An overwhelming amount of psychology and social science research is devoted to parent-child dynamics. But even in our nuclear-family age, that’s not the only bond children have with adults. In the last year, significant new findings have emerged to shed light on the important benefits of children’s relationships with their grandparents — for the people on both sides of the equation.
A study by Boston College researchers found that emotionally close ties between grandparents and adult grandchildren reduced depressive symptoms in both groups. The study, published online last year in the journal The Gerontologist, included 374 grandparents and 356 adult grandchildren who were taking part in a larger study. The researchers looked at data collected over a 19-year period.
Close grandparent-grandchild relationships are often a marker of strong family ties overall, but these intergenerational bonds also come with their own distinctive benefits, said lead author Sara Moorman, an associate professor of sociology at Boston College. As people are living longer, these bonds are becoming even more important.
For grandparents, relationships with grandchildren provide connection with a much younger generation and exposure to different ideas, which might otherwise be limited. For grandkids, grandparents can offer life wisdom that they can put into practice as they navigate young adulthood.
“Grandparents have a wealth of experience — they’ll often tell stories about their lives and how things worked when they were young, and once kids become adults, they’re able to maximize those lessons,” said Moorman, who said her study is a tribute to her own grandmother. Grandparents also can offer their grandchildren a first-hand historical perspective that enriches their lives and understanding of the past.
Earlier research has shown links between strong grandparent-grandchild bonds and adjustment and pro-social behavior among kids. A study of English children ages 11-16, for instance, found that close grandparent-grandchild relationships were associated with benefits including fewer emotional and behavioral problems and fewer difficulties with peers. These relationships also helped to reduce the adverse impacts of experiences such as parent breakups and being bullied.
For grandparents, involvement with grandchildren may help to keep them mentally sharp. An Australian study published earlier this year found that grandmothers who spent time watching their grandkids performed better on cognitive tests than did grandmothers who didn’t, and than women who didn’t have grandchildren. (Interestingly, though, minding grandkids one day per week was linked to better test performance than watching them more often.)
Of course, relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are shaped by the larger family context. A study of Israeli teens published in September found that the closer teens were with their parents, the more they benefited from strong relationships with their grandparents. Specifically, among teens who reported being very close to their parents, strong bonds with grandparents were more effective in reducing emotional and behavioral problems.
Grandparents tend to complement good-quality relationships with parents, and both of these relationships reduce adjustment difficulties in adolescents, study author Shalhevet Attar-Schwartz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said in an e-mail. Because parents bridge the generation gap between grandparents and grandchildren, they help to shape these relationships and can influence the strength of grandparent-grandchild bond.
“Parents should be aware of their role as gatekeepers in the relationship between their children and their parents,” Attar-Schwartz said. “They should also be aware of grandparents’ potential to be an important resource in their children’s lives, especially if the family is undergoing a change, such as divorce or remarriage, or if the child is undergoing a painful or challenging experience. . . . Sometimes children feel that it is easier to open up to their grandparents and share their difficulties and dilemmas with them.”
Ami Albernaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.