Grandmothers more connected to their grandchildren than own kids, study says

Seeing pictures of their grandchildren activated areas of the brain related to ‘emotional empathy’, researchers found

Kate Ng
Wednesday 17 November 2021 10:47

The relationship between a grandmother and her grandchildren may be even more precious than previously thought.

A new study that examined brain function in grandmothers found that they may be more connected to their grandchildren than to their own children, as they feel greater “emotional empathy” for the younger generation.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recruited 50 women with at least one biological grandchild aged between three and 12 to take part in the study.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe brain activity when grandmothers looked at photos of their grandchild, the child’s parents and images of an unrelated child and adult.

Anthropologist and neuroscientist James RIlling, who led the study, told Agence France-Presse: “They recruited areas of the brain that are involved in emotional empathy, and also areas of the brain that are involved in movement and motor simulation and preparation.

“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,” he added.

Rilling had previously performed a similar exercise with fathers, whose brains were scanned while looking at pictures of their children.

Grandmothers showed, on average, stronger brain activation in areas linked to emotional empathy, reward and motivation compared to fathers, although there were some dads who had equal amounts of activation in these areas.

“All in all, our findings suggest that emotional empathy may be a key component of grandmaternal responses to their grandchildren,” the study concluded.

In interviews with the grandmothers who took part, Rilling found that many women felt they could be more present for their grandchildren now that they no longer felt the time and financial pressures they experienced when raising their own children.

“A lot of them reported actually enjoying being a grandmother more than they enjoyed being a mother,” he said.

In the 1960s, scientists posited that one of the reasons women live long after they stop being able to reproduce is that it increases the longevity of their grandchildren, which is known as “the grandmother effect”.

Using mathematical simulations, studies have found that grandmothers make it easier for their daughters to have more children by relieving them of some parental responsibilities, which also makes it possible for those children to have longer lives by helping them through the difficult early years of life.

More recent research suggests that having grandmothers who are involved in caregiving have a positive impact on early child cognitive, fine motor and socioemotional development.

Grandfathers also play an important part in positively influencing their grandchildren’s lives, as research from the University of Oxford found children who grow up with a high level of grandparental involvement have fewer emotional and behavioural problems.

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