Grandparenting, Part 5: What happens when parents are stressed?

IAN HOOTON / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARYDoctor G and I have been writing and talking all week about the role of grandparents in the lives of children; grandparents are sometimes forgotten in the busy schedule of families, but as I wrote yesterday, their involvement in childcare seems to be linked to some positive outcomes for children and youth. This is good news, especially since up to 38% of kids receive regular care from their grandparents! But what happens in families when parents are under stress? A study in the June 2008 issue of Families, Systems, & Health looked at families to see whether the support of a grandparent contributed to a reduction in stress for parents of children with special needs. Because previous research has shown that grandmothers are seen by parents as being more supportive than grandfathers, only grandmother involvement was examined in the study. Participants were interviewed and completed questionnaires at the beginning of the study and 1 year later; all of the parents included in the study had children with developmental disabilities.

The findings were somewhat complicated, and differed for mothers and fathers. For mothers, higher levels of support from either paternal or maternal grandmothers was linked to a reduction in stress 12 months later. Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the contributions of practical support (e.g., babysitting, etc.) versus emotional support of maternal grandmothers, these separate factors were not significant predictors of maternal stress; it was only the combination of emotional and practical involvement that was helpful. For paternal grandparents, either emotional or practical support was strongly linked to stress reduction in mothers. So mothers needed both emotional and practical support from their own moms for stress to be reduced, but found either to be helpful when it came from their mother-in-law.

For dads, the findings painted a different picture. The involvement of grandparents did not have a significant impact on paternal stress. A close look at the data might help to explain why: a large proportion of the fathers in the study were employed full-time, whereas mothers were more likely to provide full-time child care. Having a grandparent's support would logically have a bigger impact on a parent who cares for a developmentally delayed child than it would for a parent who works outside the home. Employed parents would by necessity receive help with child care from someone, whether it was their partner, a daycare provider, or a grandparent. At first glance, it looks like having the support of a maternal or paternal grandparent made little impact for dads, but this was not actually the case. Fathers tended to experience less stress when their wives were less stressed. There could therefore be an indirect effect of grandparental involvement: having the help of a grandmother might reduce the stress of the mother, resulting in a reduction in the father's stress as well.

All in all, the research seems clear - children, youth, and their parents appear to benefit from having a relationship with, and receiving support from, a grandparent. Nonetheless, many of us forgot about National Grandparents Day, which didn't receive the kind of media or commercial attention given to parents on Mothers Day and Fathers Day. Doctor G and I wrote this series to celebrate the role our own parents have played in the lives of our kids, and to remind readers to mark their calendars: the next National Grandparents Day will be on Sunday, September 12, 2010.

You can read the Families, Systems, & Health study here.

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