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Home » Secondary Attachments: Fathers, Grandparents & Other Loved Ones, The Editor's Desk

The Vital Importance of the Grandparent-Grandchild Bond

Submitted by on Wednesday, July 31 201323 Comments

By Rita Brhel, managing editor of Attached Family, API’s Publications Coordinator, API Leader (Hastings API, Nebraska), originally published on TheAttachedFamily.com on November 8, 2008

It has only been about 20 years since Dr. William Sears coined the term “Attachment Parenting” in reference to a set of nurturing parenting practices, such as babywearing and breastfeeding.

Today, Attachment Parenting International has helped to expand this approach to parenting to include children beyond the infant years and secondary attachment figures including fathers and, yes, grandparents.

The Value of Secondary Attachment to a Child

Mothers have long since been the focus of Attachment Parenting information, the role of secondary attachments cannot be ignored. According to the article “Back to the Future: How Early Attachments Shape Your Relationships” in the Summer 2007 issue of Attachment Parenting: The Journal of Attachment Parenting International, all attachments whether parent-child or grandparent-grandchild play a crucial role in shaping what a child’s perspective of what “normal” relationships are like.

“It refers to the ‘image’ of love people carry inside them that consists of the positive and negative characteristics of all their childhood caretakers,” according to the article’s author and Imago Relationship Therapy therapist Rod Kochtitzky. As adults, “we are left with someone who both loves us in the ways we were loved in our family of origin and also hurts us in ways that we were hurt in our families.”

Grandparents Provide a Vital Relationship to Children

Obviously, grandparents whose grandchildren live with them or are being raised by them play a vital role as primary caregivers to those grandchildren.

But even grandparents whose grandchildren do not live with them have a critical role in supporting their grandchildren’s parents. Grandparents can be great sources of parenting tips – and affordable childcare – to their grandchildren’s parents.

But it is those whose grandchildren who are in high risk situations, such as poverty and stressful family events, who can really make a difference in helping to shape a child’s sense of normalcy in relationships.

The Protective Role of Grandparents

For example, the 2007 article “The Protective Role of Grandparents” by Kate Fogarty, PhD, in the University of Florida’s Family, Youth, and Consumer Sciences newsletter, explored the effect of a healthy grandparent-grandchild bond on the negative effects of maternal depression on parenting and a child’s functioning.

According to Fogarty, compared to non-depressed mothers, those with depression typically have minimal, inconsistent responses to their children’s needs; express more negative than positive emotions toward their children; and are less engaged when interacting with their children.

These parenting behaviors lead to inhibited cognitive development and increased behavior problems in the children of all ages. Teenagers feel these effects especially strongly, because they influence their social and academic functioning. Furthermore, school-aged children and teenagers of depressed mothers are significantly more likely to be depressed as adults.

Fogarty then referenced a study (Silverstein & Ruiz, 2006, “Breaking the Chain: How Grandparents Moderate the Transmission of Maternal Depression to Their Grandchildren,” published in Family Relations, 55) showing that the stronger the attachment of the grandchild to a grandparent, the less likely the child of a depressed mother is to experience depression in adulthood.

What Determines a Strong Grandparent-Grandchild Bond?

The Silverstein study listed these elements to be crucial in developing a strong grandparent-grandchild relationship:

  • The child feeling a sense of emotional closeness to his grandparent;
  • The child having regular contact with his grandparent;
  • The child viewing his grandparent as a source of social support.

A strong emotional bond with the grandparent effectively models a healthy relationship, lessening the negative effects of parenting by a depressed mother, who is often the primary caregiver. Imagine the very positive effect grandparents can have in their grandchildren’s lives, if they’re already receiving a healthy relationship model at home.

Interactions Shape the Brain, Young or Old

Daniel Goleman, PhD, discovered that every person-to-person interaction literally shapes the human brain – and that the more important the relationship, the more profound the effect of those interactions on brain development. This research was reviewed in Mark Matousek’s article “We’re Wired to Connect,” originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of AARP Magazine and later reprinted in the Summer 2007 issue of Attachment Parenting: The Journal of Attachment Parenting International.

“Young or old, people can affect our personalities,” writes Matousek. “…Anger-prone people, for example, can ‘infect’ themselves with calmness by spending time with mellower individuals, absorbing less aggressive behavior and thereby sharpening social intelligence.”

Matousek quoted Goleman in crediting his two-year-old grandchild in helping to maintain his emotional health, likening time spent with her as “a vitamin” or “an elixir.” Think of the influence of his emotions on an impressionable toddler!

The Valued Grandparent

Besides modeling what constitutes a “normal” relationship, grandparents provide children with a sense of safety and protection, a link to their cultural heritage and family history, and a companion in play and exploration, according to an article by Mary Gavin, MD, on http://kidshealth.org entitled “Bonding with Grandparents.”

Roma Hanks, PhD, speaks highly of the role of grandparents in her article “Connecting the Generations: The New Role of Grandparents,” published in the 1997 issue of The Harbinger at Mobile, Alabama: “It is my belief that grandparenting is the most important family role of the new century. …Today, there is a growing alliance of grandparents who will positively influence the lives of their grandchildren and the younger generations in their society, some by providing urgently needed daily care, others by building deep emotional connections with their grandchildren.”

“It is my belief that grandparenting is the most important family role of the new century.”
~ Roma Hanks, PhD

23 Comments »

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ronald K. Phillips, Ronald K. Phillips. Ronald K. Phillips said: @Annie_Fox GrandParents as "Protective" – http://bit.ly/boaafV [...]

  • [...] growing up or stories about their last visit. Knowing more about your parents will help your kids feel closer to [...]

  • patsy says:

    i am trying to understand the deep attachment/need for grandchildren by the grandparents.

    why is this so profound; deep, and missing when they are not available for social times..; distance away…gone off to career – no time..

    Why do we so need internalized good objects?

    One view in The Inner World of the Mother is that our children, and grandchildren are our Immortality object.
    They are in fact us; part of us; and grief starts to take over as they also leave; second leave taking; first their parents, now them.

  • KimC says:

    I love this article! So true: AP is important beyond the infant years and a strong attachment to other family members is so beneficial for childre. I wish my in-laws lived closer, because my children adore them. It can be tough when grandparents disagree with our attachment parenting practices and gentle discipline approach, though. But, as the article points out, grandparents provide a sense of shared history for children and for me this is worth any struggles I might have with my in-laws over my parenting choices.

  • Sarah says:

    My daughter in law thinks this is something new… attachment parenting. We have done this for many generations… with out a name to it. It is just called raising your child in my family. Now she thinks the only person that can be around the baby is her. How do we let her know without bursting her bubble that it is ok to let others attach to the baby if it is a healthy relationship. Grandparents are allowed to love the baby too.

  • Betsy says:

    Amen, to Sarah! I too am a grandmother of ten and mother of four. Nothing new here. When I was raising my children back in the 60’s I became involved with a wonderful mothering organization called Le Leche League International. I always let my mother “in”. She had the wisdom I had not lived long enough to have, and I hope some of these young moms, (whom, by the way, I admire) are fortunate enough to have moms and grandmas (dads and grandpas too) close. Children can benefit so much from the bonds formed with grandparents. These bonds are different but just as strong. My mother told me once, “Only when you have children of your own do you realize how much your parents love you!”

  • Roger says:

    I am a grandfather. Our 9 month old grandson starts screaming, not crying, within about 20 minutes after his mother leaves. Nothing can sooth the child. We try holding, feeding, make sure he is dry, reading, rocking, soft singing, even stroller rides fail. After 2 hours of this we call the kids to come pick him up; it can’t be good to be so stressed. As soon as mom shows up…the screaming stops. We think he is too “attached” to mom. Any suggestions?

  • Dear Roger,

    We certainly can understand your concern, but please be assured that this may be completely normal and developmentally appropriate behavior, which will change over time as your grandson matures and develops. We encourage you to post this question on the API Forum – Consistent and Loving Care section (http://www.attachmentparenting.org/forums/) to connect with an experienced API Leader who can provide more information and to connect with other people who have been in this or similar situations. You will find instructions on how to obtain a login and password for the site at the address noted above.

    The Attached Family

  • Karine says:

    What is a mother supposed to do in the case of a toxic relationship with the in-laws? During my pregnancy, I went through harassment from my in-laws – they did not want me pregnant with their son’s child and gave me a hard time. Not to mention that we are from two different cultures, them being Cambodian and me Canadian, and we were living in the same house (everything was fine until I got pregnant). So now, my daughter literally freaks out every times she sees them and she only reacts like that (holding me so tight she scratches me, scared, crying…) with them, just like if she knew who they are and what they did – obviously, she felt my stress while in my belly. So we have decided to not do this to her and my husband visits them alone from now on…

  • David says:

    Hi. I am a single father of two girls. My mother lives with me and my sister and her family. I’m looking for any research showing the positive affects this type of communal living has on children.
    The children’s mother feels this is very in appropriate but I don’t feel so. My mother helps me a lot and the girls just adore her. I am a first generation American, but my values and beliefs are from the “old country” where grandparents living with grand kids is a normal practice. Please advise on any research

    Thanks

    David

  • David,

    We can direct you to alloparenting research, including research cited by Darcia Narvaez, Barry Hewlett and others. Two references you may find helpful are noted below. There are many more research citations, but starting here should point the way to more. These two have different research angles, yet similar findings:

    Carollee Howe’s research on attachment with alternative caregivers (most often day care and teachers)
    Barry Hewlett’s research on father infant (and extended family) relationships in hunter-gathering societies

    Two great, concise points from many pages of content from a chapter in the Handbook of Attachment (First Edition), Chapter 29 “Attachment Relationships to Multiple Caregivers”:
    – P 673 We have proposed the following three criteria for identification of attachment figures other than the mother: 1) provision of physical and emotional care 2) continuity or consistency in a child’s life and 3) emotional investment in the child.

    – p.678 – …literature on attachment formation to alternative caregivers suggests that this process is similar to that of the infant-mother attachment. …children…construct their attachment relationships on the basis of repeated interactions with caregiving adults.

    You may also wish to post on the API Forum in order to connect with others who may be in a similar situation (http://www.attachmentparenting.org/forums/). If you don’t have a login and password, you can obtain these via the button on the top right corner of the main Forum page.

    – The Attached Family

  • sad grandma says:

    My granddaughter has been kept away from her father and her grandparents for the past eight months when we see her anywhere she hides her face and doesn’t want to interact with us we have always had a wonderful attachment and regular as possible contact with her but now her mother is in another relationship I am concerned about the effects of denying contact with our family will have on my grand daughter she will be five years old soon

  • Beth says:

    Our son has been denied access to his 15 month old son.our son has no legal constraints on contact .the mother is emotionally unstable and wants no contact with us .We wish to create abridge for our son and his child whom he has never met.Any valuable bonding/attachment tips that may be valuable in making our case for our son? Very sad Grandparents

  • Dear Beth – Additional information has been emailed to you directly.

    -TheAttachedFamily.com

  • […] positivas y negativas de quienes cuidan de nosotros durante la infancia”, indica un artículo del Journal of Attachment Parenting International, publicado en […]

  • Paul says:

    I was separated from my daughter when she was very young. We have reconciled and both of us are very happy to be in each others company. Though we have not had her developmental years to forge a relationship, we both want a relationship and are willing to make the effort. Things are going well between myself and my daughter.

    These circumstances also kept me from my grandchildren until they were pre-teens. The boy and I have done well and are on the way to a happy and healthy relationship. How ever, I have been unable to make a close bound with the girl. Can you offer any advice?

  • Paul,

    How wonderful that you have been able to re-establish these important relationships. You may wish to post your question on the API Forum, where you will be in touch with experienced API Leaders and other parents who can offer their support and advice. Here is the web address: http://www.attachmentparenting.org/forums/home. You will need a login and password to post a question; see the link in the top right corner of the screen.

    ~ Editor

  • […] priceless recollections and stories will be passed on from their hearts to generations to come.  “It is my belief that grandparenting is the most important family role of the new century.&#82…  So, if you are a grandparent, be as involved in your grandchildren’s lives as your children […]

  • Keira says:

    I only just came across this article but I have to wholeheartedly agree. I grew up in a high-risk family dynamic (abuse, drugs, and alcohol) and even my therapist credits the strong bond with my grandparents for the resilience I have.

    It showed me a healthy (grand)parent-child relationship and allowed me to be a child who was cared for rather than a child who had to care for others. I didn’t have to walk on eggshells so my nerves got a break.

    Now as a parent I am making sure to give my children a chance to bond with their grandparents. We have a stable, happy household but I am prone to depression so again it gives them additional support should my condition deteriorate.

  • Gail Walker says:

    Hi my comfort comes rom knowing that my Grandchildren are safe. My husband and I got married in 1992. When we got together he had 3 boys and 1 girl, I had 3 girls and 1 boy. He told me that there was another baby on the way by someone else. We ended up having to get him when he was 6months old, oh did I forget to mention that he had custody of his children. Yes we raised nine children together. It was very hard but we did it. We worked out our problems and confessed any wrong doing to one another, we forgave and forgot. Our love for kept us together. Now we have 27 Grandchildren who we love so very much. Now in our late 40’s, we have had to adopt 3 of our Grandchildren from our oldest daughter. We had now for 8 years. They are 12,11 and 9. Having to start over was an adjustment but we did that too. 3 other Grand’s from our next oldest need our care we had them since they were babies. I can’t tell you how much I miss them. They and my daughter are in an abusive situation. My daughter is more interested in pleasing the man who is there daddy and the abuser. All my days now is sadness all the time. I put on my smile for my family to keep them together, we are all sad for them. They are 12,6 and 2 This some of my story. Gail E. Walker

  • Patricia says:

    Lovely article & thank you for writing it. I had a wonderful relationship with my only grandparent growing up. She lived with us & as an only child it made my childhood really special.
    I would dearly love my childern to haveva similiar relationship with their only grandparent again a grandmother. However their grandmother is not that interested. For example on Christmas day she had her entire family over for dinner 5 sons plus wives & 3 grandchildern but asked my husband (her son) & our childern to stay away as she felt she had enough people over. My husband & childern don’t go for dinner they just call for an hour or so to deliver presents & play with cousins. I stay home to do dinner so as not to.impose. It hurt my childern terribely. Again she had guests ovet Easters (in laws) &askef mu childern to stay away all over Easter weekend. Again they were so upset it broke my heart. When we did get permission to visit a week later she said it still wasn’t a great time & made me feel very uncomfortable & I knew she wanted us gone asap. Would it be better for the childern in this case to even have contact with this woman. They love their grandmother & spending time with their cousins bit is this constant rejection bad for them emotionally?

  • Patricia,

    I understand your concern about this challenging family situation. We encourage you to consider posting about this on the API Neighborhood (API Forum), where you will be in contact with an experienced API Leader and other parents who may have experiences similar to yours. You can access the Neighborhood here. In order to post, you will need to sign up for a user name and password, which you can do via the link in the upper right corner of the homepage. I hope you find this helpful.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Jolly says:

    Both my husband and I have 4 grandchildren (from our two sons). I have never read any research on grand parenting. I just know how extremely rewarding it is for me to interact with all my grand children. I do things that I never did with my own children when they were young. As a young mother then, I was more stressed and worried that I was doing the right thing by my children. But to-day as a grandparent, I don’t really care about doing the right thing; I am simply happy loving them, playing with them, feeding them, inventing my own stories for them, and just having fun with them. I adore them beyond anything on earth. They are utterly cute, loving, and enjoy having fun with my husband and I. My daughters-in- law earnestly welcome our interaction with our grandchildren and are themselves rather loving by nature. Both my husband and I could not bear to be away from our grand children for long periods. Being grand parents is a blessing and I am grateful for this.

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