If you ever dated a jerk, you know that people are quick to tell you to “dump his sorry ass.”
But if a family member is mistreating you, they say: “Just brush it off.”
It’s even worse when grandparents are involved.
As a culture, we place importance on having an extended family, and grandparents are a big part of that. So they are often perceived as harmless old folks who love to spoil their grandkids.
But toxic grandparents are not harmless.
They are manipulative, controlling, self-serving individuals who can do a lot of damage if not kept in check.
Here are 10 signs that you might be dealing with a difficult grandparent.
1. Undermining You As a Parent
When it comes to food restrictions, bedtime, screen time, or any other rules you have for your child, a toxic grandparent doesn’t accept your parental authority.
In their eyes, since they have seniority and experience raising children, they always know best, and no one can tell them otherwise.
This type of behavior is a breach of trust and one of the things grandparents should never do.
“The grandparent’s role is not to challenge but to fit in with the family culture,” says J. Lane Tanner, M.D., at the University of California-San Francisco. “Parents delegate authority to the grandparent, not the other way around.”
2. Denying Having Made Any Parenting Mistakes
Whenever you bring up painful moments from your childhood, the grandparent gaslights you by saying: “I don’t remember that,” or “You always exaggerate!”
Quite simply, the grandparent is incapable of reflecting on their flaws and wrongdoings. They believe they were a great parent and that the issue is with you.
People who can’t admit fault can’t learn from their mistakes.
So when a parent refuses to acknowledge any parenting missteps or regrets, it’s a red flag for a problematic grandparent.
Just as they deny having made any mistakes as a parent, they will deny any lapses in judgment as a grandparent.
I have a personal experience with a grandmother overfeeding the grandchild to the point of constipation, and then denying any responsibility when confronted. Even though it happened after the child spent the weekend at grandma’s, she simply didn’t see how it was her fault.
This is an example of how the toxic grandparent can harm a child, and still think that they’ve done nothing wrong.
3. Feeling Entitled to Time With the Grandchildren
The toxic grandparent feels like you owe them time with their grandchildren.
If they don’t get that time for whatever reason, they’ll accuse you of using your kid to hurt them.
They will go as far as demanding time with your kid ONLY, trying to bypass you and take control of the situation. If that doesn’t work, they’ll enlist relatives to harass you on their behalf.
In extreme cases, a toxic grandparent will sue you for visitation rights, or even for full custody of your kids.
They will stop at nothing to get what they believe they’re entitled to.
And it has nothing to do with love for the grandchildren. It’s about control and punishment.
They want to punish you for denying them time with the grandkids, and they don’t care that what they’re doing is going to hurt those same kids they’re professing to love so dearly.
4. Playing the Victim
A toxic grandparent is someone with an over-inflated ego and a lack of empathy for other people’s feelings. That includes people closest to them — their family.
Even the slightest disagreement can be perceived as an attack, and all of a sudden grandma is “sick,” or grandpa is having “chest pains.”
This is very intentional.
They aim to elicit sympathy and to remind everyone – kids and grandkids – that things need to be going their way, or else.
Playing the victim accomplishes that while allowing them to evade any responsibility for their actions.
5. Trying to Buy the Grandkids’ Love With Gifts
It’s normal for grandparents to want to spoil their grandkids.
Many grandparents find joy in buying gifts for the grandchild, cooking them delicious meals, treating them to an extra cookie, letting them stay up past bedtime…That’s why children tend to adore their grandparents.
But to some grannies, gift-giving is a calculated chess game designed to buy their grandchildren’s love.
If your parent or in-law
- showers your kid with toys (clothes, sweets)
- tries to outshine you around the holidays
- doesn’t ask your permission before purchasing something big (like an iPhone or a pet)
they’re exhibiting passive-aggressive toxic behavior.
As strange as it may seem, too many gifts can be a bad thing. Not only is it manipulative, but it also teaches the kids to be spoiled and materialistic.
Excessive gift-giving, especially when one child gets better gifts than the others, sends the message that gifts equal love.
Simply put, if a grandparent engages in this type of excessive or selective gift-giving, it’s not good for anyone.
6. Manipulating to Get What They Want
- “You only have one mother (father).”
- “I’ve sacrificed everything for you.”
- “Don’t bother coming to my funeral.”
If your parent ever told you one of these gems, chances are, they won’t be much different as a grandparent.
They’ll be just as manipulative with your children.
It might sound something like:
- “Kiss (hug) me or I’ll cry”
- “I guess you don’t love me then.”
- “Come visit me or no Christmas presents.”
Children are a perfect target for a manipulator because they’re so innocent and trusting. As a result, they may internalize guilt or shame the grandparent is trying to use to manipulate them.
So be vigilant when the grandparent is trying to play on your child’s emotions. It’s not as harmless as it sounds.
7. Meddling in Your Parenting Choices
Most grandparents are capable of distinguishing between grandparenting and parenting roles.
But a toxic grandparent wants to get involved in every decision that concerns the grandkids.
They want to tell you how they should be fed, what daycare they should go to, whether or not they should be circumcised, how they should be punished etc.
Some overzealous grandmothers will even push their way into the delivery room and tell you what to name your child! True story.
Another meddling behavior that’s fairly common is when the grandparent wants to name the grandchild.
They may be upfront and pushy about it or drop passive-aggressive hints about “great-grandpa Bill” or some other “good family names.”
Grandparents! Please stop doing this. Only offer your opinion on names if you’re specifically asked.
8. Playing Favorites With the Grandkids
Does your parent (or in-law) have a habit of comparing the grandchildren, and granting affection to the selected “winner” of the family?
Chances are, they’ve done that as parents, too.
Assigning roles like “golden child” and “scapegoat” to their children is a well-known dynamic in families with a narcissistic parent.
This practice is very cruel and harmful to children’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.
9. Wanting to Be “Grandparent #1”
To a toxic grandparent, other grandparents are unimportant or non-existent. All the holidays and special events should be at their house, or else.
If the other set of grandparents had some quality time with the kids, they act jealous and hurt.
They expect preferential treatment and public displays of gratitude for every little thing they do for the child.
They also want to be invited to every family vacation, dinner, and other events the parents might prefer to enjoy with friends or alone with their kids.
Even if they don’t get the invite, they have no problem crashing the party.
A toxic grandparent also aims to be your kids’ favorite person so that they can take control of their hearts and minds.
They may encourage your kids to keep secrets from you or to lie to you.
Particularly venomous grannies will tell them demeaning things about you with the ultimate purpose of turning your kids against you.
10. Telling Your Child Critical or Hurtful Things
Toxic grandparents may love their grandchildren. They may mean them no harm. But they can’t help who they are.
They’re critical, judgmental, and manipulative people. And in their mind, when they’re criticizing someone, they’re “helping” them become better.
Eventually, they will expose their grandchildren to the same toxicity you and your partner are so familiar with.
Except adults have defenses to deal with toxic people; kids don’t. Their psyches are fragile and impressionable.
Even occasional comments can become their inner voice, which can lead to confusion, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic illnesses, and other serious issues.
How to Deal With a Toxic Grandparent
No grandparent is perfect. Hell, nobody is perfect!
It’s normal for grandparents to exhibit meddling tendencies or to want to spoil the grandkids. It comes from love – usually.
But we’re not talking about regular folks here. We’re talking about toxic people, not grandma who occasionally sneaks your child a cookie.
Toxic (or narcissistic) people have severe emotional deficits that produce an entirely egocentric worldview.
To them people are tools, and that includes children. They’re a means to an end. And because kids are so innocent and trusting, they’re easy prey for a manipulator.
That’s why toxic grandparents are dangerous.
Their controlling, selfish behaviors are systematic and almost entirely unconscious. They simply don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong.
And if that comes from someone who has a track record of being an abusive parent, you have to be extra vigilant about allowing them near your child.
When the toxic grandparent is hurting your child (emotionally or otherwise) and refuses to acknowledge the harm and/or stop, cutting ties with them may be your only option.
As painful as it is, no contact with a toxic family member is the only sure way to stop the abuse, for good.
Here’s a detailed guide on how to go no contact with a toxic grandparent, step-by-step: Going No Contact with a Narcissistic Grandmother
It won’t be easy. Cutting ties with your parent (or your partner’s parent) can dismantle the whole family unit and turn people against you.
It can also upset your kids. Children are typically attached to their grandparents despite their personal qualities.
Sometimes a child will actually take the grandparent’s side and blame the parent for the loss of the relationship.
In these types of cases, the child most certainly had been “groomed” by a narcissistic grandmother or grandfather.
“Grooming” is when an adult builds an emotional connection with a child with selfish or nefarious intentions.
Before You Go No Contact
No contact is a serious decision that will likely have a ripple effect on the entire family.
So make sure that you’ve exhausted all other options prior to cutting ties permanently.
Have you made every attempt to communicate?
Did you make a difficult grandparent aware of how their actions affect you and your children?
Have you tried setting boundaries?
What about limited or supervised contact?
As cynical as it sounds, supervised contact can work fine for families who only see their unruly grandparent a few times a year.
But if all else fails, and you believe that contact with the grandparent is damaging to your child, let them go.
And don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about this.
You have an obligation to protect your kids from any harm that comes their way, even from someone who’s supposed to love and care for them.
Want to know more about toxic grandparents? I’ve written an eBook on the subject. It describes 5 types of challenging grandparents — Controlling, Narcissistic, Angry, Indifferent, and Inappropriate — and how to deal with each type.
Apter, T. (2012).Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. W.W. Norton & Company.
Brown, N. W. (2015).Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed: A Guide to Coping with Difficult, Narcissistic Parents & Grandparents.New Harbinger Publications.
Davenport, G. (2006). Working with Toxic Older Adults: A Guide to Coping With Difficult Elders. Springer Publishing Company.
Sarkis, S. M. (2018).Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free. Da Capo Press.
Smith, P.K. (2005). Grandparents and grandchildren. The Psychologist. November 2005, Vol.18 (pp.684-687).
Stanford Children’s Health. Let Your Children Raise Their Kids.
10 Ways a Narcissistic Grandmother Can Harm Your Children
10 Signs Of an Angry Grandparent (And How to Talk to Your Kids About It)
Indifferent Grandparents: Signs and How to Handle the Disappointment