How To Talk To Your Grandparents

Ryan Jordan and his grandfather Gene

Do you find it difficult to communicate with your popop?  Do you struggle to find the right words to say when in the presence of your grandma?  You’re not alone.  Many young adults struggle to have a good relationship with their grandparents – and your grandparents likely feel the same.  Why is that?

How To Talk To Your Grandparents

According to Harwood, McKee, and Lin (2003), younger adults have negative stereotypes of older adults that damage communication between the groups.  Older adults have different expectations of the topics that should be discussed and the consequences of a conversation, compared to college-aged adults.  Harwood, et al. interviewed nearly forty university students and about forty adults from a senior living facility, to find that most participants were unhappy with interactions they had with the other generation.

Not only do stereotypes get in the way of communication, but the way older people communicate affects interactions as well. Montepare, Koff, Zaaitchick, and Albert (1999) showed that older adults struggle to detect emotion based on body language and facial expressions.  Participants in this study were college psychology students and older adults throughout the surrounding community.  Each participant was shown videos representing sixteen different emotions expressed through body gestures.  Even when correctly identifying the emotion, the older adults showed much more hesitation and uncertainty than younger adults.  Since emotions are imperative to fully comprehend a conversation, an older adult’s struggle to read facial expressions could cause conversational difficulties.

Both the effects of stereotypes of the elderly in younger adults and older adult’s difficulty to read emotions can cause a strained relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild.  But there a few steps to take to increase the positivity of communication between the two.


1. Quality over quantity.

Tam, Hewstone, Harwood, Voci, and Kenworthy (2006) interviewed with 77 young adults about the relationship with their grandparents. Their findings showed that the amount of time a grandchild spends with his grandparents is not related to the closeness of their relationship. On the other hand, the quality of conversations and interactions directly relates to the intimateness felt from both parties.  So, you don’t have to spend hours catching up with your nana. But what time you do spend, make sure it counts.


2. Tell them about your life.

Self-disclosure, or voluntarily sharing of personal and intimate information to with another person, is almost a guaranteed way to feel close to them (Tam et al., 2006).  So, to improve the bond with your grandparent, speak with them about things that are close to your heart; and allow them to open up to you in the same way.  Self-disclosure helps to eliminate any prejudice, or stereotyping, which is a main problem in intergenerational communication.


3. Watch their reactions.

Check on your grandparent’s perception of the conversation.  Verbally describing your emotions can go a long way to improving the interaction and making sure your loved one reads your facial expressions and gestures correctly.  While it may not be a common occurrence with your grandparents, it’s better to avoid confusion at all costs.


4. Don’t Patronize Them

As we grow older, so do our grandparents. We start getting the new technology while some of our grandparents might still rock a flip phone. Our grandparents might not be as caught up on what’s going in the world as we are so when they start questioning us about things we expect them to know, that’s when it causes an issue. Remember to be patient with your grandparents when they ask you about the latest technology or some gossip that’s in the news. Don’t be condescending, try not to patronize your grandparents, and remember you are not superior to them.


5. Cherish every moment.

While communicating with an elder may be occasionally strained and awkward, a loving bond between a grandparent and a grandchild is unlike any other.  Having a good relationship with an older adult is rewarding and worthwhile.  There is much to learn from the men and women who lived through the Great Depression, World Wars, and many other largely significant historical events.  So, pick up the phone and call your grandparents tonight or visit your local nursing home to create a friendship that will create lifelong memories.



Kate O’Neill majors in Communicative Sciences and Disorders at West Chester University.



Harwood, J., McKee, J., & Lin, M.  (2003).  Younger and older adults’ schematic representations of intergenerational communication.  Communication Monographs, 67.
Montepare, J., Koff, E., Zaaitchick, D., & Albert, M.  (1999).  The use of body movements and gestures as cues to emotions in younger and older adults.  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 23.
Tam, T., Hewstone, M., Harwood, J., Voci, A., & Kenworthy, J. (2006). Intergroup contact and grandparent-grandchild communication: The effects of self-disclosure on implicit and explicit biases against older people. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9.

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