HomeLifeWhat science says about the grandmother-grandchild bond

What science says about the grandmother-grandchild bond

For many of us, grandparents play – or played – an important role in family life. Those who have had grandparents in their lives at an early age might have strong memories of visiting them or having them as carers while their parents went to work.

Some families may have had three generations living together under the one roof. In these situations, a strong bond usually develops between grandparent and grandchild.

And for many, that bond may have felt stronger with the grandmother than the with grandfather. Is that simply a perception? Or is there a fundamental difference in relationships with grandmothers and grandfathers? And if there is, is it driven by biology or environment?

Read: Young adults seeking sex advice should chat to grandparents

As you might imagine, there is always someone out there in the scientific realm looking for an answer to questions such as these.

Three anthropologists from Emory University in Atlanta took up this challenge.

Specifically, they wanted to see if they could find evidence of greater emotional empathy for grandkids from a grandmother than from a grandfather. And they did.

The anthropologists involved – James K. Rilling, Amber Gonzalez and Minwoo Lee – have presented what they believe is the first study to examine grandmaternal brain function.

They recruited 50 grandmothers with at least one biological grandchild aged between three and 12 and, using functional magnetic resonance, measured the brain function of grandmothers as they looked at a set of photos.

Read: Grandparents and informal carers falling through support gaps

These included images of their own grandchild, an unknown child, the same-sex parent of the grandchild, and an unknown adult. Those grandmothers also completed questionnaires to measure their degree of involvement with and attachment to their grandchild.

The researchers found photos of the participants’ grandchildren activated areas of the brain involved with emotional empathy, while the other photos did not. This may seem hardly surprising, but such emotional reactions had not previously been measured for the grandmother-grandchild relationship.

The accompanying questionnaire confirmed a link between the measure of emotional empathy and a desire for greater involvement in caring for the grandchildren.

Professor Rilling said: “When they’re viewing these pictures of their grandchild, they’re really feeling what the grandchild is feeling. So when the child is expressing joy, they’re feeling that joy. When the children are expressing distress, they’re feeling that distress.”

Read: The reluctant grandmother

Interestingly, a similar study involving fathers and their children found that fathers’ recorded emotional empathy was not as strong as the grandmothers.

This is scientific validation of what most would probably expect, but it takes on perhaps more significance as the result of the pandemic. A common narrative during the pandemic has been a playing down of the deaths of elderly people because “they’ve had a good life”.

But this research points to the importance of grandparents playing an active and ongoing role in their grandchildren’s lives.

It might be time to get your parents more involved with their grandkids. Or if you already do, not to feel guilty about it.

Are you a grandparent? Has your connection to grandkids been challenged by COVID? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?

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Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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