'Help! My Toddler's Taken A Serious Dislike To One Of Our Relatives'

Therapists unpick why this can happen – and what parents can do about it.
Dobrila Vignjevic via Getty Images

Having kids is all fun and games until your child decides they hate your relative – especially when you’re going to be spending Christmas with them.

One mum recently took to networking app Peanut to say her toddler had taken quite the dislike to her sister-in-law’s husband.

“She is a totally chill baby but when he comes over she will cry loads and cling to me,” she wrote. “I haven’t seen her like this with anyone else.”

What’s more, the mum said her sister-in-law’s husband is “the loveliest person”. What a pickle.

“I feel so bad that she doesn’t like him,” she wrote. “Any tips or advice? We’re having them over on Christmas Day and I’m worried. I also feel bad as she’s obsessed with my side of the family.”

There might be several reasons why little ones take a dislike to family members or friends, suggests Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a family therapist who founded the parenting platform Get The Village.

In some instances, a baby might sense a parent’s anxiety or stress around a particular person and react to it, she says. It might also be that once that person holds the baby, the child loses touch with the parents and becomes stressed, leading to fear of separation anxiety that is associated with the person.

“The problem is that when a parent anticipates the baby’s stressful reaction, the baby becomes more stressed, so it is a cycle or reaction that starts to be associated with that person,” says Dr Ben-Ari.

Everything a young child does – whether throwing themselves on the floor, or nuzzling their parents – is their way of demonstrating how they feel, because they often can’t verbalise it.

“In this instance, it sounds like the child is using lots of non-verbal messaging and non-verbal clues,” says Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist and founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic.

“Children often cry or cling to a parent in this way because they feel unsafe. It could be the person reminds them of someone else who looks quite scary,” she says.

The therapist offers the example that if the person has a beard, it could be that the child associates them with a bearded villain they’ve seen on TV and will remember the negative emotions they felt when they saw said villain – so “seeing this person may trigger a similar response”.

Sometimes children might have a sensory reaction to a family member that isn’t necessarily positive. They might take a dislike to a different voice, accent, smell or even appearance: for example, if they wear glasses or keep their shoes on in the house.

“Although these appear to be very small points, children look out for tiny differences, which is something we call the Little Professor,” says Yassin. “The Little Professor in the child has the job of trying to work out what’s going to happen next.”

What can parents do if their child dislikes someone in the family?

You’re probably dreading your child seeing the family member they’ve taken a dislike to, but you’re going to have to try really hard to think positively and anticipate a good connection. Otherwise your little one might pick up on your anxiety – fuelling the negative reaction further.

Ahead of seeing them, it might be helpful to create and share a positive persona of the person the child dislikes.

“If you have family photographs with the person in, show them to your child and talk about what that person does, who they are, who their family is and what activities they like to do,” says Yassin.

This helps the child to understand more about who they are and squash the idea of them as a villain-type character.

It can also be helpful to have your little one’s security blanket or toy on hand, suggests Dr Ben-Ari, to offer comfort and familiarity.

If the child’s reaction to the person is very strong, allow someone else to hold them while you greet and welcome the person, adds the therapist. “Seeing you at ease, relaxed and happy, interacting with that person will send the signal to the baby that it is safe.”

“Seeing you at ease, relaxed and happy, interacting with that person will send the signal to the baby that it is safe.”

- Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari

One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is force your child onto the person – whether that be letting them hug, kiss or hold them, which can ultimately just make things worse.

Instead, encourage the adult to give space to the baby to reach out to them, suggests Dr Ben-Ari. “The adult can start making fun noises, point to or hold a toy, offer the baby’s favourite toy, speak calmly to the baby, and once the baby shows signs of interest, they can slowly get closer.”

It’s also important not to leave your child alone with them – regardless of whether they’ve just arrived or have been there a while.

“When the person the child dislikes enters the room, it’s better they are not left on the floor or on their own,” says Yassin. “Hold the child or sit on the floor with them so you are physically at the same level.”

She continues: “Parents mustn’t force cuddles or plead the child to be nice to the person they have taken a dislike to. Railroading the situation and trying to force a relationship will create bigger barriers. Do not leave the child alone with the person for any length of time and be gentle with introductions.”

In most cases, it’s important to remember this probably won’t last forever. “This type of situation tends to be a very big deal for a short period of time,” Yassin adds, “but does blow over.”

There are some very rare instances where a child might react badly to someone because they’ve been abused physically, emotionally or sexually by that person, says Yassin.

If this is the case, “when the abuser walks into the room, a child may go rigid, cling to a parent, become very angry or cry,” she says.

If you suspect your child might be reacting badly to a family member because of abuse, it’s essential the child knows they have your support and you are there to listen to them, without judgement, says Yassin.

“Parents have a wonderful intuition and can often sense or feel when something is wrong with their child,” she says. “If a child tells you they’ve been abused or hurt by someone, you must take it seriously – no matter how unbelievable you find the allegation.”

She urges parents not to take matters into their own hands and to instead get professional support as quickly as possible, while building a strong support network for the child.

“Engage a child and adolescent therapist, allow the police to manage the legal aspect and make your child’s school aware,” she advises. Parents can also contact the NSPCC for immediate help and support.

“Children who suffer adverse childhood experiences can be severely impacted physically and psychologically in adult life,” she adds.

“Those who feel supported early on have a greater chance of healing, so getting the right support at the right time is imperative.”

Help and support:

  • NSPCC - free and confidential support for children impacted by abuse - call 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.
  • Childline - free and confidential support for young people in the UK - 0800 1111