Grandparenting, Part 4: How grandparents affect teen adjustment

Grandparent and teenA quick search on Wikipedia reveals that, in the early 20th century, the worldwide average human lifespan was 30 to 40 years; as of 2009, it’s estimated to be 65. Improvements in medical technology and nutrition have led not only to an increase in life expectancy, but to the maintenance of an active lifestyle in later years. The potential is there for grandparents to play a major role in the lives of their grandchildren – my kids spent part of their summer holidays visiting with their great-grandparents! There is a growing body of research on the impact of grandparenting on young kids, but less information is available on the relationship between grandparents and their teen grandchildren. In a study published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers gathered information from over 1500 students between the ages of 11 and 15 to investigate links between grandparenting and teen adjustment, and whether this would be different in two-parent, single parent, or stepparent families.

Interestingly, they found that grandparents were about equally involved with youth regardless of the family type. Although the study was cross-sectional, meaning that all of the information was collected at once rather than following families over time, the researchers surmised that grandparents value their relationships with their grandchildren, and maintain similar levels of involvement even through divorce or other changes in the family structure.

Even though the level of involvement was consistent across families, its impact varied. Overall, higher levels of grandparent involvement were linked with fewer emotional problems and increased prosocial behaviour in the youth. However, for teens in two-parent families, the level of grandparent involvement was not significantly related to a reduction in peer problems or behavioural difficulties. In single-parent families in which a grandparent looked after the child, participated in social or school activities, or had acted as an adviser to the grandchild (in other words, in families where a grandparent was highly involved with the youth), a dramatic drop was seen in overall adjustment difficulties and conduct problems. Teens in single parent homes were more likely to behave appropriately and to have fewer general problems when a grandparent played an active role in their lives. In stepfamilies with a close grandparent, teens reported fewer conduct problems and peer-related difficulties.

Overall, the results suggest that a close relationship with a grandparent might have a major impact on children whose biological parents don’t live together. However, these results can’t establish a causal link between adjustment and grandparenting; it’s possible that the opposite relationship is true – grandparents might want to spend more time with grandkids who have fewer problems. Nonetheless, the findings fit with the notion that more support from family members (perhaps even when it comes from the extended family) might have a positive impact on youth functioning.

You can read the Journal of Family Psychology study here.

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