Has Your Teen Grandchild Gone Wild?

Teens are natural risk-takers, but their decisions could take them into a danger zone.

By Julie D. Andrews

Spring break is around the bend. As much as it's come to symbolize carefree fun in the sun, the words have also become synonymous with off-the-hook partying. With time off from school and time away from parents' watchful eyes, grandchildren will face heaps of temptation and peer pressure to try new, even risky, things.

A 2006 American Medical Association poll of female college students and recent graduates shows 83 percent of respondents agreeing that more alcohol guzzling occurs at spring-break getaways than on college campuses. What's more, an estimated one in seven revelers at spring-break party destinations is a high-school student.

"Children could start experimenting with risky behaviors as young as 11 years old," says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., who specializes in counseling teens and tweens. "We have this sense that experimenting is okay, but even trying for the first time can be risky for a child."

Grandparent: Keeper of Secrets

Often, grandparents are privy to information about a teen grandchild that parents are not. "As grandparents, we're removed from the daily grind. We don't have to discipline or nag," says Lillian Carson, Ph.D., who authored The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference (HCI). "If you have a good relationship with your grandchildren, and they trust you, they're going to tell you things they won't tell their parents," says the grandmother of six from Santa Monica, Calif.

Grandparents are also less shockable, adds Dr. Carson. "We've been there, done that, seen a lot of things. Grandparents have the perspective to know that certain things aren't the end of the world," she says. "Especially if a child makes a mistake or experiments with alcohol or sex or even drugs. Their children may have done it. They may have even done it themselves."

In fact, sharing your own stories about growing up, the challenges you faced, even the trouble you got into, may invite confessions from a teen grandchild.

Thinking back to her parenting days, Dr. Carson recalls a streak of rebellion running through her daughter who, as a teen, continued to hitchhike despite her mother's warnings against it.

"It was only after my mother told her the story of how she once got into a man's car, and became white with fear after he flashed her, that my adventurous daughter agreed to stop taking rides from strangers," she says. "Grandma's words took on a different flavor and sounded less worried than my pleas and demands that were depreciated by my daughter."

A grandparent's influence, says Dr. Carson, is tremendously important as teens start pushing away from their parents as to discover their own identity.

Responsibility Remixed

Parents may feel a responsibility, says Dr. Carson, that grandparents don't. "If kids tell parents they cut school or had sex or tried alcohol, parents are supposed to do something about it. They'll wonder — 'What did we do wrong?'" Whereas grandparents, she says, are more able to just listen and observe.

"Teens should experience things. I'm not advocating drug use or sex, but teens are impulsive," she says. "They don't have the best judgment — their cerebral cortex isn't fully developed. We have to expect that they will try new things."

It's this kind of acceptance that may prompt a teen to confess things to a grandparent that he fears his parents would disapprove of — or "freak out about."

Curious Vs. Dangerous Behavior

If a child is talking to you about trying new things that sound risky to you, try to gauge if it was a first-time, one-time-only experience or if the behavior seems more frequent, suggests Dr. Bartell. If a teen grandchild's actions are bordering on dangerous: Investigate. Ask what it felt like. Ask if he or she liked it. Ask if they'd try it again. And look for these warning signs, suggests Dr. Bartell, to determine if your teen grandchild may be creeping into the danger zone. Is he or she:

• Suddenly confiding in you about risky behavior much more often?
• Displaying abrupt shifts in personality — from outgoing to withdrawn, moody, angry?
• Lying, especially to parents? You may see more than in-denial parents!
• Showing a dramatic drop in academic performance?
• Changing friends, going from hanging with the "good" to the "bad" kids?
• Sleeping more?

A Grandparent's Plan of Action

If you get a gut feeling that things just aren't right, go with it. Parents may not want to believe their child is doing anything wrong, but you may know or see exactly what your grandchildren are doing. If you're concerned, as a trusted grandparent you can find yourself in a tough spot. You don't want to feel powerless over your grandchild's well-being. You also don't want to jeopardize your relationship with a grandchild. Here's the plan of action Dr. Carson recommends:

1. Explain to a grandchild that his or her actions are scaring you. (Read up on drugs and describe specifically how they're dangerous).
3. Give your grandchild a chance to tell the parents what's going on, offering your full support.
4. If the teen isn't willing to do that, tell your grandchild you'll have to tell them.
5. After you've told your grandchild, step it up, risk the relationship, talk to the parents.

May the Force Be With You

There's no denying that grandparents are in a tough position, says Dr. Bartell. "But you have to keep your grandchild's health first in your mind. Figure out the difference between light experimenting and a serious problem." You'd only want to break your grandchild's confidence in the latter case, she says, and then only after you give him the option of telling his parents.

Both experts agree you should never go behind a grandchild's back in what could be perceived as tattling to parents. Stress to your grandchild that it is because you're concerned — about falling grades, or how often he or she is taking risks, or about his or her moodiness or anger — that you want to make sure he or she is safe. "Let them know you love them entirely too much," says Dr. Bartell, "to let anything bad happen to them."

*Additional reporting by Judy Harch

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