My Grandchild Acts Out and I Think Her Mom Is Too Lax With Her. Should I Step In?

What a mother needs most when a young child is misbehaving is compassion and support instead of judgment.'s Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D, says to consider how to help instead of looking only at how a child is misbehaving.

Illustration of little girl being bribed
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

Concerned Granny

I have a 3-year-old granddaughter who is a very well behaved child except around her mother. When she is with her mom, she is whiny and will not listen to anyone. She's a smart little thing and knows her mom will give her what she wants most of the time. I don’t want to blame this behavior on her mom, but how can I help correct this behavior situation? 

—Concerned Granny

I like the first part of your statement, "I don't want to blame this behavior on her mom," and recommend you consider stopping there. From the perspective of a mother and child behavior expert, that's where you and any other grandparent or public onlooker should land when observing a young child's behavior; don't blame the behavior on her mom. You have, in fact, described not only my three children, but most children I've ever met, and their mothers. I could write an entire self-help book for moms about "why your children act the worst with you."

I don't have time to write this book, so fortunately, your question allows an opportunity to make public what many of us harbor as somehow part of our own unique maternal failings, when it absolutely is not. You are correct that young children are indeed very smart; it is also part of their development in this age range to have frequent emotional storms that show up as difficult behaviors. Honestly, it's a little strange if this doesn't happen.

Jekyll-and-Hyde Phenomenon

On a weekly basis (sometimes hourly), I feel like I'm raising three super cute and miniature Jekyll-and-Hydes: monsters at home (in certain memorable moments), angels in public. It took me a few years, but I replaced "what's wrong with me that they act this way?" with "I'm so glad they feel safe with me." This doesn't mean I just let problem behaviors slide, but it's easier to work on them when I'm not blaming myself that they happen. If it were possible for you to adopt this same perspective, it would be a loving and generous gift.

To help you work toward a more helpful framework for the behaviors you observe, here are suggestions for possible ways to think about what you see:

  • The very fact that this young child behaves so well in other settings with other people may actually be a sign her mother is doing an amazing job raising her. Because even that's not typical (ask me about the time my 3-year-old writhed on the floor of a museum, decidedly NOT quiet and well-behaved in a room full of strangers—and my in-laws).
  • If your granddaughter is breaking down into whining and not listening around her mother only, that mother is likely doing her job to be that child's emotional safety net. I'm also hoping she does that around some other caregivers so her mother is not her only emotional safety net, because that is a big load to carry.
  • There's a very good reason you may see from the outside that her mother appears to give her what she wants most of the time—she does it when around other people to prevent what happens at home (for example, a tantrum of high decibels that would be embarrassing for all to manage in public, and I'm guessing something you would also want to avoid).

Change Your Behavior to Change Your Message

There could be a whole series of self-help books written about the boundaries (or lack thereof) between grandparents and parents when it comes to raising children. Based on lore going back generations, it's a rose full of thorns. Specifically, the mother's relationship with her mother-in-law has had a special place in the canon of the motherhood experience. I know there are truly supportive and healthy models of this relationship and I don't want to over-generalize, but there's a reason it's common pop culture fodder in movies, shows, and books. (For those of us of a certain age, who could forget the classic Everybody Loves Raymond constant grandma-daughter-in-law battle?)

Instead of "helping correct the behavior in this situation," I suggest helping the actual situation by shifting not only your view of this behavior, but how you respond. Consider how your own behavior could change if you were thinking, "how can I help her mother right now?" instead of "how can I show her how to parent better?" Because in all honesty, whether you intend to or not, needing to "correct the behavior" communicates every mother's worst fear: she is not a good parent.

If you can remember back to your own days of mothering young children, you may recall how much this judgment hurts. We mothers are highly sensitive to even the unspoken judgments of others, and are often the most critical of ourselves, which is then heightened by sensing any potential outside criticism. This is harmful for mother and child, and in no way helpful.

If your intent is to be helpful, ask the mother what she needs. Maybe she would love for you to take the 3-year-old for a distracting walk for a few minutes; maybe staying out of it completely to let her do her thing without interruption works best. I know I appreciate the complete silence of an onlooker – grandparent or other – when I'm in the middle of a whiny, defiant moment.

You could even check with Mom before the actual moment: "when she starts to give you a hard time, what's most helpful from me?" This preparation beforehand can make everything feel that much easier when the 3-year-old starts acting like . . . a 3-year-old. Finally, giving her mother a genuine compliment wrapped in humility would feel groundbreaking ("it's amazing how calm you stay with her when she acts up; that was hard for me to do!")

The Bottom Line

You have long left the trenches of being a mother in the early years, so it may be hard to remember. Even if the passage of time has idealized the memories, blurring their hard edges, you want the best for your granddaughter just as you wanted the best for your own children. And the best for your granddaughter is a mother getting the support and confidence she needs and deserves. Blaming the behavior on normal 3-year-old development instead of her mother is the first step to taking the thorns off this potentially beautiful rose of a grandparent being truly helpful to Mom.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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