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New Research Shows Grandparents Have a Significant Impact on a Mom's Mental Health

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Grandparents’ Support Can Have a Big Impactpixelfit

You know the way your parents raised you affects how you raise your own kids, but you may not realize just how much influence your parents continue to have on your mental health throughout adulthood. In fact, new research shows that having healthy grandparents around can be a boon for mothers’ mental health — especially if their kids are young.

When researchers in Finland looked at longitudinal data from more than 488,000 moms of kids age 12 or younger, they found that mothers are less likely to experience depression if they have parents who are under age 70, employed and free of severe health issues. If moms live within 10km (6.2 miles) of their parents, they are also less likely to be depressed than if they live farther away, the research showed. Interestingly, if a mom is on the verge of separating from her partner, grandparental support seems to have a bigger impact on her mental health than if she has already separated and a much bigger impact than if she remains with her partner.

“Children today are increasingly likely to have living grandparents and many studies have investigated how grandparents’ characteristics affect their probability of providing support to adult children and grandchildren,” says Niina Metsä-Simola, DSocSci, a university lecturer at the University of Helsinki who worked on the study. “Yet no population-level studies had examined how grandparental characteristics are associated with maternal depression.”

How grandparents can help

A robust social support system can be beneficial for anyone’s mental well-being, but it seems grandparents have the special touch for moms. “Having healthy grandparents around can provide valuable social support and foster a sense of community for mothers,” says Gifty G. Ampadu, PhD, an attending psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center's Child Outpatient Psychiatry Department. “When grandparents are well, they can contribute to childcare and enjoy quality time with their grandchildren. Furthermore, they can help single or separated mothers by sharing parenting responsibilities. Additionally, children who regularly interact with their grandparents can experience positive mental health benefits.”

While parental separation can be difficult for the whole family to navigate, this study found that right before a breakup is when moms could use their parents’ help the most. “We had assumed that grandparental support could alleviate the adverse mental health effects of separation and single parenthood, thus leading to larger differences in mental health by grandparental characteristics after separation,” says Metsä-Simola. “We were thus somewhat surprised that differences in maternal depression by grandparental characteristics were larger before separation than after it.”

What this means for everyone

“The mental health of mothers with young children is a critical public health concern,” says Ampadu. “We know that maternal mental health has an impact on the home environment and parenting behaviors. Studies have shown that maternal mental health can affect the mental health and social development of children in many ways.

One aspect of this research that’s particularly interesting is that grandparents don’t need to be retired to help their kids out. “The finding that grandparental employment is associated with lower probability of maternal depression is highly relevant from the perspective of policy initiatives that aim to prolong working lives as it suggests that grandparents' employment does not necessarily hinder provision of support to younger generations,” adds Metsä-Simola.

Other ways for moms to support their mental health

Even if you don’t have healthy parents nearby to help with your kids, there are things you can do to support your mental health. Ampadu recommends these three strategies to manage the stress of motherhood.

  • Reach out to other parents. “Fostering relationships with others who are also raising young children can create space where experiences can be shared,” says Ampadu. Try joining a local parenting group on social media and think about parents you run into naturally at your kid’s soccer practice or daycare. It may be scary to make the first move, but it could really pay off. “Playdates for children can offer mothers the opportunity to socialize with adults while their children engage in activities together — building healthy connections for both ages,” says Ampadu.

  • Take advantage of the few child-free minutes you have. Even if it’s just a half an hour while your kid naps or goes to a piano lesson, that can be valuable time for self-care. “Self-care activities can look like physical activities (strolling in park or yoga), mindfulness practices, participating in a hobby and calling a friend,” say Ampadu.

  • Consider talking to a mental health professional. “Therapy is another valuable option to address the cognitive and emotional challenges of parenting,” says Ampadu. “Working with a therapist can create protected time and a supportive environment to explore feelings, concerns and coping strategies related to parenting stress.”

Bottom line: “Parenting brings both joys and challenges, and navigating these challenges can sometimes lead to significant stress for parents,” says Ampadu. “If this stress is unmanaged, it can contribute to conditions like depression and anxiety. Therefore, it's essential for parents, particularly mothers, to prioritize their mental well-being by seeking support and building a sense of community.” Grandparents may be one component of that community, along with everyone from a mom’s best friend to her kid’s teacher. The more supported a mother feels, the more she is able to support her children.

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