Study Identifies The 1 Grandparent Who Has The Biggest Impact On Kids

If you’ve ever known the relief of a grandmother’s embrace or the comfort of pulling up in her driveway and knowing that a hot meal was waiting for you, then you probably don’t need any research to tell you that a grandmother’s presence has restorative effects.

Though we can’t precisely quantify the effect of a grandmother’s love, a new study offers statistical proof that grandmothers do help children weather life’s hardships.

How do grandmothers protect us?

Researchers at the University of Turku, in Finland, looked at data collected in a 2007 survey completed by 1,566 English and Welsh youth, ages 11 to 16. Youth who lived with their grandparents or who did not have at least one living grandparent were excluded from the study.

The survey included a behavioral screening questionnaire to measure the young people’s emotional and behavioral problems.

Our main finding was that investment from maternal grandmothers seemed to be able to protect their grandchild from the negative influence of experiencing multiple adverse early-life experiences,” Samuli Helle, the lead researcher, told HuffPost.

“Adverse childhood experiences” is a phrase psychologists and others use to describe “traumatic events or difficult circumstances that happened between the ages of 0 to 17,” Whitney Raglin Bignall, associate clinical director for the Kids Mental Health Foundation, explained to HuffPost. Examples, she said, might include “abuse, neglect, having an incarcerated caregiver, witnessing violence,” living with a caregiver with substance abuse issues or living in poverty or in an under-resourced setting.

Though not every person who has an adverse childhood experience will go on to have issues, they are more likely to — and this likelihood increases with every additional trauma.

In childhood, Bignall said, these experiences may “change brain development and impact their body’s response to stress,” “negatively impact their ability to develop healthy relationships,” “impact their ability to pay attention, learn and make decisions” and “lead to poor mental health.”

In adulthood, a person is also more likely to experience mental health problems as well as substance use issues and chronic physical health concerns, such as diabetes, asthma and cancer.

So having the ability to prevent adverse childhood experiences, or to blunt their effect somehow, can have a positive influence on a person for many years. This is where the grandmothers come in. Kids who had adverse childhood experiences were less likely to show the negative effects of these experiences as they grew if there was a maternal grandmother in their life who offered support, such as child care or financial assistance.

Interestingly, the researchers found this protective, or “buffering,” effect only with maternal grandmothers, not other grandparents. Helle said that this finding was expected and in line with an evolutionary theory known as the grandmother hypothesis, which states that by helping to care for children, grandmothers increase their daughter’s fertility. Helle cautioned, however, that the University of Turku study reveals an average statistical pattern and that in real life there may be numerous examples of grandfathers or paternal grandmothers providing the same care to the same protective effect.

Helle also noted that this buffering effect isn’t powerful enough to completely erase the impact of trauma. “Not even the highest level of investment from maternal grandmothers seen in these data was able to fully safeguard grandchildren from the negative effects of adverse early-life experiences,” he said.

Because the effect of adverse events in childhood lasts for many years, so may a grandmother’s buffering. “By being able to protect their grandchildren from the ‘full impact’ of adverse life events, maternal grandmothers’ investment in their grandchildren can produce a long-lasting impact on the development and wellbeing of these children,” Helle said.

How to support a child facing hardship.

One of the best ways to counter the harm of an adverse childhood experience is for the child to have a strong support system, Bignall said. “This includes having an ongoing and trusting relationship with an adult. An involved grandmother who is consistent, loving and available can be an essential buffer for children,” she explained.

No matter what role you play in a child’s life, she recommended the following ways to support a child who is facing hardship:

  • Provide consistent routines.

  • Provide a stable environment.

  • Have clear expectations.

  • Be open, honest, nonjudgmental and warm.

  • Model healthy ways to manage stress.

  • Provide praise and encouragement.

  • Share your family’s culture and traditions to increase a sense of belonging.

  • Provide opportunities to connect with other adults who can help provide supportive relationships.

With all of their experience and wisdom, grandparents in particular are able to pass along culture and traditions in addition to offering support and guidance.

“There is something that is very special about the love of a grandparent, and when given it is uniquely additive to children,” Bignall said.