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10 Ways to Manage Anger at a Grandchild Who Misbehaves

Through tantrums and disrespect, it’s the adult’s responsibility to stay cool and collected

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Sally Tannen was walking with her toddler grandson when something went awry, and he launched into what she calls a “mini-tantrum,” crying, running away and then refusing to move.

Tannen, 68, has six (soon to be seven) grandchildren, ages 3 and up, and is the retired director of the 92NY Lipschultz Parenting Center at the 92nd Street YMCA in Manhattan. She’s a former early childhood educator and now runs the Y’s grandparenting workshops remotely from where she lives in Vermont. She knows a trick or two. ​

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​But even she was stymied. Trying to head off her own frustration and anger, she first tried talking with the then-2-year-old. When that didn’t work, she switched to distraction, playing with some sticks and just casually chatting. He still refused to engage or to budge. “He stopped crying, but he wouldn’t move,” she says. “And he was too heavy for me to carry back into my house.” ​​

Fortunately, before she lost her cool, the cavalry arrived, giving them both a graceful exit. “My husband came out and he basically took over,” she says. Rather than taking it as defeat, she was grateful for the change in personnel that upended the dynamic. Her grandson followed her husband into the house. Crisis solved.

If you’re a grandparent, it’s probably a familiar scenario. Sometimes grandchildren, whether toddlers or teens, are balky, sulky or unmannerly. And sometimes grandparents are out of patience, energy or time. And things can get touchy.

So what should grandparents do when feeling frustrated or angry with a grandchild, particularly if they are not legal custodians and don’t want to alienate parents who might have different standards of behavior and discipline? ​

Try to calm down

For starters, take a breath, says ​Shirley Showalter, 75, one of the authors of The Mindful Grandparent: The Art of Loving Our Children’s Children, a book based on what she and cowriter Marilyn McEntyre, 74, have learned about being grandmothers. Taking a breath or a beat is a simple trick Showalter, who lives near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, learned from her granddaughter.

“What I try to do is to do what her parents have tried to teach her when she’s upset, which is to take a deep breath and to slow down and to become aware if my own heart is racing or my voice has risen — try to become aware of it and to consciously calm myself in order to calm her,” Showalter says. ​

How you handle frustration with grandchildren may depend on how often you see them and how much you are responsible for them, particularly without their parents around. Tannen says regular caregivers who babysit three days a week or routinely drive teenagers to after-school sports, for example, have an easier time establishing authority than those who see grandchildren only on special occasions or during vacations. ​

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“If you’re seeing them all the time, you have more opportunity to establish your set of rules and your set of expectations,” Tannen says. “You’re able to establish routines—and kids need routines.” ​

Another thing to remember: Relationships with grandchildren usually depend on your relationships with their parents. They’re the gatekeepers, says Tannen, and grandparents must maneuver around their rules, whether it’s about sugary treats for preschoolers or deflecting a smarty-pants comment from a preteen. 

​​Set clear expectations and rules ​​

That’s just one reason to approach parents about what McEntyre, who has nine grandchildren and is a humanities professor and writing teacher living in Sacramento, California, calls a meta conversation — an overarching talk about expectations, rules and discipline that parents have for their children. ​​

However, she says, grandparents are entitled to their own rules which may be different than those grandchildren have at home. 

“Children need to recognize that even if all adults don’t do things the same way, all the adults who love them are in a healthy solidarity that says, ‘We all care about you. We do it slightly differently, but you don’t get to play us off against each other,’” McEntyre says. ​​

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It’s all about clear boundaries and setting a good example, says 63-year-old Ted Page, a marketing executive from Lexington, Massachusetts, who publishes the Good Grandpa blog. His goal is to support granddads and establish them as caring and wise role models rather than jokesters or a character out of the movie Bad Grandpa. ​​

“They look to us on how to behave,” Page says. He describes his own four grandkids, ages 2 to 8, as being “showered with love” and comfortable with boundaries. He prides himself on overcoming the hot temper he had in his younger years.

Among other strategies, he meditates daily. If grandparents are “angry people, flying off the handle too easily,” it’s a poor model for how children should deal with frustration or anger, he says. ​

​Teens can be particularly problematic because they are caught up in their own universes, says Donna Butts, executive director at Generations United, in Washington, D.C., which promotes programs and policies that connect generations. Trying to have a conversation with a teen who seems laconic or even sullen? Be patient. Give it a few tries. And skip the yes-or-no questions, she says. ​

​“If you’re starting to talk with your grandchild, just be careful about asking open-ended questions. Don’t ask yes-or-no questions because they’ll only say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she says. ​

​Want more techniques to defuse or avoid confrontation with a grandchild? Here are 10 from these experts:

1. Distract and de-escalate. McEntyre calls this “stepping outside the frame.” When a situation gets heated, suggest a walk around the block, a scavenger hunt, a snack. Ask an unexpected question. Call in another person to help. Slow down the pace. Showalter suggests a mindfulness technique such as asking, “How long can you take to eat this raisin?” That could be a game for a toddler or a dare for a teenager. 

​​2. Explain your own feelings. Tell children how their behavior makes you feel, McEntyre says. In response to a cutting remark, you might ask, “Are you saying that because you want me to feel bad?” The idea that something might hurt you is important information for kids of all ages, she says. ​

3. Offer perspective. Teens think the world revolves around them, Butts says: “It takes a while to get the concept that there’s something beyond their own life and their own selves.” Consider a joint activity that shows them a bit of the world, like volunteering in a soup kitchen or discovering someplace out of their comfort zone, she suggests. ​

4. Name that feeling. Children and teens may not have the language to identify their feelings. Supply them with the words, McEntyre says, such as, “Well, I see that you're angry. Are you frustrated? Are you feeling sad too? Are you tired?” This gives them a chance to be interested in what they’re feeling instead of just having the raw feeling, she says. ​

​5. Take respect to a new level. With small children, McEntyre suggests getting down to their eye level. “I think that’s part of respecting them,” she says. “Otherwise it’s kind of really talking down.” Consider saying something that is direct but not confrontational, such as: “We need to stop right now and talk about this,” McEntyre suggests. ​

6. Teach respectful disagreement. Page says he tries to teach and model his grandchildren on how to disagree with someone but keep it respectful. “It doesn’t make someone a bad person if they disagree with you,” he says. ​

7. Rethink your expectations. Set yourself up for success. Know your own tolerances. If the grandkids’ manners make you nuts in restaurants, don’t take them. If you go out, take books, crayons, a digital tablet, whatever might work as a distraction during moments when you expect immature behavior. “It’s grownups who have to be the grownups about it,” Tannen says. ​

8. Enforce a time-out. Sometimes it’s better to walk away. McEntyre suggests there are times to say, “I don’t like to be with you when you’re like this, and I think it’s time to call your mom and you need to go home.” Or send kids to another room in the house or simply go to your own room and shut the door. ​

9. Do your advance work. Prep kids, particularly young ones, before an activity, particularly if things were difficult a previous time. Before their next walk, Tannen reminded her grandson how things should go: “Remember when you were outside and you didn’t listen when I asked you to stop? We’re not going to do that this time, right?” He agreed and things went more smoothly. ​

10. Cut yourself some slack. Showalter likes to quote a line from “The Wild Geese,” a poem by Mary Oliver: “You do not have to be good.” Grandparents are going to make mistakes, just as they made mistakes in parenting, she says. “It’s good to acknowledge that we can be angry and frustrated and that we’re normal human beings, and then our children, our grandchildren, are going to be the same,” she says. ​

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