6 Factors of Grandparent-Grandchild Closeness

Grandfather and grandson reading on the dock of a lake

Tom Merton / Getty Images

Grandparents often wonder at what age their grandchildren may lose interest in them. This phenomenon varies quite a bit from child to child. However, it mimics the common experience of many parents as kids gain autonomy and get increasingly interested in their friends. Generally, at around age 10 into their teen years, some kids start drifting away from their grandparents.

But there are things you can do to keep your relationship solid. In fact, some grandparents enjoy close relationships with their grandchildren as they grow up. There are many varied circumstances, personality traits, and lifestyle factors that influence these pivotal relationships. However, research has found some clear patterns that help to determine why some grandparents are closer to their grandchildren than others.

Social psychologists Merril Silverstein and Vern L. Bengtson, among others, have studied the concept that they call "intergenerational solidarity." They identify six key factors that influence this "solidarity" or relationship closeness. Understanding these factors can help you foster a closeness with your grandchild that's more likely to last.

While some of these factors are beyond our control, others are not. Awareness of the overarching components of the grandparent-grandchild relationship can help you focus on what you can influence to build closer bonds.

Physical Proximity to Grandchildren

Not surprisingly, geographic closeness is one of the strongest predictors of a close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. This may be out of the control of some grandparents, although some have demonstrated a willingness to move to be close to their grandchildren.

Another way to develop closeness is to visit frequently, if possible. But some grandparents' health and financial status can limit travel. Geographical distance isn't terribly important for grandparents who are fit, healthy, and financially able to afford the cost of frequent trips to see grandchildren.

Although there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, technology has made it easier to build a relationship with grandchildren across the miles. Many grandparents visit with their grandchildren daily or weekly via FaceTime, Skype, or other video chat platforms.

Older grandchildren often appreciate text messages, as long as they are not overly frequent. Social networking sites are also good for staying in touch with tweens, teens, and young adult grandchildren. The bottom line is that loving grandparents can find a way to bridge the distance, even if they can't be there in person.

Frequency of Contact With Grandchildren

Grandparents who stay in frequent contact with their grandchildren have closer relationships, but physical distance isn't the only obstacle to contact. Parental divorce commonly has a drastic effect on contact between grandchildren and grandparents. Often contact increases between the custodial parent and their parents, and contact with grandchildren increases, too.

However, the parents of the non-custodial parent frequently find their contact with grandchildren greatly reduced. Since mothers more often receive physical custody, sometimes maternal grandparents have greater opportunities for time with their grandchildren after a divorce, while paternal grandparents may have a reduced role.

Today, more fathers are winning custody, and joint custody is on the rise. Perhaps in the future, divorce will not affect the grandparent-grandchild relationship as radically as it often does today.

Grandparents' Role Within the Family

When grandparents provide child care for grandchildren or become actual or surrogate parents to their grandchildren, they have a greater than average opportunity to bond. Some grandparents may take more of a parental role rather than functioning as a typical grandparent.

Interestingly, research shows that it is the regular presence of grandparents that results in closeness, rather than the functions that they perform. Whether you are a grandparent who is a guardian to your grandchildren, babysits them, mainly plays with them, or takes them on outings, you can be close to your grandchildren.

Family Expectations

Studies show that families that expect strong relationships between the generations are more likely to have them. That's because children are taught from an early age that family members share obligations. Those obligations may include caregiving for children and for older people, financial assistance, and general sharing of tasks. And the assistance flows in both directions—from younger to older and from older to younger.

Families that have this type of culture are more likely to demonstrate strong grandparent-grandchild bonds than families in which individuality and independence top the list of values. Such families also adopt practices that keep extended families close, such as regularly sharing meals.

Emotional Bonding with Grandchildren

Although grandparents and grandchildren often report mutual closeness, grandparents may report a greater degree of closeness than the younger generation. That's just natural.

When families work as they should, children are closest to their parents and siblings. Grandparents usually occupy their second circle or tier of emotional proximity. As children grow, their circles enlarge, and their peers become vitally important to them. Sometimes, grandparents may be further displaced.

Grandparents, on the other hand, often live in a world of shrinking circles as their peers and older relatives die, move away, or suffer from serious health issues. Their children and grandchildren may come to occupy a larger space in their lives.

What is important, however, is that grandparents who establish early emotional bonds with grandchildren will find that those bonds last. Such bonds usually survive the passage of years and the many changes that both generations go through.

Research also shows that the middle generation is of vital importance in determining closeness. When grandparents and their adult children are close, closeness with grandchildren tends to come more naturally and easily.

Reaching a Consensus on Values

Grandchildren often get their early values from parents and grandparents. As they mature, however, they are more likely to develop their own set of values. Families are closest when they share values, but few families will ever be in total agreement across generations.

Researchers say a generation gap sometimes develops when younger generations find older generations lacking in social tolerance and even prone to hypocrisy. Grandparents certainly do not need to abandon their values and standards, but a willingness to listen to the younger generation can go a long way. And grandparents should be sure that they practice what they preach.

Just knowing what makes a great grandparent-grandchild relationship won't magically improve family bonds or solve every issue. Of course, there are many personal and family dynamic issues at play. If a grandparent has lost contact with their grandchildren or has deep-seated family conflicts, more interventions or family therapy may be needed to restore these relationships.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that although all of these six factors can have a big influence on grandparent-grandchild closeness, the attitude of the grandparents is the most important one. And while research shows that devotion to one's grandparents isn't always a given, the grandparent-grandchild relationship can thrive when the effort is put in to build and sustain it.

In other words, grandchildren don't automatically value their elders. Instead, they learn to value their individual grandparents and the way they occupy that role. Ultimately, it is the grandparent who is determined to build a strong and lasting relationship with grandchildren who is most likely to succeed.

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By Susan Adcox
Susan Adcox is a writer covering grandparenting and author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.