Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Should Grandparents Share Their Views on Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol?

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

Our two grandchildren have just – gasp! – entered their teen years. We’re hoping you can give us advice on talking with them about peer pressure and issues involving sex, drugs, and alcohol.

We are fortunate in that we are on the same page as their parents in these matters, but we also feel that as their grandparents we might have some different approaches and opportunities than what they have with their parents. And is it even our place to engage on these topics? Our grandchildren are very open with us, for example, when something happens in their lives they call to tell us, so we want to make sure these lines stay open. As far as we’re concerned they can always “blame” us and tell their friends, “Oh I couldn’t do that, my grandparents would kill me,” but that doesn’t seem like the best tactic.

Any and all advice is appreciated.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

You are correct in feeling that many grandparents hold exalted positions in the eyes of their grandchildren. As pointed out in an excellent pamphlet published by Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, “The Power of Grandparents: Grandparents Play an Important Role in Preventing their Grandchildren from Drinking and Using Drugs,” “Grandparents are cool. Relaxed. They’re not
 on the firing line every day. Some days a kid hates his folks. He never hates his grandparents . . . The same kid who cons his parents is ashamed to lie to Grandma or Grandpa . . . As a grandparent, you hold a special place in the hearts and minds of your grandchildren . . .”

That said, I applaud you and your husband for wanting to exercise caution in sharing your opinions and experiences with your grandchildren when it comes to the topic of peer pressures they are facing, or most likely will face. (For a quick, and perhaps distressing understanding of today’s peer pressure among young people, I recommend watching a seven-minute video from NBC News Today, “ ‘Teens Tell All’ In Candid Talks About Drugs, Sexting, Hooking Up: What Every Parent Needs to Know.” And, I hasten to add, what every grandparent needs to know.)

Parents are going to have varying positions on whether they want the grandparents involved in discussions with their children about various serious topics, depending on their parenting practices and the relationships involved. Options for the grandparents include: (1) No involvement; (2) Some involvement with preparation; (3) Free rein.

Check With the Parents First!

Even if you are pretty sure which of the three options applies to you, I urge you to double check with the parents first.

Here is a suggested statement to initiate the conversation between you and the parents: “If the grandchildren ever want to talk with us about drugs, sex, or alcohol, how would you like us to respond? Here are some possible responses of what we could say to them:

  1. We would rather you have these kinds of serious discussions with your parents. (No involvement)
  2. We’d be more comfortable doing some research and thinking before responding, so what are some of the things you’re interested in knowing more about? (Some involvement with preparation, and a chance to inform the parents)
  3. Tell us what’s on your mind and we’ll give you our thinking and comments.” (Free rein)

 I cannot over emphasize the need to check with the parents to get an idea of where they are vis-à-vis the three general areas of responses I suggest, even when you think you know how they’ll respond. Many a grandparent has rued the day they miscalculated the appropriateness of their involvement, perhaps being accused of crossing boundaries, and finding they jeopardized their relationship with their grandchildren’s parents. Some preliminary discussion about what’s acceptable and unacceptable is warranted, especially when it comes to sensitive issues that include parents’ values.

This point is reinforced by editor and writer Sarah Crow in an article titled, “50 Things Grandparents Should Never Do.” Her number 15 no-no reads: Offer life information without the parents’ permission. As Ms. Crow explains: “There are plenty of big life lessons you might want to share with your grandkids, but doing so without their parents’ permission is likely to land you in hot water. As much of a boon as it might seem to explain death or procreation to your grandchildren, if their parents don’t think it’s the right time, it’s your job to hold off.”

In short, with some preparation and communication with your grandchildren’s parents, when and if your grandchildren bring up some of the serious issues they’re dealing with, e.g., peer pressure, sex, drugs, and alcohol, you will hopefully find the right approach for your particular situation to be helpful in ways that maintain your intergenerational relationships and do not cross bounds.


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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