I did it because you/she . . .” because then you have something you can talk about and work with.
  4. Don’t say, “Be grateful I’m not your mom/dad because I would . . . ground you for a month . . . make you clean you room right this minute . . . ” This kind of a statement calls into question the competence of your grandchildren’s parents, and can be confusing to your grandchildren because they love both you and their parents. Instead, get in touch with what is really bothering you, and say instead, “I am upset that you did such and such (e.g., smirked and rolled your eyes at me) because it makes me feel such and such (e.g., disrespected).”
  5. Don’t say, “When I was your age,” unless you are invited to share your experiences. Grandchildren often are very interested in your advice and experiences, but timing can be critical. Sometimes they are too upset or self focused to care what you have to say. Instead, say, “Would it be helpful if I told you about how it was for me when I was your age when a similar thing happened?” When the answer is yes, that is the time to share.
  6. Don’t say, “That’s not so bad. Let me tell you what your dad did when he was your age.” There’s no “Instead, say . . . ” for this one. You’ll have to find another way to soothe your upset grandchild without bringing up some youthful transgression committed by his mom or dad.

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    It is up to your grown children to speak for themselves and decide when and what to share about times when they were naughty or acted inappropriately. Do share the positive things, e.g., “Your dad always knew how to be a good friend. I’ve always respected that about him.”

  7. Don’t say, “What were you thinking . . . when you dyed your hair purple . . . got a nose stud . . .” Instead, take as many deep breaths as necessary until you are ready to say, “Help me understand . . . this is new for me . . . ”
  8. Don’t say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of . . . when the room is dark . . . going on that amusement park ride . . . ” The fear is real and should not be trivialized or minimized.

    Instead, say, “Can you explain exactly what you’re afraid of?” This acknowledges the fear and makes it possible to have a conversation. It’s important to feed back the fears to make sure you really get it: “You are afraid that if you go on that roller coaster it will break and you will fall and get hurt. Is that right?” Grandchild concurs, corrects, or expands your summary of the situation.

    This puts you in a stronger position to say, “What would need to happen for you to feel you would be safe on the roller coaster?” Maybe nothing at that point, so a ride on the roller coaster may have to be deferred. What’s important is that your grandchild knows you heard her and that you can be trusted to empathize. This helps guarantee more trusting interactions in the future.

Here’s hoping awareness and avoidance of the above communication show stoppers result in more enjoyable grandparent-grandchild interactions.

I close with a delightful example of how one little girl clearly expresses something that is upsetting her. She communicates exactly what is bothering her and why!

teenage habitual liar
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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