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 to bond with your new grandchild, but the baby cries every time you come near. When you try to hold your grandchild, the cries turn into shrieks.

While you might worry that you're doing something wrong, know that there are several reasons that babies react this way. Here's a brief overview of why your grandchild might not take to you right away, and a few things that you can do.

Developmental Basis

A grandchild's negative reaction to a grandparent sometimes has developmental causes. By about six months old, many babies begin to react badly to strangers. If you are unable to see a grandchild often, you're more likely to be perceived as a stranger.

Research has found that stranger anxiety is most prevalent from six to 12 months of age, but it can also occur later within a child's first two years. If the child is anxious about being separated from a parent or caregiver, some experts label the reaction as separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety usually disappears around two years of age when a child is able to understand that just because their parents are out of sight doesn't mean that they are gone forever.

However, separation anxiety can also be triggered later in childhood in response to stress or life changes.

The terms "stranger anxiety" and "separation anxiety" do not cover all situations in which a child has a negative reaction to a grandparent. For example, when both grandparents visit at the same time, but only one is rejected.

Theoretically, if one grandparent is a "stranger," the other should be also. In these situations, stranger or separation anxiety does not fully explain why a grandchild accepts one grandparent and rejects the other.

Common Triggers

Parents often claim to know what triggers a negative reaction in their babies. While the conclusions are only anecdotal and not backed by scientific evidence, here are some of the most common triggers parents report.

  • Baby prefers one gender over another
  • Baby is confused or afraid of facial hair, glasses, or hats
  • Baby reacts to strong smells (especially tobacco or perfume)
  • Babies and small children might be startled by shrill or loud voices

Some research has suggested that stranger anxiety has more to do with a child's temperament than the "stranger" in question. Some children are just more prone to anxiety than others.

However, just because a child is prone to anxious feelings doesn't mean that they are doomed to be permanently fearful and anxious. The way children are parented can make them feel more secure and help them handle these feelings.

Try not to take it personally if your grandchild rejects you at first. Have patience and give them time to adjust.

What Grandparents Can Do

If your grandchild is rejecting you, try to focus on what you can control—starting with how you approach your grandchild. For example, while it's natural to want to wrap a grandkid into a hug as soon as you see them, it can be overwhelming for a sensitive or hesitant child. Instead, take your cues from your grandkids. Let them move at a pace that feels comfortable.

You'll also want to avoid taking your grandchild out of a parent's arms—especially if you notice the baby is pulling back or turning away. Instead, move slowly and talk softly. When your grandchild appears more eat ease, hold out your hands to see if they show an interest or willingness to come to you. If not, don't push it. Try to be patient and wait for them to warm up to you.

Another strategy is to delay greeting your grandchild. For example, you might talk calmly with their parents first. However, if you catch the little one stealing a curious glance at you, be sure to smile!

While you're talking with others, you might take out an interesting toy. Only offer it to the child if they come over to have a look. Your grandchild likely won't be able to resist checking out what you have—just don't use it as a bribe to get them into your lap.

It can be tricky to strike a balance. While you want to avoid pressuring your grandchild to interact with you before they're ready, you don't want it to seem like you aren't interested in them or that you are punishing them.

You also could try playing quietly with your grandchild's toys. At a young age, kids often participate in parallel play and might feel more comfortable coming over to play next to you. Once your grandchild seems comfortable, start talking about the toys you are playing with.

If the weather allows for it and it's OK with their parents, you might offer to take your grandchild outside to play. Children will often jump at the chance to go outside, even if it's just in their background. It could be the start of a special bond between the two of you. Just remember to let your grandchild set the pace and follow their lead.

Long-Distance Grandparenting

Being a long-distance grandparent can carry a negative emotional punch—being rejected by your grandchild isn't likely to help. Keep in mind that if you live a long distance from your grandchildren and don't seem them frequently, it's more likely that they will have some stranger anxiety.

It can help to prepare for your visits by 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 help their grandchildren become accustomed to their faces and voices. Making these virtual visits as interactive as possible will encourage maximum bonding. You might try playing peekaboo and singing songs with hand motions.

Even if screen-based visits go well, there still might be tears when you show up in person. It could be confusing for a baby or toddler to suddenly see someone they usually see on a video in real life. Still, don't let this keep you from visiting. Again, just try to be patient.

If you can, it helps to handle long-distance dilemmas by making frequent visits or even extended visits and get to know your grandchildren a little at a time.

A Word From Verywell

If your grandchild doesn't take to you straight away, you'll likely feel many emotions and might even doubt your grandparenting skills. Try to keep in mind that there are many reasons babies and children have negative reactions to people, places, and things. It's more than likely not your fault.

While it can be hard, remind yourself that a baby or child's reaction (especially when it's anxiety-related) is not personal and not necessarily logical. Try to be patient and follow your grandchild's lead when it comes to interacting with them, and don't lose hope if your relationship gets off to a rocky start.

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  1. Stone LL, Otten R, Soenens B, Engels RCME, Janssens JMAM. 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