Grandmothers may hold deeper bond with grandchildren than own children, study suggests

A new study suggested that some grandmothers may hold a deeper bond with their grandchildren than their own children. 

James Riling of Emory University in Atlanta published the study in "The Royal Society" last week. 

His team recruited and surveyed 50 grandmothers with at least one biological grandchild between three and 12 years old. They also measured the brain function as the participants viewed pictures of their grandchild, an unknown child, the same-sex parent of the grandchild and an unknown adult.

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Researchers found that grandmothers viewing grandchild pictures activated parts of the brain that involved emotional empathy and movement. 

In contrast, the study also found that when grandmothers viewed images of their adult child, they showed stronger activation in an area of the brain associated with cognitive empathy. That indicates they may be trying to cognitively understand what their adult child is thinking or feeling and why, but not as much from the emotional side.

Compared with results from an earlier study by the Rilling lab of fathers viewing photos of their children, results showed that grandmothers activated more parts of the brain that involved emotional empathy and motivation.

"That suggests that grandmothers are geared toward feeling what their grandchildren are feeling when they interact with them," Rilling said in an Emory news article. "If their grandchild is smiling, they’re feeling the child’s joy. And if their grandchild is crying, they’re feeling the child’s pain and distress."

"In many societies, grandmothers are important caregivers, and grandmaternal investment is often associated with improved grandchild well-being," the study’s authors wrote. 

It’s part of the reason why the U.S. celebrates Grandparents’ Day each year on the first Sunday after Labor Day in September. Former President Jimmy Carter signed the proclamation in 1978.

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"Because they are usually free to love and guide and befriend the young without having to take the daily responsibility for them, they can reach out past pride and fear of failure and close the space between generations," the proclamation read. 

In July, Pope Francis celebrated the Roman Catholic Church’s first World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly on Sunday.

"Grandparents and grandchildren, the elderly and youth together showed one of the beautiful sides of the Church, and showed the alliance between the generations," the pontiff said in off-the-cuff remarks from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.