When Your Baby Does Not Like Grandma or Grandpa

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

Being rejected or feeling like your grandchild doesn't like you can be devastating. You want so badly to bond with your new grandchild, but the baby cries every time you come near; and 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. And if you are unable to see a grandchild very often, you may be perceived as a stranger.

Stranger anxiety is most prevalent from six to 12 months of age, but it also may occur later in a child's first two years. Some researchers term label this reaction to separation anxiety. The child is anxious about possibly being separated from a parent or caregiver. Most of the time, separation anxiety disappears around two years old when a child can 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.

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, it happens when both grandparents visit their grandchildren together. Theoretically, if one grandparent is a "stranger," the other should be also. Yet, the grandchild accepts one grandparent and rejects the other. Obviously, in these situations, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety do not fully explain the baby's 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 are some common observations.

  • 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.

There also is some research that suggests "stranger anxiety" doesn't really have anything to do with the "stranger" but instead may have more to do with the child's temperament than with any other factor. For instance, some children just appear to be more prone to experience anxiety.

That does not mean these kids are doomed to be permanently fearful and anxious though. The way children are parented can make them feel more secure and better able to handle anxieties.

Don't take it personally if your grandchild rejects you at first. With time and patience, it will all work out.

What Grandparents Can Do

One way to address a baby's rejection is to focus on what you can control which is the way in which you approach your grandchild. Although it is natural to want to greet and grab your grandkids into a hug, do not rush at hesitant grandchildren. Allow them to move at a pace that is comfortable for them.

You also should avoid taking the child out of a parent's arms, especially if they are pulling back or turning away. This gesture is almost always guaranteed to result in screams. Instead, move slowly and talk softly. And when your grandchild appears comfortable hold out your hands to see if there is an interest or willingness to come to you. If not, do not push the issue. Just be patient and wait until they warm up to you.

Another strategy that may work is to delay greeting your grandchild for a short time. Just be sure to smile encouragingly if they steal a glance at you.

The goal is to avoid pushing them into interacting with you before they are ready, but you also don't want to come off like you are punishing them or that you are disinterested in them.

While you are "ignoring" them, take time to talk to the parents, keeping your voice soft. Take out an interesting toy and manipulate it; only offer it to them if they come over to inspect the toy. Often your grandchild won't be able to resist checking out what you have in your hands. But don't use it as a bribe to get them into your lap. Bribes are sure to undo all the good you have done.

You also could try playing quietly with your grandchild's toys. At a young age, kids often participate in parallel play and will come to play alongside you. Once your grandchild seems comfortable, you can begin talking about the toys and interacting. Another strategy is to offer to take your grandchild outside if the weather is suitable and the parents agree. Most children will jump at the chance to go outside. This time together often allows you to bond too. Just take it slow and go at your grandchild's pace.

Long-Distance Woes

Being a long-distance grandparent may already pack a negative emotional punch, and being rejected by your grandchild doesn't help one bit. Just remember that when you live a long distance from your grandchildren, this is especially likely to trigger stranger anxiety. So, go into your visits expecting that it will take some time for your grandchildren to warm up to you.

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 so that you encourage maximum bonding. Playing peekaboo and singing songs with hand motions are great ways to engage a very young grandchild. Still, there are no guarantees 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 suddenly appears in real life. Still, don't let this keep you from visiting.

The best way to deal with all of these long-distance dilemmas is to make frequent visits or even extended visits and get to know your grandchildren little by little.

A Word From Verywell

Although you are likely experiencing all types of emotions and maybe even doubting your grandparenting skills because of your grandchild's reaction to you, it is important to remember that your grandchild's reaction is not your fault. There are many number of explanations for the baby's behavior and almost all of them have nothing to do with you personally.

Still, this does not mean you aren't feeling sad, anxious, and maybe even a little concerned. To combat these feelings, remind yourself that the baby's reaction is not a logical one. Also, do not give up hope. 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. As long as you are patient and continue to try to bond with your grandchild, things will eventually work out.

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  1. Stone LL, Otten R, et al. Relations between parental and child separation anxiety: the role of dependency-oriented psychological control. J Child Fam Stud. 2015;24(11):3192-3199. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0122-x