The Vital Importance of the Grandparent-Grandchild Bond

By Rita Brhel, API Leader, API’s Publications Coordinator

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 to secondary attachment figures including 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, 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 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

45 thoughts on “The Vital Importance of the Grandparent-Grandchild Bond”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!”

  5. 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?

  6. 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 ( 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

  7. 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…

  8. 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



  9. 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 ( 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

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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?

  13. 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: You will need a login and password to post a question; see the link in the top right corner of the screen.

    ~ Editor

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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?

  17. 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

  18. 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.

  19. I have four grannysons whom I love with all of my heart. Two are frograndson’ster’s first marriage and two from her current marriage. My daughter uses my grannysons to control me and the other grandparents.
    I was not allowed to see or talk too my grannysons for eighteen months becuse she does not approve of my boyfriend. Last Chritmas, I was allowed to go visit because my son was home on military leave and he, his new bride and my parents were going and we all knew it could very well be the last time for the whole family to be together. My two daughters and son-in-law were rude and disrespectful the entire visit but I had quality time with my grannysons, including my 5month old grannyson that I met for the first time. After an outing with the three oldest, the three year old ran up to him mommy and said ‘Granny isn’t mean, she is nice!’ He and I developed such a strong bond, immediately, no effort required.
    As I sadly had expected, my dad unexpectedly passed away at the end of the following March after a month in the hospital. During the time my two youngest grannysons were in town, I spent every minute my daughter allowed with the boy. The 3 year old and I sat in the floor talking, laughing & playing. I have never felt such pure, genuine love.
    Due to the fact I choose to continue in the relationship, ignoring my daughter’s disapproval and demands for me to end it, I am not allowed contact with my 4 grannysons.
    When I made multiple phone calls to contact my second oldest grannyson on his birthday, my daughter refused to answer. My daughter told my mother, I did not talk to my grannyson on his birthday. She failed to admit I called and she refused to answer.
    The holidays have been so hardbthis year. This is the first Christmas with out my dad, my son is on Naval deployment and my mother & youngest daughter are going out of state to spend Christmas with my 4 grannysons & daughter.
    I occasionally talk to the paternal grandmother of my oldest grannysons. She lived with my daughter and her son for the first four years of our second grandson’s life. She nor her son have been allowed contact with the boys for over 6 years.
    Currentky my mother is the only grandparent allowed contact. My son-in-law has determined both of his parents and both sets of his grandparents, have habits, behavior or are making choices which he & my daughter disagree with. Until they conform to the rules, contact with the children will not be allowed.
    I am concerned about the effects of significant relationships being taken from my grannysons. Aren’t love and acceptance basic human needs?

  20. I grew up with only one set of grandparents. I have such fond memories of them. They never spent lots of money on me or gave me elaborate gifts. My grandpa took me fishing, we picked pecans and blackberries and we played in his huge garden. My grandmother and I would sit on the swing and shell peas. They were never people who expected you to live up to a certain statute in life. They were wonderful grandparents. My son has this same relationship with my mother and father. However, my husbands parents have no relationship with my son and it really breaks my heart. When he was born he was their first grandchild. I insisted on taking him there to visit every few weeks or at least once a month. They never made an effort to visit when he was growing up and I got tired of trying. They only live a few blocks away. He is now going on 20 years old and all I can say is they never made time for him so I don’t expect him to make time for them. They have missed an opportunity they can never get back. They always tell him to come and visit and I don’t discourage him from doing so, but I feel it is the adults responsibility to establish a relationship with the child not the other way around. All I can say is they will grow old very lonely and it is their loss because he is an amazing young man.

  21. Our daughter is a single mom with many college loans and no father in the picture. She has to work and we alsi work full time. But do everything we can to keep him out of daycare that we can. She and the child lived with us for 4 years. She despretly wanted out of our home and felt we were making to many decisions and interfered with his upbringing. She moved in With a person she met within 6 months and now our grandson calls this man Dad. Our daughter seems to be more into the new guy then her Son. We see our grandson daily and he continually tells us he wants to move back with us. We try to ask him why and he says because his mom yells at him. Our daughter has become very defensive if we try to say anything about his upbringing.
    We love our grandson as our own and just want what’s best for him. We struggle what to say to our grandson when he wants to stay with us and not go home to his mom and her boyfriend.

  22. My mother has died. My mother in law will not come around. My son is a year and a half old and she has literally played with him twice. We stressed to her when he was a few months old we wanted her in his daily life. We’ve invited her to the house, on outtings, offered to come to her house, etc. And we are turned down, pushed away and treated like a burden. She lives 10 min swsy, but works around the block. My son doesn’t even know her. I sent this article to her. We tried to help her understand before, but she’s defensive and in denial!

  23. I have 2 beautiful daughters. One has 3 boys aged 15 months, 5 and 7. The other has a boy aged 5 and a little girl aged 2 and a half. For the family with 3 boys I am the only grandparent. My daughter and her husband have always had firm but sensible boundaries as parents. I usually see the boys every week and love spending time with them. I have had the 2 older boys overnight twice and love doing that- would love to do it more often and have asked them but the older one isn’t sure about coming. He’s a very sensitive child and can be a bit anxious. I realise I can’t force the issue though. Anyway, the parents always insist that the older boys say hello when I come over and goodbye when I leave. They have even trained the 15 month old to give me a kiss. I love that but a few people on this website have said children shouldn’t be forced to do this. I disagree. I think it is something they can be taught to do purely out of respect and of course, they need to be taught to make eye contact at the same time. I am very concerned that my other daughter and her husband don’t encourage their children to show the same respect, so much so that I feel invisible around them. I so want to develop a relationship with them but find it very difficult. They pretty much ignore me and it’s actually got worse as they’ve got older. Am I expecting too much? It breaks my heart when my little grandaughter actually turns her head the other way when I say hello and clings to her mother as if she’s frightened of me. A few people on this website have suggested ignoring this kind of behaviour but how am I ever going to get close to her? Her brother is the same with me and I feel I can’t engage with him at all. He is always ki cking me and hitting me when I get close and being very rude to me. I’ve tried so many different ways to relate but without success. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  24. Father ARE NOT secondary or less important than mothers. DO even read studies ?
    Grandparents can only serve as social support and do no play either a vital or psychological requirement for a child.
    Soon, single mother are going to believe that the grandparents are more important than the Dad. Get real people. It’s nice for a child to have grandparents, but no father or mother around, and you get a recipe for disaster.

  25. This is all good info but if a grandparent or grandparents are toxic then it’s the parents responsibility to protect their child/children and keep them away from the topix individual.

  26. ShadowK is absolutely correct. Fathers are NOT secondary. We matter as much as the mother. FATHERS MATTER!!

  27. I agree Paul. When a grandparent is toxic and does more harm then good. The benefit does not outweigh the damage. My wife passed early this year and I am fortunate to have my parents, my wifes biological father and step mother, my wifes step father as teammates for raising my son. They listen and work with me to follow the rules I have in place and don’t use him as a crutch. Her mother on the other hand is bat shit crazy along with her third husband. I in no way will let her toxicity, actions, and threats to me , poison my son. She has supervised visits because she is unhealthy for him.

  28. When my grandson Dylan was about to be born I was given the bad news that he was coming into this world with lots of health problems. At first I started crying and then I realized God was giving me a present. He was born with webbed hands and toes he only had a very small piece of brain his kidneys were very large and were folded he ate by a tube inserted in his stomach he couldnt outstretch his arms or legs he couldnt hold his head up he couldnt move he didnt cry well he was lucky, he had everything. Yet he knew my voice, because when I spoke to him he would blink. I knew when he was hungary,uncomfortable,tired I just knew. I took care of him since we brought him home from the hospital. I was there for every doctors visit all his surgeries I just couldnt let go of him. then one December 16 his father took him home I couldnt take the waiting so I went to see Dylan. I walked in the room he looked up at me , i wanted to take him with me but my husband said his father wanted to be with him so I went back home. pulling in my driveway came the call that Dylan had stopped breathing. ever since then i have never been the same. God took him because he needed another angel. The Friday before was when the children were killed at the SandyHook Dylan passed that Sunday.

  29. My daughter has a grandchild that she had a very close relationship with when the child was born and for three years after.She kept the child for the mother on most weekends and some during the week.Her son does not pay his child support as he should but my daughter can’t afford to pay it.The child’s mother moved away about 100 miles and lives with her boyfriend.She has limited my daughter to very few visits with her grandchild whom she loves with all her heart.It has increased her anxiety and she misses her so much.We saw the child for 2 hrs at Christmas and the child ran to her grandmother and hugged and kissed her.She could not let her son know she was seeing the child.The child asked where her daddy was and that she wanted to see him.My daughter told her she would have to talk to her mother about that.They were so happy to see each other.What can she do legally to be able to see her more often?She only saw her twice in the past year.The child is six years old.

  30. So what do you do when the Grandparents don’t want anything at all to do with your kids. My Husband’s family could careless about our two kids. No calls or visits unless we take the initiative to visit or if their at his sister’s house. It’s like his Mom and sister’s can’t do anything unless his one sister that has kids approves. I think it’s jealousy on his family’s part even though they say we’re jealous. (more to that story). His Dad has been divorced with his Mom for several years and has recently came back into the picture with his ex-wife and the sister that has kids and now has completely cut our kids off just like all of them did. What can you do or say? It upsets us so much but we can’t change them.

  31. I have 3 grandchildren 2 grandsons 5 and 3 and a granddaughter almost 6 months! My grandsons have been in my care 3-4 days a week since they both have been born! When my son divorced I started staying with him and his sons 2-3 days nights a week or the boys came and stayed at my home! My son got them Monday tue Wednesday and Thursdays every week and every other weekend! He has a daughter with his girlfriend whom she has threatened both me and my son that she had all rights to the daughter/granddaughter since she wouldn’t let my son sign any Paternity Papers for her, she just moved back in with him a few months ago! She is very controlling and is hostile if things are not going her way! The last time I saw my grandsons was June 9th the girlfriend grabbed both boys by thr arms while both boys was screaming and begging me to come get them she slammed the door on me and wouldn’t let me soothe and comfort them, I don’t know what she said to my son but he refused me seeing them since that day! I haven’t slept or ate well since that day! I’ve tried calling texting my son but he told my family that he blocked me! I am Lost and empty feeing I never said one bad word to the girlfriend or my son I am seeking an attorney to try getting some visitation but am so worried about what this is doing to my grandsons!

  32. Why do some toddlers prefer one sex over the the other I have spend a lot of my spare time with my granddaughter since she was born now she is 15 months and does not let me hold her or play with her. But my husband us now getting all this attention now it hurts me and I don’t know why is it just a phase or will I not get my granddaughters love again?? Don’t get me wrong I’m sure she doesn’t hate me but it seems that it doesn’t matter if I am there or not

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