grandmother with grandchild
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
April 28, 2024 ·  4 min read

Your Mom May Feel Closer To Her Grandkids Than To You. Here’s Why: Study

There’s no denying that grandmothers have a special connection with their grandchildren. After all, it’s the parents’ job to discipline; it’s the grandparents’ job to love and spoil. A study delved into this relationship and found grandmothers may feel emotionally closer to their grandkids than their own offspring. 

Why Do Grandmothers Have a Unique Connection With Their Grandkids? 

To conduct this study, James Rilling, a professor of anthropology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Emory, evaluated the brain function of about 50 grandmothers with at least one biological grandchild aged three to 12. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers scanned the women’s brains as they looked at pictures of their grandchildren, the children’s parents, and unrelated children and adults. 

When grandmothers viewed pictures of their grandchildren, they particularly activated brain regions that have been implicated in emotional empathy, such as the insular and secondary somatosensory cortices,” said Rilling. Emotional empathy is the ability to feel emotions another person is feeling. [1]

However, when the women examined pictures of their own children a different region of the brain activated. “When viewing pictures of the grandchild’s same-sex parent, who was often but not always the grandmother’s own adult biological child, they particularly activated areas of the brain involved with cognitive empathy such as the precuneus,” he said.

Cognitive empathy, also known as theory of mind, is understanding on an intellectual level what the other person is feeling or thinking. This can include imagining yourself in that person’s shoes, but there’s less emotional empathy, where you share the same emotional experience.

The setup of this study resembled a previous one by Rilling and his team. There, fathers looked at pictures of their children. In comparison, grandmothers displayed stronger activation than the dad in regions of the brain connected to emotional empathy, motivation, and reward. Still, it’s important to point out that this overall finding was not all-encompassing. For example, some dads scored higher on empathy than grandmothers in the second study.

“It is our first glimpse at grandmaternal brain function. It suggests that grandmothers particularly rely on neural systems that are involved with emotional empathy when engaging with their grandchildren,” Rilling said. [2]

Read: Study: Grandparents Who Babysit May Live Longer

The Grandmother Hypothesis” 

Rilling has long been fascinated by these types of studies. “I am interested in the ways in which humans are similar to and different from other primates,” he said. “One interesting difference is the way we raise our offspring. Great ape mothers raise their offspring all by themselves. Human mothers, on the other hand, typically receive help in raising their offspring.” Often, that help comes in the form of grandmothers. Therefore, Rilling added, “there is considerable evidence that grandmothers can contribute to grandchild well-being.”

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes had proposed a theory called “the grandmother hypothesis” based on research in the 1980s and 1990s. This theory states that human females, unlike many animals, live far past their reproductive years to help raise generations of offspring, ensuring the survival of their genes. [3]

The exact reason behind the special connection between grandkids and their grandmothers is still unknown. Some parents hypothesize it’s because grandparents can spoil the kids for hours then send them home in time for chores, homework, bedtime, tantrums, and other not-fun activities. However, Rilling has another idea: the ‘cute’ phenotype of children designed to endear adults to take care of them.

Young children have likely evolved traits to be able to manipulate not just the maternal brain, but the grand-maternal brain. An adult child doesn’t have the same cute factor, so they may not the same emotional response.[4]

Read: Grandmother Rants About Parents Who Treat Grandparents As Babysitters

How to Maintain a Good Relationship With Grandparents

Having a grandparent involved in a child’s life is a blessing but it can present many challenges. To make this relationship and experience as smooth as possible, here are some tips. Firstly, keep an open dialogue going. Boundaries should be in place, such as determining if unannounced visits are acceptable or unwanted, or deciding how frequently the grandparents want to visit or babysit. Secondly, safety always comes first. Yes, grandparents tend to be indulgent but if they are engaging in unsafe behaviors or enabling the child’s unsafe behavior, the parents should step in and stay firm on the matter. 

And thirdly, validate the grandparents. They may give much-unsolicited advice but it mostly comes from good intentions. When it comes to harmless suggestions, such as ideas on the child’s diet, give the impression you will consider it instead of immediately dismissing them. Phrases like “I’ll talk to the pediatrician about it” or “I’ll keep it in mind” can help keep things civil. But when the advice borders on harmful, return to tip one and communicate boundaries on the subject. [5]

Keep Reading: Studies show kids need their grandparents more than we realize


  1. “The neural correlates of grandmaternal caregiving.Royal Society Publishing. James K. Rilling, Amber Gonzalez, Minwoo Lee. November 17, 2021
  2. “Are grandmothers more connected to their grandchildren than own kids? One study says yes.” USA Today. Gabriela Miranda. November 17, 2021
  3. “Study Says Grandmas May Feel More Connected To Grandkids Than Their Own Kids.” HuffPost. Brittany Wong. December 8, 2021
  4. “Grandmothers may be more connected to grandchildren than to own offspring.The Guardian. Linda Geddes. November 17, 2021
  5. “Study Shows Grandmothers May Be More Connected to Their Grandchildren than Own Children.” Parents. Beth Ann Mayer. November 19, 2021