When a Grandchild Doesn't Like the Grandparent

No One Really Knows What Causes the Tears

Stranger anxiety may be to blame when a grandbaby rejects a grandparent and cries.
Hans Neleman / Getty

It is devastating for a grandparent. You want so badly to bond with your new grandchild, but the baby cries whenever you approach. When you try to hold your grandchild, the cries turn into shrieks. What causes some babies to react in this way?

Developmental Basis

Researchers say that a grandchild's negative reaction to a grandparent may have developmental causes.

At around six months, many babies begin to react badly to strangers. If you don't get to see a grandchild very often, you may be perceived as a stranger. Stranger anxiety is most prevalent from 6 to 12 months of age but also may occur later in a child's first two years. Some researchers term this syndrome separation anxiety. The child is anxious about being separated from a parent or caregiver. They say that this elementary form of separation anxiety disappears around 2 years old when a child is able to understand that when parents are out of sight, they aren't gone forever. Separation anxiety can be triggered later in childhood, too, often as a reaction to stress or life changes.

Problems With Developmental Explanations

The terms stranger anxiety and separation anxiety, however, do not cover all situations in which a child has negative reactions to a grandparent. Sometimes, for example, a grandparenting couple always visits their grandbaby together.

Theoretically, if one is a "stranger," the other should be also. Yet the grandchild accepts one grandparent and rejects the other. As for the tag "separation anxiety," the reaction often occurs even when the parent is present and when the parent has not established a pattern of letting the grandparents babysit.

Obviously, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety don't fully explain the reaction.

Determining Triggers

Parents and others who observe babies closely often claim to know what triggers a baby's negative reaction. Such conclusions are not backed by scientific evidence, but here's what some parents claim to have observed:

  • One gender is preferred over the other.
  • Baby doesn't like facial hair or glasses.
  • Strong smells, especially tobacco or perfume, trigger negative reactions.
  • Baby doesn't like voices that are loud or shrill.

What Grandparents Can Do

You may not have control over all of the factors mentioned earlier, but you can control the way you approach a grandchild. Although it is natural to want to greet and grab, do not rush at a hesitant grandchild and especially do not attempt to take the child out of a parent's arms. That is practically guaranteed to result in screams. Instead, move slowly and talk softly.

Another strategy that may work is to ignore the grandchild for a little while. Talk to the parents. Take out an interesting toy and manipulate it, but don't offer it to the grandchild. Often the grandchild won't be able to resist checking out the toy. Don't use it as a bribe to get the grandchild into your lap, or you may undo all the good you have done.

Another strategy is to take the grandbaby outside if the weather is suitable. Most grandchildren never get enough of going outside.

It's Not Your Fault

A grandchild's apparent dislike can spark all kinds of negative emotions. You may doubt your grandparenting skills and generally feel like a failure. To combat these feelings, remind yourself that the baby's reaction is not a logical one. Scads of grandparents have reported building close relationships with grandchildren after a rocky start. You are not doomed to have a lifelong conflict with your grandchild. Nothing is wrong that will not right itself, as long as you are patient and continue to try to bond.

Long-Distance Woes

Grandparents who live far away from a grandchild are especially likely to trigger stranger anxiety. Being a long-distance grandparent may already pack a negative emotional punch. Being rejected by a grandchild doesn't help one bit.

Some grandparents find that it helps to Skype or use FaceTime to get grandchildren accustomed to their faces and voices. Make those video visits as interactive as possible for maximum bonding. Playing peekaboo and singing songs with hand motions are ways to engage a very young grandchild. Still, there is no guarantee that you won't trigger tears when you show up in person. Some babies and toddlers are confused when someone they know through video chats appears in real life. For all of these long-distance dilemmas, frequent visits or extended visits will help more than anything else — as if you needed an excuse!

Factor in Child's Temperament

Actually, whether an infant displays stranger anxiety may have more to do with the child's temperament than with any other factor, according to researchers cited in a New York Times story. They have concluded that some children have a predilection for anxiety. That does not mean that such children are doomed to be permanently fearful and anxious. The way a child is parented can make a child feel more secure and more able to handle anxieties. In conclusion, the reaction known as stranger anxiety may have little to do with the stranger and much to do with the child. If you are the "stranger" who has been making a grandchild cry, it is a very comforting concept.