My daughter is so aggressive she isn’t welcome at her grandparents’ house anymore. What should we do?

Conflict in a family over a child’s behavior is very painful and, unfortunately, very common. You want your family’s help in handling a challenging child. Instead, you feel they’re rejecting her and, by extension, you.

But there are ways to work toward solving the problem. And, in most families, everyone will feel better if you can work it out.

You’ll want to help your daughter behave more appropriately, help her grandparents understand her better, and set up rules and realistic expectations for visits to their house.

Why Is She Acting Out?

When kids are being aggressive, the first thing to do is figure out why. Does your daughter often struggle with disruptive behavior? Or is it mainly a problem at your parents’ house? Can you identify specific things that set her off?

Sometimes kids who are reasonably well behaved in one setting will act completely different in another. Your daughter could be responding to the differences in her environment.

  • Does she want attention? When kids are used to being the center of attention, it can be jarring when other people take the stage. Even negative attention can be reinforcing, and it could be contributing to her bad behavior.
  • Is she bored? Being in an adult environment, away from all her toys and the activities she likes, can be challenging. She might act out for the stimulation it provides.
  • Are there other kids around? Spending time—particularly unsupervised time—with her cousins could be overstimulating, especially if she isn’t used to being around other children. She might need help learning to interact with other kids, or could even be being bullied.
  • Is she overtired? Does she start out fine, only to start acting out after an hour? Adults can enjoy long visits, but children often don’t.
  • Is their home very different from yours? If she’s used to a rigidly scheduled day or lots of house rules about behavior, finding herself at loose ends can be disorienting. Similarly, if she’s encountering a lot of new rules at your parents’ house, the pressure could be too much for her.
  • Does she have sensory issues? Some children have trouble processing the sensory information they’re taking in, Things like scratchy clothes, noise or even a lot of people—think “family gathering”—can make her anxious, uncomfortable or overwhelmed. That can lead to meltdowns.

Set Your Daughter Up for Success

Think about how you can plan family visits so your daughter has the best chance at behaving well. Have you identified some particular challenges for your daughter? Think about what you can do to eliminate triggers whenever possible. Here are some ideas:

  • Prepare your child for visits. Have a straightforward talk about what your child should expect when visiting your parents. Explain that the rules at home are different from those at her grandparents’ house. Tell her what those new rules are. Describe the behavior you expect during the visit.
  • Set a time limit on visits. All-day family gatherings may be too much for your daughter, especially when they involve a lot of people, noise and sitting still for long periods. Limit the time of your visits and let both your daughter and parents know what it is in advance, so no one is surprised or upset.
  • Plan ahead for quiet time. For kids who are easily overstimulated or sensitive to things like noise and crowds, Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, suggests arranging for another room they can use when they need some time alone. Ask your parents ahead of time where your daughter might take a break from the day’s social activities.
  • Keep your daughter occupied. Kids thrive on structure, so plan in advance for activities that could make for family fun, including walks, movies, games and art projects.
  • Bring your own food. If you know the menu is going to be an issue, bring foods you know your daughter will enjoy. Perhaps she could even prepare a dish to share with the whole family. Explain to your parents that while you love their food, things will go more smoothly if you have things on hand your daughter will eat.

Helping Kids Who Seriously Struggle With Aggression

Is your daughter’s aggressive behavior is also causing her problems at school, with other kids, and at home? You may need to get professional help to get her behavior under control. And the sooner you do that, the easier it will be. The first step would be an evaluation to find out what’s causing her to act out.

ADHD, anxiety, learning problems, sensory processing issues, and developmental disorders like autism can all be at the root of aggressive behavior. So it’s important to get a thorough evaluation. If a professional does discover an underlying issue, it needs to be addressed separately. Your efforts to help her improve her behavior won’t be successful if there’s something upsetting her that you’re not aware of.

There are behavioral treatments that can help your daughter rein in her behavior and improve her relationship with you, the rest of your family, and her teachers and friends, too. One kind of treatment, called parent training, works very well for kids who struggle with disruptive behavior.

During treatment, parents learn to increase positive interactions with their child by remaining calm and setting consistent consequences, such as time-outs, and rewards, like computer time. As a result, kids develop more control over their own behavior, which benefits them in all areas of their lives.

Talk to Your Parents in Advance

Just as you prepare your daughter, talk to your parents about her issues so they know what they can realistically expect from her.

This is also your chance to fill them in on how you’ve been working with her to improve her behavior, and things you have found helpful that they might try. Suggest that they hold back on critical remarks and avoid certain “hot-button” topics like grades that might upset her.

Grandparents and other relatives often respond more positively to a challenging child if they are included in her treatment, and given a positive role to play. Let them know how important it is that your child receives consistent messages from all the adults in her life, and how much you would appreciate their support.

Ideally, your parents should make a real effort to be warm and supportive.

If she knows they don’t approve of her, she’s going to be discouraged—and more likely to act out at their house. This is an opportunity to rebuild the relationship.

About the Author

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Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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