When I was very young, I spent many weekends with my grandparents. At bedtime, my grandmother would read me fairy tales. I still remember, after all these years, listening intently to Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. I felt safe, warm and loved. It occurs to me that my interest in the human psyche was likely sparked by these early experiences with my grandmother.
While intergenerational households are common in many cultures, we often fail to appreciate the significant contributions grandparents can make to the lives of their grandchildren and vice versa. The COVID pandemic and recent inflationary financial pressures have prompted more families to opt for this living arrangement. For families making this transition, research shows that bringing together children with their grandparents can have a positive impact for everyone involved, including the parents in the middle.
Let’s start with grandparents. It’s not always easy for someone to adapt to a new social role in late midlife, especially when the arrival of grandchildren comes with the expectation of caregiving duties. Becoming a grandparent requires learning new proficiencies and skills, like navigating computers, cell phones, inclusive language and fluid gender roles. Instead of watching their favourite TV shows, grandparents might need to check homework or watch TikTok or YouTube videos. And grandchildren might turn tidy empty nests into disarray.
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Grandparents’ duties exist on a continuum, of course, ranging from occasional visits to full-time care. And rather than being burdensome, it appears that time spent with grandchildren confers many benefits. A 2018 study from Flinders University in Australia that followed 262 female and 168 male grandparents across the first two years of their transition to grandparenthood found that the transition did not have any substantial adverse impact on five well-validated measures of mental health. In fact, there was a small but significant decrease in anxiety over the first year for females. The more time grandparents spent babysitting their grandchild the more their mental health improved.
Recent research out of China examined how technology served to maintain family ties between older adults and their children and grandchildren. The authors of the 2023 study observed that using the internet to connect with families and friends helped older adults to foster family cohesion. This was especially important for grandmothers living in rural areas whose adult children migrated to work in cities.
Other studies from China where parent-grandparent co-parenting is common have found that when parents and grandparents get along, the benefits for all involved are considerable. The majority of families in this study lived in three-generation households, and 80 per cent had only one child. Mothers who maintained strong co-parenting bonds with their children’s grandparents, primarily grandmothers, often experienced a greater sense of effectiveness in their parental roles. (When caring for grandchildren, Chinese grandmothers tended to fulfill intensive responsibilities, such as feeding, bathing and dressing whereas grandfathers usually served as fun-seeker, playmate and companion.) Consequently, their children displayed enhanced social competence six months down the line.
The study’s authors elucidate that grandparents, drawing upon their wealth of parenting experience, can offer valuable support, set positive examples and provide encouragement when they engage in child-rearing collaborations. This, in turn, can affect the level of confidence that mothers feel in their parenting responsibilities. When mothers exude greater self-assurance, they tend to approach parenting with increased positivity and perseverance, ultimately contributing to their children’s improved social development. These enriching interactions can remove some of the guilt that parents may feel for being absent all day or, sometimes for longer periods of time.
Interacting with grandchildren can help keep grandparents mentally and physically active and engaged. Grandparents can also benefit from increased socialization as they interact with their grandchildren’s friends, teachers and other parents. This can serve as an antidote to loneliness or isolation, a frequent occurrence among the elderly.
On the other side, strong, affectionate ties with grandparents are well known to benefit grandchildren. A recent branch of research investigates the relation between grandparent influence during childhood and adolescence on outcomes in early adulthood. This work suggests that grandparent involvement during childhood, conceptualized as amount of contact and emotional closeness, is positively linked to emotional development, cognitive functioning and social adjustment in early adulthood. As well, lessons learned from grandparent–grandchild relationships in childhood, especially those related to spirituality and moral development, persist into early adulthood.
Of particular relevance is a recent study from the Institute for Engaged Aging at Clemson University in South Carolina that investigated the impact of grandparents on life happiness and perceived relationship quality, when grandchildren start their lives as young adults. The researchers concluded that past and present grandparent relationships remain salient in early adulthood. Even when contact decreases during transitional years the relationship can grow more emotionally close, with young adults often feeling a sense of respect and appreciation for their grandparents. These results echo previous research in which gratitude, respect and appreciation were found to be significant factors in the well-being of young adults. These participants cited lessons learned from their grandparents as significant influences.
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With this study being conducted amid a global pandemic, many participants discussed the emotional difficulty of being physically separated from grandparents, especially those with progressing illnesses (such as dementia or cancer). Many participants maintained regular, and at times even increased, contact with their grandparents as a result of the pandemic and watching them become progressively more debilitated and, in many instances, pass away was highly disturbing.
A grandparent’s value can be immeasurable to our lives, but sometimes family issues whether initiated by one or the other side get in the way of harmonious transgenerational relationships. If arguments, in-law drama or any other challenges have prevented grandchildren from enjoying a healthy grandparent relationship, please consider burying the hatchet and making peace now.
Thomas R. Verny, MD is a clinical psychiatrist, academic, award-winning author, public speaker, poet and podcaster. He is the author of eight books, including the global bestseller The Secret Life of the Unborn Child and 2021′s The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness and Our Bodies.