Why's this boy so mean to grandma?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 14, 2011 06:00 AM

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My grandson, almost 5, is not nice to me. He will go so far as try to me hit me and outwardly exclaim that he doesn't want me near him. This same behavior does not occur with my husband, his grandfather. I see this grandson about twice a week. After a while as I remain with him, we will play and we begin to interact well. He will always say he doesn't love me. I will always tell him that I do love him.

His other grandmother has a very aggressive personality. My son-in-law is extremely close to his parents. I am also close with my daughters. I can't help but think that this other grandmother is promoting herself to my grandson in some way. I never say anything about his other grandmother. My two other preschool grandchildren from another daughter are both openly loving to me and my husband. Any suggestions? (We will be on a family vacation in December and my plan is to sit down with my daughter and try to discuss this situation with her without putting any blame on the other grandmother.)

From: ESL, Long Island

Dear ESL,

Promoting herself to a preschooler? I have a really hard time imagining a grandma -- any grandma -- sitting down her grandkid and saying, "I'm nicer/better/more fun than your other grandmother! You should be mean to her!"

Here are what I think are more likely possibilities:

1. You said/did something, even just looked at him once in a way that hurt his feelings.

2. He's hyper sensitive to smell and something about you bothered him in some way. Your perfume was too strong for him. Maybe it was coffee breath. Is there a smell of smoke? detergent? garlic? that clings to your clothing? Don't take my saying this personally! This is a very common issue.

3. In the course of playing together, you bossed him instead of the other way around. Kids like to be in charge of the play, especially when they play with adults.

My point is that something happened to set him off, he reacted, and then you had a bigger reaction that surprised him. Kids this age are always trying to understand the workings of their world, and how they figure into it, most especially, how they exert power over it: "I did Y and X happened. If I do Y again, will X happen again? What if I do Y + W? Then what happens?"

I doubt seriously that he set out to be mean to grandma. More likely, your interpretation of him as being mean-spirited has snowballed and become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

My suggestion is to think hard about whether any of the guesses above are possibilities and adjust if they are. Next, lower your expectations. Don't expect and certainly don't demand kisses, hugs or other signs of affection; ask permission to kiss/hug him. Don't compare his behavior to you to his behavior to others, at least not to him. If he says something that is hurtful, tell him, "I feel sad when you say that to me. It hurts my feelings. It makes me not want to play right now."

Say it once, not over and over. Avoid saying, "You can't talk that way to your grandma!" or anything else that's rings of an accusation. Don't be a drama queen. Make your point, put a little physical distance between you, and then move on. A small time later, come back to him as if nothing happened. If he does it again, have the same response. The message you want to send is, "I will always love you, but I don't always love what you say or do."

Hitting you -- or anyone -- is not acceptable. If he hits you, be firm and matter-of-fact: "Hitting is not OK. I can't be with you when you hit." Walk away. Even better, when you see him getting frustrated with you -- before it escalates to hitting -- stop the action, label his behavior ("I can tell you're getting frustrated/angry/unhappy.") and try to help him:
"Can you use your words to tell me what's wrong?"

Should you talk to your daughter? Absolutely. But rather than accuse her mother-in-law, I'd ask simply, "What do you think happened with me and your son? I want to fix it and I'm not sure how."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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3 comments so far...
  1. With all due respect, Barbara, there really are some grandparents who get competitive to the point of being nasty about the other grandparents, sometimes putting the child in the middle and telling the child mean or nasty things about the other grandparent. I wonder if the letter writer mentions this because the other grandmother has exhibited signs of mental illness or erratic behavior in the past. I realize that kind of crazy grandparent behavior is extremely rare, but it does exist and can be quite damaging to the child involved.

    Having said that, I think your advice about what to do and what to consider is spot-on. I also think that sooner or later the child will figure out that the letter writer is always loving with him (even if firm about not wanting to be hit) and will figure out that she is safe, nice person to be around.

    Posted by Merilisa November 14, 11 11:51 AM
  1. Competitive grandparents/ nasty? mental illness?
    Boy I'm glad i grew up in the 50's
    yeah we even drank pout of garden hoses!
    Give it a break Grand ma!

    Posted by cairokid November 15, 11 02:02 AM
  1. I agree, your advice is spot-on. My first thought was the odor problem (I think kids often get from TV or stories that bad odor equals bad person). But I also had to chuckle at your comment that you have a hard time believing grandmas would be competitive and say they are the "better" grandparent. Are you kidding? And parents often support it. As a child and as an adult I have often heard grandparents asking "Who do you like better?" and kids refer to their "good grandma" and "bad grandma," usually based on their parents' attitudes.

    Posted by CC November 15, 11 08:15 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. With all due respect, Barbara, there really are some grandparents who get competitive to the point of being nasty about the other grandparents, sometimes putting the child in the middle and telling the child mean or nasty things about the other grandparent. I wonder if the letter writer mentions this because the other grandmother has exhibited signs of mental illness or erratic behavior in the past. I realize that kind of crazy grandparent behavior is extremely rare, but it does exist and can be quite damaging to the child involved.

    Having said that, I think your advice about what to do and what to consider is spot-on. I also think that sooner or later the child will figure out that the letter writer is always loving with him (even if firm about not wanting to be hit) and will figure out that she is safe, nice person to be around.

    Posted by Merilisa November 14, 11 11:51 AM
  1. Competitive grandparents/ nasty? mental illness?
    Boy I'm glad i grew up in the 50's
    yeah we even drank pout of garden hoses!
    Give it a break Grand ma!

    Posted by cairokid November 15, 11 02:02 AM
  1. I agree, your advice is spot-on. My first thought was the odor problem (I think kids often get from TV or stories that bad odor equals bad person). But I also had to chuckle at your comment that you have a hard time believing grandmas would be competitive and say they are the "better" grandparent. Are you kidding? And parents often support it. As a child and as an adult I have often heard grandparents asking "Who do you like better?" and kids refer to their "good grandma" and "bad grandma," usually based on their parents' attitudes.

    Posted by CC November 15, 11 08:15 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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