Q: My 1-year old is very receptive to everyone in my family and happily plays with whomever. But there’s this one uncle I have and whenever we see him, my son cries and refuses to go to him. Could a 1-year-old already have strong preferences for and against certain people? I feel so bad, and I’m not sure what to say to my uncle.
A: Even very young children can have preferences about all kinds of things—food, toys and, yes, people. That’s part of what makes children so unique and delightful—they don’t cover up their feelings. It gets awkward, though, when a child reacts negatively to someone, especially someone close to you like a family member.
The challenge is to figure out why your child is reacting this way. Maybe your uncle’s deep voice sounds scary to him, or he approaches too quickly. Perhaps he doesn’t read your son’s cues well (picks him up when he wants to sit, gives him a new toy to play with when he’s interested in the one he already has). Or, maybe he is anxious when he holds your son, making him feel nervous and uncomfortable. Or it could be something else entirely! I knew a baby who was frightened of a family friend who happened to have a moustache. When he shaved it off one day, the child was much friendlier toward him (though he was still never her favorite).
This is bound to be hurtful, even embarrassing, for your uncle. So first, take a moment to explain to your uncle that children can have very individual responses to people based on the unique way they take in information—how they hear a voice, the way they experience a facial feature or expression, etc.
Next, be a detective. Because 1-year-olds can’t tell us what they are thinking and feeling with words, we can only watch and make educated guesses based on their behavior. Next time you visit with your uncle, watch carefully to see if there are clues as to what your son is reacting to. If, for example, you observe that your uncle is not so good at reading your son’s cues, offer some gentle suggestions. When Jackson looks away like that, it usually means he’s ready for a break. That’s what he does with me too. If your son startles when he hears your uncle’s voice, explain that your son is sensitive to certain sounds, especially loud, sudden ones. Suggest that he try speaking in a softer voice and approaching your son more slowly. If you notice that your son reacts simply at the sight of your uncle, make sure your son sees you warmly greet and talk with your uncle. Children watch their parents for cues as to how to feel about others. When he sees you and your uncle interacting in a friendly way, your son will see that your uncle is a safe and good person. You might even try holding your son in your arms as you talk with your uncle.
Another helpful strategy is to slowly involve your uncle in one of your son’s favorite activities. First, have your uncle simply watch from a distance. Next, start to include him by talking as you play with your son: Uncle Charlie, can you believe how tall this tower is? Next, ask your uncle to hand you a block, and then ask him to put a block on the tower himself.
Even though it may be tempting to cut down your stress level by limiting visits with your uncle, resist that natural pull. Children are enriched by loving family relationships. Avoiding your uncle means missed opportunities to help your child learn that, with support, he can overcome fears. Over time, and with your love and support, these family gatherings will likely be filled with your child’s cries—of laughter, not tears.