Long-Distance Pandemic Grandparenting: 25 Ways to Stay Connected
By Dr. Amanda Zelechoski, Co-Founder of Pandemic Parenting
The experiences of grandparents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have varied widely, from abruptly moving in with family members to being unable to see and hug your littlest loved ones for what has felt like an eternity. Long-distance grandparenting feels especially challenging during the developmental stage of our lives most focused on generativity, nurturing, and passing on important wisdom and lived experiences to subsequent generations.
The distance and restrictions imposed by the pandemic has also been hard on children, who crave and benefit in many ways from consistent and positive interactions with grandparents and extended family members. Our research at Pandemic Parenting found that one of the biggest things children are currently worried about is the safety and health of the older members of their families. It’s good and important for them to see and hear from you regularly (even if just through a screen), so that they know you are safe.
However, it is also important to remember that children, especially young children, are not able to sustain attention for very long periods of time. So, in your efforts to stay connected with your grandkids, try to be as flexible as possible in terms of timing, logistics, and expectations, which reduces the likelihood of creating more work or stress for their already exhausted parents.
Given the immense mutual benefits of keeping grandparents and grandchildren connected, we offer the following list of developmentally-specific ideas for engaging with your grandchildren from a distance.
Infants and Toddlers (ages 0-4)
- Record yourself reading favorite stories that the child can listen to anytime, which increases voice recognition for phone calls and eventual in-person visits. You can purchase recordable books or simply make a video or audio recording of yourself reading a book that the child has at home, so they can follow along.
- Do brief video calls (e.g., via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Meet, etc.) during meal times when the child is usually content to stay put and distracted with eating (you could even eat at the same time). Wear a fun hat or brightly colored pattern to grab their attention. Here are some more tips for video-chatting with young children. Remember that infants and toddlers can rarely tolerate sustaining attention for more than about five minutes during these video interactions.
- Set up a consistent time each week to do virtual “show and tell” over a video call, just like the child might be used to in daycare or preschool. You each bring a special object or toy to show the other. You can even add a guessing game, where the child has to guess what the object is through a series of clues and vice versa.
- Sing favorite songs or lullabies to the infant or toddler (either during a live video call or send pre-recorded videos). This helps the child to get to know your voice and increases recognition and repetition of songs. Here are additional video chat ideas for engaging infants.
- Take photos of yourself in different rooms of your home or in other places (e.g., in your car, at the grocery store), dressed up in different ways, or doing different things. You can then make and send a simple photobook that the child can look through often, or load the photos onto a digital photo frame that the child can then walk by and see the photos continuously scroll throughout the day (you can also add new photos to the digital frame anytime).
- Play virtual hide and seek. Using a video call on a mobile phone, you take the child with you while you hide and the child’s eyes are closed. Then you show the child a small portion of your surroundings and the child has to guess where you are in your house and vice versa). If the child has not recently been to your house or may not remember the rooms very well, take photos of yourself in different rooms, as described above. Similarly, you can ask the child to take you on a “tour” of the house (but be patient with a likely erratic image on the screen as the child walks and bounces all over the place!).
- Go on a treasure hunt. Prepare a set of small items or gifts that you send ahead and ask the child’s parent to hide around the house. Then, you can video chat with the child while he/she searches around the house to find the items. This can be as simple as sending a bag of candy canes ahead of time to be hidden. You can also modify this by sending a bunch of little notes that the child’s parent can hide around the house for the child to spontaneously find and know that you are thinking about them.
- Pick a TV show or movie to watch ahead of time and watch it simultaneously in your respective homes, while dialed into a video chat to engage with the child during and after the show.
- Play “I Spy” together over video chat, with each of you picking something in the other person’s room to “spy.” For example, you could spy a blue stuffed animal in the room where the child is sitting while talking to you and then the child looks around to identify nearby blue items.
- Have a dance party or play “freeze dance” over video chat, which gets you both up and moving and laughing together. You can even alternate who gets to pick the song!
School-Age (ages 6-11)
- Set up a weekly virtual story time. You can take turns picking the books and reading to each other, and then having great discussions afterward. For older kids, you can select a chapter book and read a chapter together several times a week or read in advance and then have a “book club” discussion at a designated time. Here are some great tips for getting started with setting up your virtual story time. Similarly, you can do weekly virtual art club, during which you work on the same art project together over video chat using simple supplies typically found around the house.
- Get creative with the Flat Grandma/Grandpa Project. Adapt the hugely popular Flat Stanley Project for your family. You can draw your likeness or glue a photo cutout to thick paper and then mail “Flat Grandma” or “Flat Grandpa” to your grandchild and have them do the same for you (sending you a drawing of their likeness). You then take each other on lots of “adventures,” documenting in photos where you’ve been. Your grandchild will love telling you where “Flat Grandma” went and what “Flat Grandpa” did each day!
- Set up times to interview each other. Kids often forget that their grandparents were once kids just like them, so it’s a great opportunity to ask each other questions, while spending time together. To get you started, here are some questions you can ask your grandchild and here are some questions your grandchild can ask you. If you’re both comfortable recording these interview sessions, they will be video memories you will likely both cherish for years to come.
- Set up Family Story Telling Sessions. In our recent Pandemic Parenting webinar on Reimagining the Holidays, psychologist Dr. Robyn Fivush, taught us about the importance of telling and retelling stories about family history. Children are especially intrigued to know things about their parents’ lives and you hold the key to so many of those memories. Here are some questions to get you started. Dr. Fivush reminds us not to get caught up in getting ensuring the perfect accuracy of the details or the timelines because it’s the telling, sharing, and listening that are more important than the story itself. If you enjoy writing, you can also write these stories down in a special grandparent book or journal designed for this purpose.
- Share daily jokes. Kids in this age group often love to tell jokes and feel proud when their jokes get a laugh. Whether it’s through a daily text, brief video chat, or recording of you each telling your daily joke that is sent to one another, this can be a great way to stay connected. You can even decide on weekly themes (holiday jokes, sports jokes, family jokes, etc.) to stretch your creativity. Don’t worry if you’re not the top family comedian – here’s a grandparent’s joke book that will ensure your jokes land every time!
Tweens and Teens (ages 12-18)
- Sometimes, teens and tweens prefer to communicate more through writing than through verbal dialogue. That’s okay – you can meet them where they are and still find ways to connect. Consider starting a shared scrapbook or journal that you mail back and forth, taking turns adding pictures, stories, doodles, and reflections. There are lots of ways to do this digitally if you prefer to have more frequent interaction. These shared family chronicles can become a meaningful archive of this time for you both.
- Set up a cook-date or bake-date. Perhaps one of the things you miss the most is cooking or baking with your grandchildren, especially during the holidays. You can still do so virtually with a little planning ahead. Here are some tips for setting this up and you can even take turns picking recipes to prepare. If it isn’t feasible to cook together in real time over video chat, then you can also agree to each prepare the item ahead of time and then set up a time to log in and enjoy the prepared food together, debriefing and enjoying some table talk.
- Learn a new skill or hobby together. Youth in this age group are often learning a myriad of new skills and hobbies, both in school and through extracurricular activities. Talk with your grandchild about what they are “into” these days. Maybe they are learning a new language, taking virtual guitar lessons, or want to try a new craft, like knitting or crocheting. Talk with them about whether they’d be open to having you learn right along with them, as an activity you try together. It could become your special thing between the two of you, resulting in texting back and forth in the new language for practice or sending each other instructional YouTube videos about new crochet patterns. Won’t they be surprised when Grandpa sends a picture of his new guitar for a family duet!
- Teens and tweens increasingly love to communicate using memes, gifs, quotes, and videos. Don’t be afraid of this – instead use it as a fun and quick way to engage with your grandchild each day. They will get a kick out of you finding images and videos to send to them and you will get an interesting glimpse into their inner worlds, moods, and sense of humor by seeing what they send you each day. If you’re not familiar with some of these media formats, ask your grandchild to teach you. It empowers them and is yet another opportunity for you to connect.
- Play a game over Zoom. There are lots of great card games, board games, and interactive activities that can be adapted to do over video chat platforms. This can include everything from working on the same jigsaw puzzle in your respective homes and showing each other your progress to playing Uno, where you each draw from your own deck at home. Here are some more ideas for games that work well virtually.
Young Adults (ages 18-25)
- Bond through music. Music can be a wonderful way to connect with your young adult grandchild and gain insight into various aspects of their lives and current thoughts and feelings. There are many ways to do this, but perhaps the easiest in our current context is to create and share playlists (collections or lists of songs) with each other. This is a great opportunity to introduce each other to various genres of music, favorite artists, and songs that evoke specific memories. There are a variety of playlist sharing programs and applications, but you can also just jot down a list to email or text to your grandchild and they can pull up the songs on their own. You can even decide on weekly playlist themes, like “favorite songs to listen to while cooking,” “songs that make me cry,” and “songs that remind me of you.”
- Play digital games. You may recall hearing stories of the grandparent-grandchild bonds forged through playing Jeopardy together. The current version doesn’t involve waiting in your respective time zones to tune in at a specific time. There are lots of games you can play together through interactive apps, either in real time or asynchronously throughout the day. These include working together on virtual jigsaw puzzles, completing crossword or sudoku puzzles, or playing the digital versions of classic board games.
- Write and send “Open When” letters. A great way to stay connected to your grandchild is to spend some time thinking about advice or encouragement you’d like to give them. If there are milestones or celebrations you have been unable to celebrate together or times that you wished you were there in person to give them a hug or some reassurance, this is a great time to memorialize those thoughts for now and in the future. You can do this in the form of letters that come with instructions for when to open and read the letter (e.g., “Open when you are sad”; “Open when something didn’t go your way”; “Open when you are feeling proud of yourself”). Here are some great topics and prompts to get you started.
- Take an online class or workshop together. Similar to learning a new skill or hobby together (discussed above), there are tons of online classes and workshops available, many of which are free. You can figure out what topics or types of classes you are interested in, what level of skill and commitment feels manageable, and what schedule works for you both. It’s a great way to spend some structured time together and feel productive at the same time.
- Be part of their self-care. Many young adults have had to shift their academic programs or professional responsibilities primarily online, which can lead to decreased social connections and Zoom fatigue. Other young adults have had to take on additional jobs, have lengthier commutes, or are working longer hours to make ends meet. Keep your grandchild company during their commute or offer to be their screen break, by chatting with them over the phone and being a safe, calm, and nonjudgmental space for them to vent their frustrations or worries. Even just a five-minute check in and a few words of reassurance and affection can make a big difference in their mental health and yours.
We know that the physical distancing requirements and social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on grandparents. Long-distance grandparenting is all about finding creative and flexible ways to regularly connect and show your grandchild that you’re thinking about them no matter how many miles there are between you.
For more ideas on how to stay connected with long-distance family members during and after the holidays, visit our Reimagining the Holidays resources page.