Narcissists defy logic. A small minority are self-aware enough to seek help. Some seem pretty functional and even successful. But the majority are blissfully ignorant of the devastating impact they have on the people around them.
A narcissistic grandmother is a latter type. She doesn’t realize the extent of her issues, and she tends to find fault in everyone but herself. That is typical of most narcissists.
So before we get to the specific signs of a narcissistic grandmother and how you can cope with her, let’s look at what narcissism is.
This article is written by Lana Adler, founder of Toxic Ties.
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism (or narcissistic personality disorder – NPD), is a pattern of self-centered thinking and behavior characterized by a craving for attention and a lack of empathy for others.
Everyone is narcissistic to some degree. We all enjoy being praised or admired. We typically prioritize our needs over others, and sometimes we fail to acknowledge or empathize with someone else’s suffering.
For example, you might enjoy the attention you get when you wear that form-fitting dress. You accept a promotion at work even though your colleague deserved it more.
Or here’s something we are all guilty of: you know of the profound humanitarian crises in the third world, but you put it out of your mind and go get yourself the latest iPhone.
As bad as this sounds, this isn’t pathological. At least not in a clinical sense.
But when it comes to narcissism in a pathological form, the traits of self-centeredness and disregard for others’ become extreme and even dangerous.
So what are the specific signs of narcissistic disorder? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), to be diagnosed with NPD a person must exhibit five or more of the following symptoms:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- A belief that one is special and can only be understood by other exceptional people
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement (to special treatment)
- Exploitation of others
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy
Most people who exhibit narcissistic traits would not meet a clinical definition of a narcissistic personality disorder.
Still, a grandmother with narcissistic tendencies can be just as damaging as someone with an NPD diagnosis.
The Two Types of Narcissism
Narcissists usually fall into two broad categories: grandiose narcissists and vulnerable narcissists.
Grandiose (or overt) narcissists enjoy being the center of attention, believe in their uniqueness and superiority, and feel entitled to the best things in life. This is who people call “egomaniacs.”
Vulnerable (or covert) narcissists are much more subtle about those same needs and beliefs.
They are torn by contradictions. On the one hand, they believe in their superiority over others.
On the other hand, they are plagued by feelings of inferiority, shame, and fear of criticism. So they prefer to stay “behind the scenes” and play the victim or the martyr.
A narcissistic grandmother is likely to be the covert type.
12 Signs of a Narcissistic Grandmother
As we’ve discussed, not all narcissists are the same. There’s a lot of variation in the behavior and personality of narcissistic people.
However, if you suspect your children’s grandmother is a narcissist, there’s a good chance she exhibits the following signs.
1. She has strong controlling and manipulative tendencies
Everything has to go her way, or else. And to get what she wants, she often uses covert or manipulative tactics such as guilt-tripping, gaslighting, blame game, playing the victim, etc.
These tactics are her weapons of choice because they are subtle enough to evade responsibility but effective enough for you to get the message.
2. She has volatile reactions
A narcissistic grandmother makes you feel like you always have to walk on eggshells, or she will explode with anger or shut down. She overreacts to the smallest arguments and perceived slights, and demands total obedience.
Whenever you step out of line, a narcissistic grandmother will be outraged or threaten to cut you and your children out of her life (or her will). So you feel like a relationship with her can break apart at any minute.
3. She doesn’t respect your decisions
Whether it comes to your personal decisions or decisions concerning your children, a narcissistic grandmother is fundamentally incapable of respecting your choices and beliefs. For that reason, narcissistic grandmothers often undermine the parents.
She ignores your childcare instructions when she babysits. And if you confront her about it, she’ll either deny the violation or dismiss it as an insignificant issue.
4. Her logic seems shaky or absurd
Her responses are often nonsensical when you disagree with her and try to make your point.
That’s because she engages in circular conversations also known as “word salad” with an intent to confuse you and ensure that the conversation never has the resolution you seek.
After an argument with her, you’ll feel drained, frustrated, and dissatisfied.
5. She plays Favorites with her grandchildren
A narcissistic grandmother will likely pick one grandchild out of the litter to love and adore. She will put that child on the pedestal, while the others will only receive scraps of her love.
She did the same with her own children, choosing one child to be the “golden child,” and the other – the “scapegoat.” This is typical for families where one or both parents are narcissists.
6. She “grooms” her grandchildren
The term “grooming” refers to the grandmother gaining the trust and the loyalty of the grandchild to manipulate them. Narcissistic grooming might come in the form of gifts, special attention, special privileges, secret-keeping, etc.
Grooming goals can range from gaining narcissistic supply (the love and adoration of the grandkids) to turning your children against you.
7. She doesn’t own up to anything
Narcissistic grandmothers often cross boundaries, question your judgment, and undermine you as a parent.
If you confront her, she’s likely to deny the offense, turn the tables on you, or play innocent. No matter what you say, she will not accept responsibility or apologize.
8. She has “flying monkeys.”
Abusive grandmothers are good at manipulating people’s perceptions of them.
So some family members will fall for her act and only see her the way she wants them to see her.
They will become her enablers – people who endorse the view that anyone who challenges the grandmother is ultimately wrong.
So if an argument arises, they will come to the grandmother’s defense and act as her good little soldiers or “flying monkeys.”
Of course, this is very intentional. The grandmother manipulates them to do her bidding.
9. She makes holidays and special events difficult
Family get-togethers should be joyous and enriching events. What’s better than sharing a meal with the people you love?
But in addition to turkeys and mashed potatoes, narcissistic grandmothers always cook up some drama for the holidays.
Expect that she will cause an argument, say something hurtful, or ruin everyone’s good time in some other way.
10. She lies about everything
Sometimes it’s mind-boggling because she will even lie about the things she has no reason to lie about.
That’s because she’s a pathological liar. Being dishonest is a way of life for her. She will treat you as a traitor and scapegoat when you start seeing through her lies.
She will even accuse you of being a liar – a tactic called “projection.” All of this is done to evade accountability and maintain control.
11. She’s a grandmother when it’s convenient for her
She wants to see the grandchildren on her terms: for example, only at her house, or only when she requests them. She also uses them to boost her public persona.
Whenever she has a chance to show off what a marvelous grandmother she is, she’ll put on a show and play the loving, doting granny to get the public praise. But privately, she’s often neglectful of the grandkids.
12. She pulls “disappearing acts.”
Like any narcissist, a narcissistic grandmother is hyper-sensitive to any criticism, and even an innocent comment can be perceived as a slight and a sign of disrespect.
When that happens, the grandmother will likely give you and your whole family the silent treatment.
So from time to time, she will disappear into this cone of silence which is meant to punish whoever crossed her.
The silent treatments can last for days, weeks, months, and even years! And the parents are often at a loss about what to tell their children.
4 Strategies for Dealing with a Narcissistic Grandmother
Now that you’ve identified the signs of a narcissistic grandmother, let’s figure out effective strategies for dealing with her.
1. Set limits.
Narcissistic grandmothers are notorious for crossing boundaries and disregarding instructions. The only way to deal with this is by continuing to set limits and distancing yourself when necessary.
You can try something Dr. Craig Malkin calls a “connection contract.” This is when you lay out the terms of your agreement to spend time with a narcissist, and what happens if the narcissist violates this agreement.
This is actually simpler than it sounds. Say, a narcissistic grandmother wants you and your kids to come over.
You say: “We will come. But if I hear yelling (cursing, putdowns, etc.), we will not be able to stay. So it’s really up to you if my kids and I come and spend time with you.”
2. Maintain emotional distance
This is probably the most essential coping strategy when dealing with a narcissistic grandmother or with any kind of narcissist.
Maintaining emotional distance has two parts: not allowing the grandmother to trigger an emotional reaction from you, and not showing the grandmother any emotions.
In literature, it’s referred to as “the grey rock method.” It’s when you don’t engage with anything the narcissist says or does and remain as animated as a rock. It’s kind of the emotional equivalent of playing dead.
The narcissistic grandmother feeds on your emotional energy. The more riled up you become, the more “food” she gets. If you give her nothing, eventually she will leave you alone.
3. Lean on your support system
Narcissistic grandmothers can create a lot of chaos, stress, and confusion in your life. They can leave you drained and frustrated, especially when your children are caught in the middle.
At times like this, you must use your support system. It can be your spouse, your sibling, or a friend.
The important thing is that they can provide you with a fresh perspective on the situation and give you emotional support when you most need it.
So don’t think you can tackle everything by yourself! Seek insight and help of the people who love you.
4. Pick your battles.
Sometimes you’ve got to let the little things go. This isn’t the same as placating a narcissistic grandmother. Stand by the things that really matter to you – things that you consider essential to your kids’ safety and wellbeing.
But constantly bickering and fighting with a narcissistic grandmother isn’t good for anybody, including you.
If you’re choosing to have a narcissistic grandmother in your life, you’ve got to have reasonable expectations of her.
She is who she is. If you’re willing to accept her in your life and your kids’ lives, learn to endure some of her “charm.”
Set boundaries when you need to, but don’t make your relationship a constant battlefield. It’ll just cause you mental and physical exhaustion.
Having a narcissistic grandmother in your life can feel overwhelming, confusing, and bewildering. Her abusive ways are so subtle yet so deadly. And oftentimes, you’re probably worried about leaving your children with her.
Your worries are not unfounded. Narcissists can and do cause damage to those around them. For that reason, many people choose to go No Contact with the narcissistic family members, friends or partners.
But this is a topic for another discussion. I want to leave you with this: you are in control, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
I know a narcissistic grandmother has a way of making you feel powerless but it’s an illusion. That’s her smoke and mirrors. And it only works if you believe in it.
Focusing on how awful or difficult they are won’t help when it comes to toxic or narcissistic people. Instead, shift your attention to how you can handle them. In other words, don’t focus on problems; focus on solutions.
This will make you feel more powerful and in control of the situation. So no matter what the narcissistic grandmother throws at you, you have solid coping strategies in place.
This will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with the grandmother, and set a positive example for your kids on how to handle difficult individuals.
About the Author
Lana Adler is a writer and founder of Toxic Ties — an organization that provides support and resources for people in toxic relationships. She is the author of “The Toxic Grandparent Handbook,” the ultimate guide to difficult grandparents. Besides reading and writing, Lana loves travel, photography, and dirty martinis.
Sources Used For This Article
Apter, T. (2012). Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Blake, L. (2015). Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone.
Sarkis, S. M. (2018). Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free. Da Capo Press: New York.
PsychCentral, “In-Depth: Narcissistic Personality Disorder”
WebMD, “What Is Narcissism?”
Psychology Today, “Are You a Narcissist? 6 Sure Signs of Narcissism”
Mayo Clinic, “Narcissistic personality disorder“