Last Updated on September 14, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
In recent years, there has been an undeniable explosion of research and mainstream articles discussing toxic parents. We all know that toxic people can leave devastating impacts on their own children.
Furthermore, we also know that emotional dysfunction can result in long-term effects on a child’s emotional well-being.
But what about toxic grandparents and their role in the family system? How do controlling grandparents or selfish grandparents impact a child’s upbringing? And when do you need to consider setting limits or cutting ties? Let’s get into it.
Why Toxic Grandparents Can Be So Problematic
We live in a world that essentially covets the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Think about it: many times, we perceive grandparents as selfless and unconditionally loving- as people who spoil their grandchildren with everything they ever wanted.
We also often perceive them as relatively benign. Even if their actions seem a bit “quirky,” most of us are quick to defend any behavior due to them being older.
These misconceptions, of course, can make toxic grandparenting even more insidious. Toxic grandparents can be manipulative, abusive, controlling, and selfish. Unfortunately, they might not have your best interest- or your child’s best interest at heart. Likewise, their relationship with your child may lead to damaging consequences.
According to Claire Karakey, LPC, “it’s important to consider that even well-meaning grandparents can be toxic. Many of them grew up in the post-war generation where there was a lot of fear and famine- they went through a lot of trauma.
They lived in an age where it was not acceptable to feel or show emotions. They were also raised being told not to complain…to be grateful because others have it worse than you.
So, when the grandparents come in and critique everything you are doing today as a parent, it is more than likely because they lived differently and not because they are intentionally trying to disapprove or shame you.”
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However, Karakey goes on to say, “This is still emotionally invalidating because we all crave the approval of our parents. It hurts us to our core, and when this criticism is ongoing and persistent, it can be extremely toxic, causing anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.”
15 Signs of Toxic Grandparents
Although you might think that toxic behavior is obvious, that isn’t always the case. For example, if you’ve been in a complicated relationship with your parents or in-laws, you might not even realize the full extent of their problematic issues. Here are some key signs to consider.
#1 They Disregard Your Rules
You made it clear that you didn’t want your child watching TV and that bedtime was at 7:00 PM sharp. You come home well after midnight on date night (where your parent graciously offered to babysit), and your child is plopped in front of the television.
What happened? What happened is that toxic grandparents tend to undermine a parent’s intentions. They often think they know what’s best, even if you’ve made it clear that you want them to follow specific rules.
Sometimes, disregarding your rules is blatant. Other times, they may be more sneaky and lie about it, hoping that you won’t notice their behavior. In any case, trust is an essential component of any healthy relationship. If you don’t feel like you can trust the person watching your child, is that the kind of caregiver you want in your life?
#2 They Guilt-Trip You Into Spending Time with Your Children
Most family members enjoy spending time with young children. But if the grandparents beg, demand, or otherwise make you feel guilty for not spending time together, it’s a red flag.
Toxic grandparents often believe they deserve to spend as much time with their grandchildren as they want. But, unfortunately, no matter how much you give, it usually doesn’t seem like it’s enough.
That’s because they will often meticulously compare the time they get to spend with your child with the time other people get to share with them. And if they believe they fall short, you better believe they’ll let you know about it!
#3 They Spoil Your Children Excessively and Inappropriately
Everyone knows the classic spoiling grandparent cliche. But if the spoiling feels more calculated and mean-spirited, it’s time to pay attention.
Toxic grandparents may spoil their grandchildren by:
- Trying to one-up you or other family members during birthdays or holidays.
- Buying large gifts and giving them to your children without your approval (such as a laptop or international airplane tickets or a puppy).
- Giving gifts after you have made specific requests for no more gifts.
- Spoiling your children in ways that disrespects your parenting (giving your kids candy when you don’t normally allow them to eat sugar or letting them wear certain clothes that you don’t deem appropriate).
#4 They Seem to Only like Babies or Very Young Children
Narcissistic grandparents often like cute (but defenseless) children. This preference allows them to have the power and control they seek. They also don’t have to worry about your child arguing back with them.
If the grandparents seem to gravitate towards the younger kids, pay attention. It means they probably just want all the love and attention that comes with infancy and toddlerhood.
But if they seem aloof or angry at the older kids, it means they don’t really want the responsibilities of having a more mature relationship.
#5 They Have a Golden Child
Do the grandparents put one of the children on a significant pedestal? Do they obviously prefer that one child over everyone else?
Narcissists and other dysfunctional people tend to split people into either “good” or “bad.” The golden child, in their eyes, is perfect. Therefore, they will praise and celebrate that child incessantly and often at the expense of other people.
Unfortunately, the golden-child syndrome can be incredibly short-lived. This child faces immense pressure to succeed. They know, at a core level, that people define their worth based on their external successes.
Any mistakes often feel catastrophic, as they worry that they will “lose” the love and support they covet.
#6 They Alternate Between Reward and Punishment with Your Kids
Some grandparents use their grandchildren to satisfy their own needs. Amelia Alvin, a psychiatrist, states, “grandparents are generous at practicing reward or punishment theory when it comes to grandkids.
If you are a good boy, you will get to eat a bar of chocolate. Do you want a cookie? Go get my glasses from upstairs. They manipulate kids into situations and things for getting their purpose done.”
They may escalate these manipulation tactics to further cause anxiety. Alvin highlights this example, “If you don’t visit me, I won’t give you your present. It sounds very harmless of a grandparent to offer a reward against a task.
But, unfortunately, they teach a habit of receiving external affirmations to get themselves or their work validated later in life.”
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#7 They Frequently Remind You of Their Brilliant Parenting
You turned out just fine, and we didn’t worry about X, Y, or Z.
Your friend’s parents all did ___. We knew better!
I didn’t have half the support you did, and I like to think I did an amazing job.
Parenting is hard work, and most parents can readily admit their mistakes. But if your own parents believe they did a flawless job, there’s a good chance they will try to brag about their expertise every chance they get.
Sometimes, the bragging is more covert. For instance, they might put down how other parents disciplined or raised their kids to showcase their behavior in a more positive light. Or, they may attempt to play the victim by commenting on how they did their best despite their lack of money, resources, or support.
Either way, the message is clear. They did a fantastic job raising you, so why shouldn’t you believe they will do a fantastic job with your child?
And even if you agree that your parents did a great job, that doesn’t mean they should rub it in your face! It also doesn’t mean they’re entirely off the hook for how they behave. After all, healthy people know they can’t do everything right.
#8 They Talk Poorly of Other Grandparents or Extended Family
Toxic grandparents want to prove they are the best caregivers in your child’s life. Subsequently, they will often cut down the entire family to try to display their fantastic worth.
Of course, if you confront them on this behavior, they may react by:
- Denying the behavior outright.
- Insisting that you’re overreacting because they were “just joking.”
- Exaggerating another family member’s behavior to make them seem worse than they really are.
- Becoming defensive and insisting that they’re just trying to show you the truth.
Talking poorly about other people is one thing. But once these grandparents start speaking this way in front of the children, it’s time to pay attention. As you know, children absorb the actions and words they hear. So these messages can undoubtedly trigger their fears, confusion, and frustration.
#9 They Fail to Take Personal Accountability over Their Mistakes
Accidents happen. For instance, your kid might fall at the park and get a nasty cut on the forehead. You might jump to assume that it’s nobody’s fault, but a toxic grandparent won’t ever admit that maybe they put your young child on a piece of play equipment that was too big for them.
Or, if you confront them on crossing a boundary, they won’t apologize for their behavior. Instead, they may become hostile or aggressive.
Some grandparents will gaslight their adult children into believing that they are overreacting or causing more problems. In extreme cases, they might resort to smearing you to others, trying to make you seem like you’re the bad one.
#10 They Are Completely Obsessed With Your Children
Sure, most grandparents feel smitten over their grandchildren. But a grandfather or grandmother obsessed with a grandchild may signify deeper issues.
For instance, it may mean that they don’t have any hobbies outside of spending time with your children. They don’t have any life beyond what they do with your kids.
In other words, your children may be responsible for giving them a sense of identity. It also means they use your children as their sole source of happiness.
While this may seem harmless, it can become quickly destructive. The moment they feel threatened in the relationship, they will often lash out or make waves to get attention.
In addition, these types of grandparents will resent your children for growing up. They won’t know how to cope with being “less needed” or “less important.”
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#11 They Have Overly High Expectations for Your Children
Do the grandparents expect your children to get straight A’s? Do they harp on them when they miss the ball or stumble during sports? Do they pick apart their appearance or make mean comments about their friends?
Insulting a child is never okay. Most people know that. But having overly unrealistic expectations for a child can also cause problems. These expectations often create a foundation of shame.
They can make children become perfectionistic and controlling. In more severe cases, they can also contribute to substance use, disordered eating, and self-harm.
#12 They Only Commit To What They Want
Do you need a babysitter over the weekend? They’re happy to jump in! Want some help with the dishes or laundry while tending to your newborn? They’ll get back to you.
Toxic grandparents are usually present when things are fun and in their best interest. For example, they might not bat an eye anytime you ask them to watch the kids.
But if you need other sources of practical support, they might be dismissive or suddenly unavailable.
Of course, it’s reasonable for everyone to have their boundaries. Nobody is inherently obligated to help you. But if they insist that you can come to them with anything- and then they prove themselves as unreliable or inconsistent- it’s a cause for concern.
#13 They Start Drama
Toxic people love stirring chaos around them. They seemingly enjoy making people flustered and antsy- it maintains their own feelings of power.
A toxic grandparent might try to “plant ideas” into your child’s mind by asking them leading questions about who their favorite parent is or inquiring about why their other grandparents never come to visit them.
They might make snide remarks about certain beliefs or interests, all because they want to challenge how your child thinks.
Healthy people encourage autonomy. Toxic people want people to think as they do. If you challenge that status quo, they will turn the drama onto you.
#14 They Get Hysterical When You Set Boundaries
I don’t understand why you’d put him in daycare when you have us! He’s too young, anyway.
What do you mean that you can’t come over this weekend? I haven’t seen her in a whole week!
I don’t get why you’re being so rude when I’ve been such a help to you.
Toxic grandparents want relationships on their terms. The dynamic typically abides by the following pattern: if they choose to set limits, everyone should automatically respect them. But, when it’s the other way around, they often act confused, devastated, or even belligerent.
Healthy people can also struggle with boundaries, but they understand their merit. Toxic people become offended when others implement boundaries- they perceive them as a personal attack.
Sometimes, vulnerable narcissists won’t argue back when you set boundaries. Instead, they may use other manipulative tactics like complaining about how little life they have left or how they feel nobody loves them. Make no mistake- these remarks are meant to make you feel guilty!
#15 They Physically Abuse Your Children
It is never, under any circumstances, permissible for an adult to harm a child. Unfortunately, maybe you (or your parents) grew up in a generation where spanking, hitting, pushing, or other forms of physical punishment were normal.
Toxic grandparents might defend their behavior. They may insist that it’s “good for them” or that “they need to respect the rules of the house” or that “we don’t want them to go soft.” These excuses are meaningless. Continuous research indicates that corporal punishment has absolutely no positive benefits.
As a parent, if you even suspect such abuse is occurring, it’s essential that you separate your children from these grandparents immediately.
How to Deal With Toxic Grandparents
If you’ve recognized patterns of emotional abuse, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, sad, or angry. After all, most of us want that idyllic relationship with our kids and their grandparents! However, it can be frustrating to realize that things are more destructive than they seem.
Talk To Your Spouse
What does your spouse (or the child’s other parent) think about the current situation? Have they also noticed the same red flags?
Keep in mind that we sometimes have blind spots when it comes to our own parents. We may be more forgiving or compassionate with them than we would be with our in-laws.
It can be helpful to start the conversation by sharing your recent observations. For example, did your mother-in-law buy your child a kitten for Christmas without consulting anyone? Did your father let your child eat junk food all weekend instead of the food you prepared in advance?
Set Clear Boundaries
What do you need to be changed? Is it one specific behavior or an entire personality shift? If you don’t know where to start, write down your expectations. Having a tangible list can help you stay on track.
According to John P. Carnesecchi, LCSW, “You must rectify and control the behavior. Assess the grandparents’ level of behavior and create a plan to pinpoint what you feel is bringing toxicity to the family dynamics. First and foremost, a parent’s decision should never be undermined, especially in front of the kids. You are the parent, and the grandparents need to understand your role and understand their role.”
Boundaries are an essential component of any healthy relationship. Without them, things often feel chaotic and ambiguous. Boundaries can refer to physical, emotional, financial, and digital limits. Here are some boundaries you might want to set with toxic grandparents:
- No cursing in front of my children.
- No feeding my children ____.
- Bedtime is at ____.
- Do not buy my child ____.
- Do not speak about ___ in front of my children.
- Do not take my child to ____.
- At family events, we expect you to ____.
Remember that boundaries need to be explicit. Do not sugarcoat or beat around the bush. You want to be as specific as possible- that way, you can logistically track whether or not they follow them.
Carnesecchi states, “As the parent, you are not required to justify, defend, validate, or even explain yourself. Just state your chosen outcome and move on.
These specific traits do not have specific boundary rules. The key here is to be firm, define your boundaries, explain your family’s values and expectations, and expect your boundaries to be honored. You are in control.”
Consider Their Responses
Toxic grandparents might not recognize the magnitude of their behavior until confronted with it. In some cases, they might be receptive to your feedback and integrate it immediately.
According to Mikela Hallmark, LPC and LMHC, “If a grandparent is someone you can talk to, they express empathy, and they’re willing to work on change, that’s a great sign.”
But, in most cases, toxic people don’t respond well to feedback. Instead, they typically respond by:
- Insisting that you’re overreacting.
- Trying to convince you that you’re the bad parent/person.
- Making excuses for their behavior (trying to solicit your pity).
- Lying outright about whatever you confronted them with.
- Making feeble comments about how they will change (without taking any initiative).
- Insisting that they can “never” do anything right in your opinion.
Any of those reactions are manipulative and designed to make you either second-guess yourself or feel guilty for your boundaries.
Set Clear Consequences
Grandparents disrespecting parents isn’t something you need to tolerate. Furthermore, grandparents overstepping boundaries (without receiving any consequences) only enable problematic behavior.
When setting boundaries, it’s time to be firm and specific about your expectations. Then, think about how you want to get your point across. For example, it may be as simple as kicking your parents out of the home if they so much as complain about your parenting. Or, it may be “suspending” them for a week of babysitting if they break a specific rule.
Either way, you may need to discipline your parents as you would your children. First, let them know their limits and what happens if they cross the line. Then, make sure you follow through. Consistency is the only real way to get your message across!
Avoid Badmouthing Grandparents in Front of Your Children
It may be tempting to vent to your kids, especially after a grandparent does something particularly offensive. But resist this urge.
Badmouthing grandparents can create mixed messages for children. This is particularly true for younger kids who may seemingly idolize their grandparents. But it can also impact older children who may have strong, independent relationships with your parents or in-laws.
As you navigate new boundaries, your children may pick up on new changes. If they ask questions, it’s still important to avoid criticizing or shaming your grandparents. Depending on your child’s age, you may be able to share some of your concerns (while aiming to remain objective).
Consider Other Forms of Childcare
Many grandparents look after children- whether it’s through occasional babysitting or more regular caregiving. But if you’re concerned about their toxic behavior, you may need to reevaluate this dynamic.
The more your children spend time with toxic grandparents, the more likely such toxicity will impact their development. While you might think that very young children are exempt, research shows that any form of abuse can trigger a myriad of physical and emotional health problems.
Cut Contact (If Needed)
You’re allowed to remove toxic people from your life, and giving yourself that permission is crucial.
Cutting all contact altogether is obviously the most extreme response to coping with toxic behavior. But if things progressively worsen, it may be your only option. This decision inherently requires a level of commitment. You must be willing to block, remove, and avoid all traces of the people you remove.
If you’re not ready to make that choice, you might consider a more low-contact approach. With this method, you reduce your communication and tend only to keep surface-level conversations. Low contact also requires maintaining strong boundaries for yourself.
As a parent, it’s your job to protect your children and ensure their well-being as best you can. But, of course, setting these limits isn’t always easy. Navigating family patterns is undoubtedly complex, and changing your relationship or even cutting off toxic grandparents can be challenging.
But when grandparents interfere with parenting, it affects the entire family system. It impacts your child’s development and can trigger your own anger, resentment, and fear.
Blood may be thicker than water, but the love you have for your children is thicker than any blood. Keep that in mind as you consider how you manage the grandparents in their lives.