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What to Do When Your Kid Is Afraid of the Grandparents

Photograph by Twenty20

I dreaded Thanksgiving last year. Aside from the sheer madness of traveling with a kindergartener and a toddler on the busiest travel weekend of the year, my stomach did the Macarena anticipating the moment my youngest saw my father again.

During our last visit, my easy-going toddler decided Gramps was the only person on the planet she feared. By the end of our stay, she wouldn’t even sit in the same room as him without wailing. Dear old Dad sulked on the deck, watching us through the sliding glass door, while we ate the farewell breakfast he’d lovingly made.

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The trip concluded in an epic meltdown between me and my father, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my high school fender bender.

“I’m mad at you,” he snapped as I stood at the door to leave. “You’re doing a bad job of teaching her who her grandparents are. You don’t visit enough, and you don’t stay long enough when you do.”

I sobbed that I was a working mom, living states away, doing the best I could with the time off I had. I reiterated that he was welcome to visit any time and stay as long as he wanted, to which he shouted that grandchildren get to know their grandparents best at the grandparents’ house. All this happened while I held my already-petrified toddler as my shocked husband and oldest child looked on.

The fight nearly wrecked our father-daughter relationship. Friends were tossing around words like “toxic” and suggesting I no longer visit my family. But I know my dad. He was just hurt that his grandchild, who he only sees a few times a year, was afraid of him. He felt rejected and lashed out at me. I also know that children’s opinions change quickly, and the person they fear most today may be their favorite person tomorrow.

Which is exactly what happened. My youngest warmed up to Gramps eventually, and I no longer worry that we will be eating turkey in separate rooms. I just wish we could have avoided the whole father-daughter fall out. Holidays can be a stressful time, especially for families spread across miles. So, in an effort to avoid a big scoop of family drama for nada, I have the following advice:

1. Don’t take it personally if a child fears you.

It’s not a reflection of parenting skills if a child has an irrational fear of someone.

I agree that children often read people better than adults. If a child doesn’t like someone, there may be good reason. As parents, our job is to protect our kids, so when they raise the fear flag, we pay attention. However, for small children the unfamiliar is sometimes terrifying. Facial hair may be reason enough to send a kid scampering or a strong aftershave or even glasses. It’s not a reflection of parenting skills if a child has an irrational fear of someone, and no one should take it personally.

2. If the parents say a child doesn't like something, believe them.

Despite telling my father that my youngest hates scary voices, he continued to growl at her. Yes, my father growls at small children. All the other grandchildren love when Gramps growls like a bear. But sorry, not happening with this kiddo. It’s just not her thing.

He kept doing it, she kept hating it—and by extension him. Honestly, who could blame her?

Despite the “fun” you might think you’re having, it’s always a good idea to listen to a child’s primary caregiver (even if it’s your own kid). Eventually, children are old enough to tell others what they like and don’t. Until then, trust that the child’s parents know their little one better than someone who only visits three or four times a year. Unless you see the child on a regular basis, take the advice of someone who does.

3. Visiting more often won't always make it better.

We live a mile from my in-laws and see them at least once a week. Still, my eldest daughter wanted nothing to do with my father-in-law until she was 3. He’s a tall man with a booming voice, which is enough to terrify some children.

By the time we had kids, he’d already experienced grandchild fear with my niece. “I don’t push it,” my father-in-law would say, retreating to the other side of the room at the first whimper. “Eventually, they’ll come around.” And they all did.

4. If you're mad, wait to vent until the kids are out of the room.

The fight that left me in tears left my kids fearing my dad more than monsters under the bed.

Because children often look to their parents for behavioral cues, venting frustration or having a big fight in front of them only makes things worse. The fight that left me in tears left my kids fearing my dad more than monsters under the bed. This works both ways, of course. Whatever issues may exists between parents and children don’t need to trickle down to the next generation.

5. Have fun with the kids who do like you.

Children also look to each other for how to behave. “Don’t be afraid of Grampsie,” my oldest told her sister. “He’s not going to hurt you.”

When we visited last Thanksgiving, my youngest still kept her distance as her sister had a dance party with Gramps and let him brush her hair. She finally warmed up to him after seeing how much fun her sister was having. We enjoyed a nice dysfunctional Thanksgiving like we always do, minus the toddler drama.

Between visits, I show my youngest pictures of Gramps with all the grandchildren. He even recorded a storybook for her, so she would become familiar with his (sometimes gruff) voice. FaceTiming or Skyping on a regular basis also helps. But time, more than anything, has created the bond between generations.

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Hopefully, one day my family will look back on those early grandfather-granddaughter visits and laugh. Until then, the adults will just need to practice a little patience and understanding.

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