How maternal grandmothers can buffer against childhood adversities

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A new study has found that investment by maternal grandmothers can significantly reduce emotional and behavioral problems in grandchildren who have experienced multiple adverse early life experiences. Published in Scientific Reports, the research highlights the unique and critical role that maternal grandmothers play in mitigating the effects of early life stressors on children’s mental health.

Researchers aimed to understand the impact of grandparental investment on child development, particularly in adverse conditions. Given the evolutionary and social significance of grandparental roles, the study focused on how maternal grandmothers, maternal grandfathers, paternal grandmothers, and paternal grandfathers contribute differently to their grandchildren’s wellbeing.

Prior studies suggested that maternal relatives, especially grandmothers, tend to invest more in their grandchildren, potentially due to greater certainty of genetic relatedness and stronger emotional bonds. The researchers sought to explore if these investments have a protective effect on children facing multiple adversities.

The study utilized data from the Involved Grandparenting and Child Well-Being 2007 survey, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,566 adolescents aged 11 to 16 from England and Wales. Only those with at least one living grandparent were included, resulting in a final sample of 1,488 adolescents.

Researchers measured the emotional and behavioral problems of these children using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). This tool assesses various aspects of children’s behavior, including emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and peer relationship issues. A higher SDQ score indicates more significant problems.

To quantify adverse early life experiences, the study used a modified version of the Adverse Life Event scale. This scale includes significant life events such as family deaths, economic hardships, family substance abuse, serious illness, crime victimization, parental separation, and incarceration. Additionally, eligibility for free school meals, indicating low family income, was also considered.

Grandparental investment was assessed through questions about the frequency of visits, caregiving activities, dependability, and financial assistance. These responses helped create a composite measure of the level of investment from each grandparent type.

Given the complexity of the relationships between these variables, researchers used a sophisticated statistical technique known as instrumental variable regression within a Bayesian structural equation modeling framework. This method helps draw more causally interpretable conclusions from observational data by addressing potential confounding factors and measurement errors.

The study’s findings revealed that only investment by maternal grandmothers significantly buffered the negative impact of adverse early life experiences on children’s emotional and behavioral problems. Specifically, higher levels of investment from maternal grandmothers reduced the positive association between adverse experiences and SDQ scores. This means that children who faced multiple adversities but had high levels of support from their maternal grandmothers exhibited fewer emotional and behavioral problems compared to those with less support.

For instance, without substantial grandmotherly investment, each additional adverse experience increased a child’s SDQ score by an average of 4.54 points. However, with high levels of investment from maternal grandmothers, this increase was only 2.02 points. While grandmotherly investment could not completely eliminate the adverse effects, it substantially mitigated them.

“Our analysis was able to show that grandchildren who experience early stress, be that from strained relationships between the parents, or drug or alcohol use within the family, it increased their risk of poor social and emotional adjustment,” said study author David Coall of Edith Cowan University.

“The more investment from a maternal grandmother was present, the impact of early stress on adolescent dysfunction became smaller and smaller, but it did not disappear entirely. There is no level of investment that would entirely negate the effects of adverse early life experiences, but investments by maternal grandmothers more than halved the negative effects of adverse early life experiences on children’s emotional and behavioral problems.”

Interestingly, the study found no significant buffering effect from paternal grandparents or maternal grandfathers. This supports the notion that maternal grandmothers are uniquely positioned to provide critical emotional and practical support to grandchildren, particularly in challenging circumstances.

Despite its robust methodology, the study has some limitations. One major limitation is the potential for unmeasured confounding factors that could influence both grandparental investment and children’s outcomes. While the instrumental variable approach helps address this, it cannot entirely eliminate these concerns. Additionally, the study relied on self-reported data from adolescents, which may introduce biases.

Another limitation is the focus on a contemporary affluent society, which might not generalize to different cultural or socio-economic contexts. Grandparental roles and investment patterns can vary widely across cultures, and future studies should explore these dynamics in diverse settings.

The study also emphasizes the need for longitudinal research to understand the long-term effects of grandparental investment on grandchildren’s outcomes. While the current study shows a protective effect on emotional and behavioral problems during adolescence, it is crucial to examine whether these benefits extend into adulthood and influence overall life trajectories, including educational attainment, employment, and mental health.

The study, “Investment by maternal grandmother buffers children against the impacts of adverse early life experiences,” was authored by Samuli Helle, Antti O. Tanskanen, David A. Coall, Gretchen Perry, Martin Daly, and Mirkka Danielsbacka.

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