I still cherish the memories of winter vacations, which we used to spend at my paternal grandparents’ home in a small peaceful town. Going out with our grandpa to the farmhouse, purchasing traditional village sweets, and then bedtime stories, thinking of it still warms my heart. On the other hand, I give a lot of credit to my maternal grandmother who was a superb guide and mentor. She was not well educated, but had such a logical mind and strong personality. Her guidance always helped me in differentiating between just and unjust, right and wrong.
As parents, you might agree with me that grandparents can be a blessing when it comes to expert advice, emotional support, and even babysitting services. Personally, I was only able to continue my professional life because my mother was always there to lend a hand with my kids. She has played a very important role in ensuring that my children stayed in a safe, secure, and loving environment while I was away from home.
There are cultural variations in the way grandparents interact or influence their grandchildren. In my part of the world, an extended family system is still in place. In rural areas of South Asia and Africa, large families comprising grandparents, their offspring, and grandchildren live together in large family homes. In other parts of the world, grandparents live independently in their homes and grandkids get to meet them occasionally. But even in the United States, multi-generational living arrangements are becoming increasingly common.
Despite these cultural differences, grandparents can either play a positive and supportive role or create challenges for parents by differing on parenting styles. Mostly, grandparents give suggestions with good intentions. But as a psychologist, I have come across cases where grandparents were rather manipulative or toxic. In such circumstances, it is necessary to take precautionary and remedial measures to save your children and protect your sanity.
Why grandparents become toxic, controlling, or manipulative
There are a variety of reasons why grandparents become difficult, manipulative, nosy, or toxic. Some common reasons can be the following:
- They consider themselves more experienced. In many cases grandparents try to impose their parenting strategies merely because they consider themselves more experienced. They think they know what is better for the child; therefore, it is their right to guide the parents.
- There’s a generation gap. I am sure you are familiar with the notion of generation gap. When we are living or interacting in a 3-generation home, this gap becomes more evident. The definition of a good child can be different for you and your parents. This gap in outlook can give rise to disputes in the selection of appropriate parenting practices.
- They want to feel emotionally secure. Growing old in most cases implies becoming physically weak, socially less powerful, and economically less productive. It is not easy for everyone to accept this transformation. Some grandparents become emotionally more insecure than the others. In order to gain control or feel emotionally strong, they intentionally or unintentionally manipulate their grandchildren.
- They were bad parents themselves. Abusive, neglectful and psychologically cold parents are a reality. According to US statistics, out of 4.3 million reported child maltreatment cases, 91.7% were maltreated by one or both of the parents. These statistics are alarming. We can understand that when these abusive parents become grandparents, they stick with their traditional parenting practices.
- They suffer from psychological problems. I have personally been working with a family where the grandmother was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She is obsessed with cleanliness and her grandchild started to show the same behaviors by following her example. A grandparent with a mental illness like a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or even a pessimistic outlook towards life can become a bad role model and difficult relation.
- They are narcissistic grandparents. A narcissistic person has an inflated self-esteem, desires lots of admiration, and considers him/herself a greater human being. Such personalities, when placed in the role of grandparents, can be very toxic.
- There are cultural differences. Cross-cultural and interracial marriages are increasingly common. In such cases, the grandparents represent different cultures. This issue can also arise when the parents are children of immigrants who themselves were raised in a different culture. Therefore, having different cultural and a traditional parenting history can cause a conflict.
- The grandparents are custodians of the children. In such cases where grandparents have to play the role of custodians, social, psychological, and physical reasons can cause them to become toxic, irritable, and angry. A research study indicated that children raised by custodial grandparents exhibited more behavioral and emotional problems than other children.
Signs of toxic grandparents
Over the years I have learned that a golden trait for enjoying healthy and positive relationships is to have empathy. Once you start understanding the feelings and situation of others, it is much easier to stop being judgmental. With a positive mindset, you can easily brush off inappropriate involvement and accept useful suggestions from grandparents of your kids.
But at times, grandparents can become increasingly annoying, even toxic. If you notice the following behaviors in your or your partner’s parents, it is a sign they are toxic grandparents and serious action needs to be taken to secure your children.
1. Imposing their parenting philosophy
Time has changed many things. Our parents might have been putting their children on their stomach to sleep, but now research has proven that it can endanger the life of the child.
In the past, homemade food was considered the only option for children, but in the present hectic routines, we as parents might be looking for some ready-made healthy options.
Sometimes these generational conflicts in parenting can become weird. I remember during a family counseling session, the grandmother was very annoyed with the mother of the baby. The reason behind this anger was that the mother would lay down her kid on one side after feeding, while the grandmother was of the belief that it would result in a misshapen head. Those from South Asia can very well relate to this weird argument, because in the past a well-rounded head was considered a sign of beauty in this region.
Having differences is quite normal, as long as these can be settled peacefully. But it can become very difficult if grandparents think that they are more experienced and an expert in parenting. They simply want to take over and impose how children should be disciplined, taught, and taken care of.
2. Grandparents disrespecting you as parents
In some cases, the grandparents do not want to take over the parenting responsibility, but they enjoy disapproving of or criticizing the parents in front of the children and/or other extended family members. This disrespectful and humiliating behavior not only interferes with the personality development of the children; it can also distort your image in the eyes of your child.
Once in a while, the grandparents can and do let children get up late, eat fun food, or interfere with their screen time. These occasional changes do not have a bad effect on the child. But when it involves any time and every time interference, you as a parent need to take action, as the grandparents may be enabling your children.
3. Manipulating children
I don’t like to use strong terms like manipulation while discussing relationships. As someone closely working with parents and professionals, I have gradually learned that words play an important role in shaping your thoughts. So dear moms please keep your heart big and outlook positive while looking at a relationship. If a grandparent makes a sad face to get a kiss from your kid, or promises a sweet treat when the child next visits them, it’s most probably just an expression of their love mixed in with their feelings of loneliness and emotional vulnerability.
But, if the grandparents emotionally pressure your kid, or take advantage of his immature mind to manipulate situations according to their will, then it’s dangerous.
If they ask your child to hide things from you, it’s a serious issue as it can lead to a communication gap between you and your child.
Discussing the mistakes of parents in front of children or using bad words for other extended family members can also have a very negative impact on the unbiased and pure minds of the children.
We all know that giving presents brings sweetness to relations. But if they intentionally shower the kid with expensive gifts to win the love of the children, then it is also not something to take lightly. It can sabotage your efforts of inculcating an appreciation for blessings and privileges we have as members of a society with uneven distribution of financial resources.
4. Manipulating you, the parents
You might have noticed that when your child is not willing to go to school, he suddenly develops a headache. The same can be true for your parents. When you are leaving after a weekend at grandma’s home, she might suddenly start experiencing heart palpitations or body pain. To this extent, it is quite justifiable and manageable.
But if it intensifies in the form of manipulation or emotional blackmailing, they may have an unhealthy attachment to the grandchildren and things can get bitter. Difficult grandparents can manipulate their offspring and their partners with emotional dialogues about their selfless efforts, their deteriorating health, their right from the grandchild as a blood relation, etc.
I have even heard about grandparents who pushed their daughter-in-law to leave her job to take care of her child.
5. Picking favorite grandchildren
Grandparents can have their own image of an ideal grandchild and if someone fits in that frame, he/she can become the apple of their eye. To this extent it is acceptable, but things get ugly when they compare and comment on other, not that liked, grandchildren.
I consider this practice highly toxic. It can have adverse effects on both liked and not liked children. The favorite grandchild can fall victim to an overinflated self-image and it can also create a gulf between him/her and his/her siblings. The not-so-liked or criticized grandchild can get so hurt that it can damage his mental health and personality development.
6. Disregarding your discipline guidelines
I have worked extensively with families with children with educational, physical, and behavioral problems. When it comes to life skills training and behavior management, I cannot emphasize more on consistent and structured rules and schedules. Routines are also important for typically growing children.
I have heard time and again from the mothers that grandma or grandfather does not play a supportive role in this regard. In a recent poll parents from the US also reported that the grandparents mostly (57%) disagree on discipline strategies for the children.
When a child is advised to control his sugar intake, a grandparent secretly offers him chocolate, without realizing the adverse effects it will have on his health.
Similarly, if a mother is intentionally ignoring the tantrum of her child, and a grandparent starts negotiating with or bribing him, this actually feeds the negative behavior of the child.
When grandparents disregard or contradict the discipline guidelines of the parents, the grandparents are undermining you as parents and the child gets spoiled in the process. The child can also learn inappropriate strategies for escaping their parents’ discipline.
7. Disrespecting your privacy
How would it feel if you found out that grandpa or grandma has been asking your child about your fights, home routines, guests, future plans, etc? I am sure you will not approve of such behavior. A few grandparents consider it their right to interfere and sneak into your private life. Using your own child as a spy can be the least expected and most unpleasant way of doing it.
A child morally, socially, and emotionally gets off track when adored elders engage him in this type of undesirable practice.
Putting your kid’s photographs on social media without permission, sneaking into your closets or pantry, and inviting personal guests while your child is with them at their place, all these behaviors can be counted as disrespect for your privacy.
Deciding the name for a newborn and pushing for more grandchildren are some other inappropriate behaviors of interfering grandparents.
8. Neglecting health guidelines
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of hygiene and handwashing. Cleanliness is much more important when interacting with very young children, but at times difficult grandparents do not pay attention to your hygiene-related routines.
Your hygiene guidelines can be as simple as washing hands, sterilizing the feeding bottle or pacifier, or making healthy food choices for the child. But the grandparents might consider it overprotection or obsessive thinking.
Grandparents might also want to use their dodgy herbal medication and disapprove of using prescribed medicines. These simple-looking practices can sometimes take the form of obsessions on the part of grandparents. I remember once during a medical mission to a remote area, we had to work really hard to convince a grandmother to get her grandchild medicine for epilepsy along with her time-tested almond oil hair massage.
How to handle difficult grandparents
There can be 3 possible responses to suggestions and instructions from the grandparents:
- accept the appropriate suggestion,
- brush off the slightly inappropriate suggestion, without confronting,
- confront the suggestions you feel is inappropriate or harmful to your family and your children.
The first 2 responses require keen observation and smart social skills. Without confronting or creating any disruption in the family routine, these can be handled. But when interference from grandparents becomes intense and consistent and requires confrontation, then you have to think of a strategy. You can think about limiting interaction and setting boundaries.
Limit interaction with grandparents
To manage toxic grandparents, you can limit interaction with them. I personally do not believe in entirely breaking ties with them, although in extreme cases, you might consider it as the only option.
I think limiting interaction can be best practiced by having supervised interaction, especially when grandparents are not living with you. Occasional visits can be supervised by parents and older siblings.
Set a list of boundaries with grandparents
Perfect is always out of reach, but with mutual efforts, things can become better. As we get to know to parent once we actually become parents, grandparents should also be given the chance of learning from their experiences as grandparents.
- Sit together.
- Share your expectations.
- Negotiate rules for the grandparents.
- Navigate through potholes and pitfalls.
Try to handle things firmly, but kindly. Setting a list of boundaries with your kids’ grandparents will help in outlining the dos and don’ts of parenting and grandparenting. It might take time, but heart-to-heart adult talk helps more than emotionally upsetting each other and spoiling the family environment.
Let them feel they are respected
Let them feel that they are the grandparents. Do ask for their advice once in a while, even their most obsolete suggestions might enlighten you with their wisdom. Keep a respectful relationship with your parents, but at the same time vigilantly protect your children from any unwanted influence.