Child's Fear of Grandparents

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Daughter (2.5) hates/fears her grandmother

Sept 2011

My daughter is terrified of my mother-in-law. She adores her grandfathers and other grandmothers (my mom and step-mom) but she is deeply afraid of my mother-in-law and won't look her in the eye or let grandma touch her. My relationship with my mother-in-law is strained, but I try to project kindness and confidence when she's around. We tried leaving them alone together a few (3) times, but on the last time my mother-in-law dropped my daughter at daycare at the end of her visit, and my daycare providers pulled me aside at the end of the day and said my daughter was so shaken when she arrived at daycare that they assumed grandma might be physically abusing her (she is not, that at least I am sure of). Whenever we visit with grandma (she lives locally and we see her every few weeks) my daughter has nightmares or night terrors and we spend half the night awake soothing her. We've tried talking to grandma and asking her to take it slow with my daughter, not get in her face or demand physical attention right away, but my mother-in-law is reluctant to believe that we could know more than she does about children, and is of a generation/culture that allows little in the way of children's choice. She thinks we are too lenient and we should force or bribe my daughter to behave. Grandma is frustrated with the situation too, but we don't know how to communicate with her in a way that she will respond to (nothing's worked so far). I am at my wits end and wondering if anyone has had similar situations that they have made it through. many thanks! Liz

If, as you describe, your mother-in-law ''allows little in the way of children's choice'', your behavior in not listening to the very very clear signals your daughter is giving is only reinforcing this sort of disregard for the child, to the detriment of your daughter. It is very clear that you should not leave your daughter alone with this woman. She can visit her granddaughter with you or your husband present. Your obligation is to your daughter - I think you need to get very, very clear about the obviousness of this to yourself. Your mother-in-law is not owed alone time with the child. She can visit with other adults present. Your child's safety is paramount. Wake up

Children that demonstrate that kind of fear, shakenness, etc are not just being difficult particularly if it is just with one individual and you need to look deeper into the dynamics between your mother-in-law and daughter. Your mother-in-law may not be *physically* abusing her but your description of your daughter's sheer terror of her indicates to me that there is definitely verbal abuse that is or has happened for your daughter to react in such a strong way. I would work on protecting your daughter and not forcing a relationship, there may be good reason and I wouldn't leave her alone with her at all. Rita

If this is truly the only person your daughter has this reaction to, ever, then I would be concerned that something has happened that you are not aware of. That said, I have a daughter who has had that reaction to a number of people, including one grandparent. She is extremely sensitive to people getting ''in her face'' or people who exude energy that isn't in line with how my daughter is feeling (for example, people who cheerfully and loudly announce that everything is fine when she is crying). The situation has been awkward and frustrating on many occasions, especially when it involves a grandparent. However, I have learned that trying to force her to be with the people she is scared of does not improve the situation at all. So what I have done is, as much as possible, respect that my daughter is not comfortable with these people. She is only around them with me present, and I help her navigate the interactions that scare her most. She is now past her most anxious years (that was around 2.5, like your daughter), and things are getting much better. Maybe that would have happened regardless of my strategy, but this is what felt right to me. kids have likes and dislikes too

My daughter is 20 now and loves her grandma but when she was 2-3 yrs old we had the same issue, it took me a while to see that after every visit she had night terrors, that only happened with my mother in law. One thing we did we cut the number of visits and had my in laws visit us. I think you have to be firm and not let grandma bully you, don't leave her alone, don't let grandma play alone with your daughter when you are there, may be take a walk to the park together but with you there... The only person who needs to change is your mother in law not your child... she will mature and decide for herself. I think it is not a good idea to dismiss your daughter's feelings, instincts on how to be with another person... she should have a right to say NO at any age, even at 2. As an adult it will help her to be able to judge people and walk away from wrong people.. Listen to your child and yourself.

It is your job to protect your daughter and make her feel secure. If Grandma makes her feel bad and causes nightmares, keep her away from Grandma. No child should be forced to be around some old lady who drops her. Just stay away for a few months or maybe even a few years. However, I have to ask, why does a visit with grandma result in nightmares? Why does your daughter like her other grandparents and not this one? I feel that perhaps you are leaving part of the story out. Nobody can give you good advice if you are withholding information. anon

Before you may be able to solve this ''mystery'', I would respond to your daughter and keep her away from grandma. It's a sad fact that just because your daughter is related to her grandmother or anyone else doesn't make grandma appropriate or her people. Please listen to your daughter and, maybe, get a child therapist involved to suss out what has happened or is happening. This is not something to ignore. Anon

Greetings, have you asked your daughter why? also we are spirit souls and have had many re-incarnations, meaning we could have had past life encounters with each other. I have had great help and insight from numerology. the best DIY book is by Harrish Johari. but in the meanwhile the grandma should utilize her hidden wisdom and lay back for a while and if she wants to she can just exhibit some unconditional love and compassion, and let the little one reconcile, children are extremely aware and present. in fact our only real and tangeble connection with the divine are children. peace

13-month-old is scared of grandfather

November 2002

Our boy since the very beginning has been scared of his grandfather (my dad). He cries when my dad comes near him and turns away when my dad wants to hold him. My dad has tried feeding and playing with him but to no avail. I'm assuming this is a stage and he will outgrow it but I'm curious if anyone else experienced this and how did you handle it? It's breaking my dad's heart.

My son was scared of my dad for the first couple of months - my dad has a full beard and smokes cigars, and while my son is used to the beard, he won't go near my dad if my dad has just smoked a cigar. A good friend of mine is an ex-smoker -- she quit when we figured out that my son didn't like the smell of the smoke on her clothes. Now he dives into her arms. Jwheelis

We had a very similar situation with our daughter for 1 plus years, with her grandmother. Her grandmother was very determined to win her grandaughter's affection, but it was a long, slow process. She initially screamed upon sight of her grammy, and would not be held, preferred no real contact, until maybe after 1 hour plus interaction with Mom present. We made the mistake of trying to leave her with grammy only to arrive home to hysterical screaming.

With patience, your child may decide eventually to like the grandparent, but do not force them together, especially if he continues to display real fear or discomfort. Instead, act as a buffer and stick around during visits. While this may be difficult for a loving grandparent, they should be considerate enough to not force the child's comfort level until they demonstrate that they are ready. Our daughter now adores her grammy and has no real memory of their rocky beginnings together. been there

My younger daughter was distrustful of many people--including my mother--when she was younger. My mother tried every approach we suggested, including simply ignoring my daughter with the hopes that she would go to my mother of her own accord. It broke my mother's heart, but nothing worked except time. When my daughter was 2 and more social, she gave Grandma a chance. They're good buddies now and most of us don't even remember how ''prickly'' my daughter was at that age. kzm

Does your father have a beard? We have noticed that our baby does not like our fathers very much either and we think it is because of their beards. If he does have a beard perhaps he will feel better knowing that it is not that your son doesn't like him but that he finds the beard a little scary. Berkeley Mom

My daughter was scared of my mom when she had her glasses on. Make sure it's not something like that that he can easily change before you make it more serious. anon

19-month-old cries when grandma visits

Our 19 month daughter has an extremely adverse reaction to my husband's mother. Grandma lives nearby and likes to come by about once a week to visit. We prepare for the visits by saying Grandma is coming to visit, how fun! etc. Even before Grandma walks in the door, when my daughter sees Grandma getting out of the car or hears her coming up the steps, my daughter will start to cry and grab our legs. She often is shy around new people or people she hasn't seen for a while (including my parents), but nothing as dramatic as this.

Realizing our own potential culpability, we have tried to eliminate all discussions about my mother-in-law when my daughter is awake. We're trying to think of possible bad experiences they may have had, but are hard pressed. We haven't left her with Grandma to babysit for a while (maybe more one-on-one time would help?). Grandma usually shows up with presents (toys, clothes) despite our protestations (we have given up protesting). Also, the visits often happen on Saturday mornings when I'm at the gym.

Any advice? This is very hard for my mother-in-law, and for us. Thanks

We had this problem too. Are you leaving her a lot with your mother-in-law? My husbands mother visits us often and we (my husband and I) made the mistake of taking the opportunity to go on dates. My daughter quickly associated grandma with mommy and daddy leaving and protested in the same manner as your daughter. We have made a concerted effort to do fun and mundane (grocery shopping)things with grandma altogether, it's working but we see that it will take a lot of time and effort my daughter to feel secure again around grandma. Hope this helps and good luck.

My son also initially had a neg. response to gramma ......I think he initially felt know how grammas can rush a child not realizing that the child doesn't know who gramma really is or the significance of her role in the family. I'd say for the next couple of times, have gramma visit but not pay much attention to the child....just to you...then little by little, I bet your child will warm up.

another thought....perhaps your child associates gramma coming with your going to the gym and becomes clingy b/c of that? good luck!

my toddler had a similar reaction to his stepsister, who sometimes babysits for him. Once he figures out that we aren't going anywhere, and Liz is going to be with us, not replace us, he usually relaxes. The grabbing of your legs (to keep you there) seems to indicate a similar reaction by your daughter. Unfortunately (since it sounds like grandma isn't your favorite person) more contact, both with and without your presence is probably the answer. One possible positive side effect of that is that she might run out of presents.... good luck

It could be something as simple as her perfume or a certain way she hugs her- too tightly? Or tickles her? Small things can make a HUGE impression on a toddler. My toddler is sensitive to strong smells- even pleasant ones like perfumes. My friend's daughter would squirm away from me and act distressed when I tried to hug or tickle her- I quickly learned to kneel down and talk quietly to her or just start playing with her dolls- She soon opened up to me. Or perhaps your toddler makes the association with Grandma coming and you being away at the gym. My heart goes out to you- Good luck!

You mentioned that Grandma's visits usually happen when you're not there. Perhaps your child associates the visits with your absence and that is the source of the distress, rather than Grandma, herself. Could you arrange to have Grandma come visit a few times when you're not going to leave, to see if your child can get comfortable with all of you at home together? If you can establish that, then maybe it will be less distressing to your child if/when you go back to leaving when Grandma comes. Good luck!

I've dealt with this same situation with both my girls, although it was more severe with the first child. At six months, she was crying everytime her grandma held her, and it got worse as she got older and was able to express that she didn't want her grandma to sit next to her in the car etc. What I narrowed it down to was her grandma's propensity to swoop on her, and try to hug, kiss or hold her without giving her time to warm up to her. Or worse, when grandma would ask to give her a kiss, my daughter would say no, and grandma would give her one anyway! (She lives long distance, so there's a lot of stored up need to bond intensely on the grandma's side.) The ONE time that a visit went very smoothly is when my husband had a long talk with her beforehand and convinced her not to try to kiss or hug her until my daughter was ready. By the second day of that visit, my daughter was initiating contact with her and it was delightful. Unfortunately, grandma couldn't keep it up on subsequent visits, so we had a few years of stress until my daughter got old enough to deal with it. There's really no problem now with my older daughter. I'm pretty sure that my anxiety over whether grandma would swoop again made it worse. We also had trouble, but to a lesser extent, with my mom. Grandma also showers the presents too, and we've been unable to control it either. We just hide the presents now when we can, and sometimes give them away before they're opened. I'm convinced that all that anxiety to bond with the grandchild is a set up for disaster, at least with kids of my temperment. At times, it slipped over into feeling like Grandma was trying to compete with me for my kids' attentions--ouch. It was hard to set the appropriate limits for my mother-in-law (a little easier with my mom), and give the relationship time to develop, but I think that's what it takes. My older daugher was always very charming and warm with my father, and I think it's because he never tried to kiss or hug her unless she came over. He just interacted with her verbally and had fun with her from a safe distance until she warmed up. I always felt like I was right to defend my daughter's right not to get kissed against her will, but it was uncomfortable. After a while, I figured that if grandma wouldn't listen to us, then she would have to deal with the consequences. We would stop our daughter from being outright rude, but allow her to decide what level of contact was ok. My personal advice would be for your husband to talk to his mother and try to get her to allow the kid to work through her feelings and try to take the pressure off the situation. Don't expect her to be loving if she doesn't feel like it. As I said, it's gotten better. My older daughter is now 7 and it hasn't been an issue for several years now. Of course, the last time grandma babysat, my younger kid got so mad she vomited on her...but that's another story. It's true that your own feelings can complicate the situation, but listen to your instincts. Hope this helps

My daughter who is nine now did the same thing to my mother. She despised her...said mean things...didn't want to be near her. My mother was always kind to her and I could never figure it out. My mother always played her cards right...never got upset...never pushed the issue. I finally decided that there must be something in those little minds that feel threatened by someone being OUR (the parent's) mother...that they are afraid that we belong to someone else. Anyway, over time, my daughter is now closer to my mother than any of the grandparents...more than to those who tried to buy her love with gifts (my mother is not a shopper). I think the fact that she never pushed it and just checked in with my daughter...never tried to buy her off... just let her know that she was there. It worked...hang in there. Hope that helps.