En español | Like many grandparents, Jackie Dishner spent the 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions doing only occasional drive-by visits or video chats with her four grandchildren. So when she finally got to go inside one of their homes, her 4-year-old granddaughter assumed she didn't know her way around. Making a sweeping gesture with her arm, she announced she could guide her grandmother to the bathroom.
"She forgot I knew where their bathroom was, “ says Dishner, who lives in Phoenix. “They're young, so it's crazy how much kids grow in a year.”
Dishner's experience illustrates how the pandemic's forced separation left its mark in both minor and major ways. Many grandparents missed more than a year of their grandchildren's lives or only got to watch it unfold on FaceTime or Zoom. And now as they reconnect, their grandchildren are not who they were in March 2020.
The pre-pandemic toddler has become a confident preschooler. The goofy middle schooler has turned into a sullen teenager. And the teenager is a college student, perhaps sporting a new tattoo.
"People are having to find each other again,” says Lisa Ibekwe, a licensed clinical social worker, anger management specialist and CEO at the Comfy Place, a therapy practice in the Atlanta area. Even those who once had close relationships may need to get to know each other again, because “the reality is we've all been closed off for so long that a lot of people have come out of this experience different.”
That includes grandchildren. Grandparents trying to reconnect with their grandchildren need to start by accepting that everyone has been changed by the pandemic, Ibekwe says. A year is a long time in a child's life, even in “normal” times — kids gain new skills, find new interests, move into another developmental stage. They may not connect with grandparents the same way they used to. And they also may have experienced pandemic-induced trauma.
Grandparents are also different people than they were before COVID-19 and might react differently, in good or difficult ways, to their grandchildren.
"Nobody's going to come out of it the same person they were when they went in — even the youngest child who seems like life has maintained some type of normalcy,” Ibekwe says. “Because of how the brain works, everybody is going to be modified from this experience."
Grandparents play an important role
Changes brought on the pandemic may be particularly difficult for kids because their brains are different from those of adults; children don't always have the language or vocabulary to express their anxiety or isolation, Ibekwe says. Instead, they express themselves through style or behavior, which might be very different than it was a year ago.
Grandparents, however, can be critical to the pandemic recovery process, she says. “Grandparents get to be that extra support. It's like that soft pillow on the bed you always kind of go to.”
Grandparents need to be good listeners and validate their grandchildren's feelings, Ibekwe adds. Don't be offended if a grandchild's tastes have changed and they no longer love your special recipe, or they've entered the teen years and no longer want to take a walk with you. “Make sure that as you're interacting with the child, they feel heard, they feel seen," Ibekwe says. That empowers children to advocate for themselves, she says.
Grandparents also need to reassure children who might be worried about another pandemic or another round of social distancing restrictions, she says. “As a grandparent, you are supporting them and loving them and just helping ease the anxiety in their system by being present, by keeping in touch, by checking on them, by just letting them know that they're loved,” Ibekwe says.
How can you apply Ibekwe's advice to reconnect with your grandkids? Here are some suggestions from her and other experts:
1. Be patient and persistent but not pushy
Jane Greenberg, a retired psychologist who lives in suburban Philadelphia and has five grandchildren, wanted to reconnect with her 22-month-old granddaughter by riding with her to day care. But the toddler balked at Greenberg getting in the back seat. So Greenberg backed off a day and then tried it again. Her granddaughter eventually relaxed. “You have to know how comfortable they are with you,” says Greenberg, who used to run a therapy practice with her husband and worked with people of all ages, including parents. It's OK to negotiate, but let grandkids set the agenda, she says. “I think that's hard for some grandparents.”
2. Do your research
Ask parents or your grandkids what interests them now. “Homework is essential because you have to know the kids; you have to know what they like,” Greenberg says.
3. Establish rituals that are special to your relationship
Greenberg's family makes sushi together, but you could do something much simpler, such as making cookies. It's even more fun if the activity seems a bit mischievous, like picking up early-morning doughnuts in your PJs. (Just make sure the task is parent approved.)
4. Go for curiosity, not commentary
Resist the temptation to make a snarky comment about a grandchild's clothing, piercing or tattoo, Ibekwe says. Instead, ask why a particular symbol is important to them. “When you present yourself as someone that's open to hearing the why, and you agree to respect that decision regardless of whether you like it or not, you'll tend to get a better relationship at the end of the day with the person, because they don't feel judged,” she says.
5. Let grandkids be the experts
During lockdown, Greenberg took chess lessons from her 8-year-old grandson over video chats. “He can still beat me,” she says.
6. Bring something but don't go nuts
There's no need to shower grandkids with gifts when you reconnect. Instead, think of an item that will pique their attention and maybe inspire an activity, like fishing gear or planting materials for the garden, Greenberg says .
7. Take reading to a new level
Jean Reagan is the author of How to Babysit a Grandpa and other similar humorous titles that connect grandkids and grandparents. (She also happens to be Greenberg's sister.) “One thing great about reading books together is that you're just calmly creating this little culture, a little precious moment where time has gone, where the to-do-lists are gone,” says Reagan, who lives in Salt Lake City and has lots of experience reading to young fans at story hours.
In her book How to Read to a Grandma or Grandpa, she suggests reading in a location that adds atmosphere — a book about bugs in the garden or a book about trucks near a construction site. “You can mix up where you read,” she says.
8. Try an icebreaker
Reagan says shoes can be a starting point for both older grandchildren and younger ones. For younger children, “I always say, ‘Oh wow, I like your shoes. They look really fast,’ “ she says. “And then the kids that are super shy, they'll stick their foot around the edge of their mom so that you can get a better view of their shoe. Shoes are not intimidating to talk about.”
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.