Holiday

Don't take it personally, grandma: When kids don't warm up to holiday visitors

Dec. 19, 2012 at 10:04 AM ET

Two Christmases ago, Rebekah Crane’s family friend, David, came over with a present for her toddler daughter, Drew. Unfortunately, the little girl, who is now 4, is “cautiously suspicious” of people she doesn’t interact with on a daily basis, Crane said -- and for some reason, as a younger child, hated every “strange man” who walked into their house.

“David walked in the front door with a large puzzle of the United States so she could see and learn where all of her family members live — and Drew loves puzzles — it was the perfect gift,” says Crane, author of the young adult novel “Playing Nice,” and mother of two little girls in Golden, Colo. “And she ran away crying.”

While family friends and far-away relatives visiting for the holidays may picture some serious snuggling with their favorite baby or toddler, or a little bonding action with their special teen or tween, the reality can be quite different. Parents are left in a tricky situation, trying to make everyone feel 100 percent wanted in their home, while also trying to calm or console a child who does not seem to want visitors.  

Grandfather kissing granddaughter, close-up
BLOOMimage / Getty Images stock
Who is this terrifying old person, and why is he kissing me? Holiday visits from the grandparents don't always go as planned when kids are involved.

Crane felt compelled to run through a litany of excuses for her child’s behavior: “She didn’t get her nap,” or “She’s probably coming down with a cold.” 

But in the end, her friend handled the situation perfectly. David kept his distance for a while and let Drew come to the puzzle on her own, which they eventually did put together that afternoon, piece by piece. Crane says, she was able to “sit back and watch the new friendship blossom.”

Stranger anxiety is common for young children when exposed to people they aren’t entirely familiar with— even if the folks aren’t “strangers” in the strict sense of the word. Kids can react by getting super quiet and shy, hiding behind a parent or caregiver’s legs, or of course, the crying some of us dread when the doorbell rings.

Renee Peacock, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Ala., who specializes in children, adolescents, and families, says the good news is that babies and toddlers will typically copy their parents’ behavior when it comes to guests over the holidays.

“Once small children see mom and dad interacting with friends or aunts or uncles in a warm and friendly way, they’ll usually start to gradually warm up as well,” Peacock says.

She also explains that children can have very different temperaments. Some kids, even if they’re similar in age, may take more coaxing than others to warm up on a holiday visit. While the knee-jerk reaction is often to overwhelm the little one with lots of attention, Peacock says, it’s important not to push it, and to give small children the space they need to acclimate, like Crane’s friend David did with little Drew.  

Most of all, friends and family should never take the cold shoulder personally. To a toddler who doesn’t see a grandparent often, he or she is essentially a stranger, and being a little standoffish or frightened is a completely normal reaction.

Parents can help relieve some of a child’s angst by telling stories and speaking favorably about friends or relatives before their visit, says Carolyn Rassinger, a family and child psychotherapist and professor at Adelphi University, School of Social Work. Even better, she says, if a parent can set up a few Skype, FaceTime or phone chats to read stories and sing songs together, so that tykes can get used to the visitor’s  voice before he or she arrives.

But it’s not just little kids who might brush off the relatives this season. Teens and tweens may be more interested in texting friends and checking Facebook than spending time with grandparents during their holiday vacation.

Stefanie Mullen, founder of Ooph.com, a site for parents of teens and tweens, says last Christmas, her boys, ages 17 and 15, were more interested in hanging out in their rooms, listening to music and catching up with friends online than in spending time with her father, who had flown to San Diego to see them.  

“It hurt my heart to think that he had come all the way out and they were not interested,” Mullen says. “I felt guilt as a parent and a pit in my stomach that my dad might be feeling rejected and sad.”

Now that she’s been through it, she tells parents to set clear boundaries for their teens and tweens before a grandparent arrives. Mullen advises telling kids that they have to find something do with their grandma or grandpa, for one hour, every day — with no electronics. It could be a board game, a walk around the neighborhood, listening to them tells stories, or really anything. But, she says, kids have to stick to their hour.

As for managing adult expectations, she encourages grandparents to coem up with activities that they can do with their grandchild, to decrease the pressure that everyone feels when a teen is holed up in their room

“For example, my sons love to fish,” she says. So, now, her dad takes the boys fishing while he’s in town.

Barbara Greenberg, a parenting expert, clinical psychologist, and author of “Teenage as a Second Language” advises a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach for teens and relatives on holiday visits. She says if you want time with the kid, call ahead and ask for a social media or tech tutorial. Suggest an hour or so of a teen’s time each day to help Grandpa or Great-Aunt Ruth set up a Facebook account, master privacy settings, or learn how to email or text from their phone.

Her slant seems like a win-win for visiting friends and family. They’ll get some special time with their treasured teen and hopefully, a new way to stay connected long after their holiday visit.  

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