Study Shows Grandmothers May Be More Connected to Their Grandchildren than Own Children

Think your mom likes your kids more than she likes you? It may not be in your head.

Many grandparents relish the opportunity to spoil and have extra-special relationships with their grandchildren. But sometimes, it may feel like your own mother likes your kids (her grandkids) more than she likes you.

We hate to break it to you, but a new study suggests you might not be completely imagining things.

A study published this week indicated that grandmas feel more connected with their grandchildren than they do with their own kids.

The research, led by James Rilling, a professor of anthropology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Emory University, recruited 50 people who identify as women with at least one biological grandchild ages 3 to 12. The women looked at photos of their child, grandchild, and something unrelated while researchers scanned their brains using MRIs.

"When grandmothers viewed photographs of their grandchildren, they particularly activated brain regions that have previously been associated with emotional empathy, suggesting that grandmothers may be predisposed to share the emotional states of their grandchildren," Rilling told USA Today.

An image of grandchildren with their grandmother on a picnic blanket at a park.
Getty Images.

On the other hand, photos of the women's own children activated the areas of their brain linked to cognitive empathy, suggesting a mental understanding of their child but less of an emotional connection. Rilling previously did a similar study in which he asked fathers to look at photos of their children. Interestingly, he noted more emotional empathy and motivation from grandmothers than he did in fathers (though not in every case).

Ultimately, relationships are different in every family, and sometimes, grandparent-parent-grandchildren dynamics can be tricky to navigate. Some studies show that grandparents who subscribe to outdated health guidance may be harming their grandchildren. At the same time, multi-generational households have been rising for the last five years. Pew Research found about 20% of Americans lived in a multi-generational household in 2016.

Having a grandparent involved in a child's life, whether they are living with you, assisting with childcare, or visiting on holidays, can be a wonderful experience. But you may experience challenges, aside from any feelings you may have about your mom having a better connection with your child than she has with you. Here are some expert-backed tips for working through problems.

  • Open dialogue. Ask grandparents how they envision their relationship with their grandchildren, including the frequency of visits. Taking this step can alleviate disappointment if grandparents don't want to be around every weekend. It can also open up a discussion on boundaries if they want to drop by unannounced, but you, as the parent, want a heads up.
  • Safety first. If the grandparent is engaging in unsafe behavior, you have a right to protect your child. Be firm in your convictions. It doesn't matter if they let you ride in the front seat at the age of three without harm.
  • Validate them. Parents get so much unsolicited advice, including and perhaps especially from their own parents. It's often well-meaning, even if annoying. If it's harmless, such as, "You should introduce vegetables before fruit," you can say, "Thanks. I'll ask our pediatrician about that and keep it in mind." Giving them the impression you're at least thinking about it can sometimes be enough to keep things civil.

It can be so rewarding to watch your parents bond with your kids. But if you're having issues, communication can keep molehills from turning into mountains.

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