How can we tell when we have toxic grandparents in the family?
Many parents allow their parents to play an active role in what would be considered ‘raising’ or ‘supporting’ the raising of their children. Some grandparents even have short-term careers taking care of grandchildren as parents need some time for themselves. It is also the case if the parents need to go through rough times such as a separation or divorce. But there’s a fine line between concerned grandparents and toxic grandparents.
Many grandparents take on a beautiful and vital role for many families. They come to the rescue when parents have difficulty in choosing the right child day care for their children or may not have the means to do so, just yet. Moreover, many mothers and couples can call on their parents to care for their children. This is especially true as they go back to work or even as an extra helping hand.
When Grandparents Become Toxic
This article is not intended to turn anyone against their parents or the grandparents of their children. Even truer if the relationship and role that they play is a happy, healthy, and valuable one.
It is to provide clarity on what is acceptable and healthy behaviour towards yourself and your children from their grandparents. However, it is also important to recognize the signs of toxic grandparents.
This article is for parents who feel or know that the involvement and behaviours of their children’s grandparents are a bit ‘icky’, if not downright wrong. Otherwise, you would be forced to cutting toxic grandparents from your family’s life.
‘My parents are lovely people, with good hearts. They are. But we are not currently on talking terms. My parenting and personal life are much more comfortable as a result. It breaks my heart, but it is the reality of the situation. I feel I don’t have any choice.
After experiencing months of toxic behaviour from my children’s grandparents, I had to make a devastating decision. I need to protect myself and my family. The issues did not relate to abuse. There is no danger of direct emotional or physical harm to my children.
My relationship with them is, however, toxic, and the pressures from this grew to a potentially irreversible low after having children and experiencing a separation’.
As a mother who has been pushed to the brink, trying everything in her power to hold a healthy relationship with her parents without being affected by their behaviours to then having to make the devastating move to cut contact with them, I wish someone had written this article for me during these trying times.
How Do You Deal With Toxic Grandparents?
Grandparents are often warm and gentle beings, people that offer a cuddly pair of hips for little arms to hug or a kind and soft ear to lend to disheveled teenagers.
You can lean on them when having a baby changes your life. And they are always non-judgmental guides that assist their children in being great parents as people perceive them.
Unfortunately, not everyone has ended up with a fairytale grandparent. It can sometimes feel we are entering into a nightmare when it comes to dealing with toxic grandparents, difficult grandparents, or grandparents who overstep the mark with our children or us.
Let’s take a look at the behaviours that may suggest that your parents are overstepping the mark and transgressing their role as a grandparent.
The Undermining Grandparent
I am referring to a grandparent who doesn’t respect or adhere to your decisions as a parent. Grandparents undermining the efforts, decisions, and words of parents can result in an unwinding of order and routine and create chaos.
Although it can be frustrating when, for example, grandma feed the kids junk, or extend bedtimes when you have asked them not to, this is not what we are talking about here. We are looking at potentially permanently damaging undermining behaviour such as disagreeing with your decisions, actively going against significant parenting decisions, arguing with you in front of your children, or helping your children to dodge consequences.
Undermining behaviour may be beneficial for your child, and this is why it can be challenging to help them understand your perspective. One particular instance that arose a lot during my interviews stemmed from differing cultural or religious beliefs.
As an example, a grandparent may choose to take their grandchild to church as they feel this is what’s best for the child after the parents have made it clear that it is not following what they want for their kids.
The Controlling Grandparent Who Thinks They Are Still the Parent of a Child
Sometimes the line between being a grandparent and a parent can be unclear to some. It relates to a grandparent who thinks they are the parent or are entitled to have the final say on parenting decisions. And when that happens, it can be one of the most common parenting regrets when you don’t set boundaries.
My research for this article uncovered many instances where grandparents were not prepared to accept that their child is now an adult and a parent and insisted on making decisions about their adult and parenting life for them.
I heard of many cases where grandparents became offended or upset and in some instances misbehaved if their adult child did not follow their thoughts and decisions.
As an adult and a parent, you have the right to make decisions that effect and are in the best interests for yourself and your children. It is your job. Remember, it can feel very constricting when your parents or children’s grandparents think that they ‘know best’ and refuse to see it any other way.
It is perfectly okay for grandparents and parents to disagree with issues and choices about the kids. Grandparents and parents grew up in different times, with different values, ideas, processes, ideologies and knowledge. Your parents/your children’s grandparents may also have experience that can be very helpful to you in your own life and throughout the parenting process. But in the end, the choice and resolutions belong to the parents.
The Grandparent Who Plays Favourites
Now, let’s stop for a minute to remind ourselves that some humans connect better than others. There is just a particular type of chemistry. It may also be more comfortable for grandparents to be involved with other grandchildren more due to geography or life situations.
Playing favourites becomes a problem when grandchildren are compared or treated as being more precious than others.
It may be that the grandparent says things that can be hurtful or damaging in front of the children. ‘She just isn’t as smart’, or ‘He won’t amount to much’. They may make fun of or denigrate particular grandchildren or chose to see one and not the other.
The Financially Abusive Grandparent
You may see this as a surprise, but your parents/children’s grandparents can be financially abusive and not in the traditional sense.
As an adult, you very rarely have any right or say in how your parents choose to use their money. You are not allowed to access it, and they are not required to spend it on you, so what on earth is this? Well, you may not believe this but there are signs your mother-in-law is taking over your child, and so much more.
Financial abuse in this sense may look like a form of ‘hostage holding’. A grandparent may offer financial support or accept a request for financial aid and then use this as a way to hang it over your head, create guilt, or insist that they have power over your decision-making as a result.
One particular mother I spoke to explained a situation where she had separated from her partner and had moved to another town. She wasn’t doing well financially but was okay, sustaining her family and working towards a better future. Her parents/grandparents put money into her bank account without seeking her permission.
Now, this is a lovely gesture, if it was intended to help.
However, this lady received phone calls after another (up to seven a day) over a series of months from her mother (the grandparent) explaining that giving her the money had put her in an extreme financial situation.
This lady reminded her that it was in her account without her knowing and offered to give the money back as she didn’t need it. Her mother refused and indicated that her daughter was merely trying to make her feel bad. She proffered to pay it back over time, and but she rejected the offer.
The lady kindly thanked them but explained that the phone calls were having an effect on her mental health, so much so that it was affecting her ability to parent appropriately. She didn’t have the energy to deal with that and her separation and situation.
She explained that she needed to return the money or for the phone calls to stop and when no one adhered to her concerns, it resulted in her cutting contact with her parents to preserve her mental health and her ability to be a good parent.
Many grandparents will contribute financially to their grandchildren; this is a lovely thing if they are willing and capable. It is, however, a helpful thing to remember that this does not give more precedence on their right to make decisions in their grandchildren’s lives. It may be more beneficial for grandparents to hold onto their money in these situations.
The Demanding and Energy-Consuming Grandparent
Sometimes interactions with our children’s grandparents can become tiresome and consuming. It can be because of the nature of your communication, the demands made and the entitlement that the grandparents feel they have over yourself or their grandchildren. It can also only be that the interactions occur too much.
You may find that your children’s grandparents demand that they have children too often or at inappropriate times. It may be that the grandparents seem to always be around at your house or calling on the phone. They may become upset if the children are not available when they ring or visit.
Toxic Grandparents Will Stay Toxic if You Allow Them to
Grandparents, you need to learn how to cope with not seeing your grandchildren.
Some grandparents may expect unlimited access to their grandchildren which in some cases is not possible and can interfere with your own family’s daily life. There are some grandparents who would expect to be present in the delivery room for the birth of their grandchild and receive quite a shock when they find out this is not in the wishes of the parents.
Some grandparents may expect that you follow their advice and get quite grumpy or difficult if you chose to make decisions separate from what they told you.
A grandparent may demand the child gets left in their care when a parent may not be comfortable with this.
Other examples may include overbearing or burdening demands around other parenting decisions such as faith, education or extra-curricular activities.
Parents might feel that they spend as much time dealing with the grandparents as they do spending time and bonding with their children. It will become overwhelming at some point. Trying to set boundaries; explaining decisions, personal needs and ideas; and, of course, trying to keep everyone happy while taking care of yourself, your family and parenting duties are tedious and stressful.
Severe Case of Demanding and Energy Consuming Grandparent
Because we have our own families, setting boundaries to toxic parents may be necessary when they are overstepping.
I interviewed a mother whose demanding actions of her mother (who loves her grandchildren deeply) resulted in her feeling so out of control and desperate to have her ‘entitlements’ met that she had threatened self-harm.
This mum was at an event and had been struggling with the toxic nature and number of interactions that her mother was insisting. It was overseas, and the children’s grandfather had come to help her look after her children. She was about to launch a business and had invested thousands of dollars in learning from the best in her particular industry. Her mother knew about what was happening and had access to call the children through their grandfather while she was attending the event.
Due to being in a remote country, the children were sometimes out of service, so she had to wait for them to go back to their hotel. This lady had tons of missed calls every day from her mother with receiving desperate messages accusing her of withholding her from the grandchildren. On the last night, she was asked to attend a dinner with some influential business people and answered a call from her mother.
This kind of situation is, of course, a severe case of grandparent entitlement, control and demanding behaviour that was sparked from her not having direct video phone access to the children throughout this week.
The ‘Nothing Is Ever Good Enough’ Grandparent
This sign can seem at first like an extension of absolute love and protection for their grandchildren. After some time, it can become draining and impossible to keep up with expectations.
The grandparent may feel like nothing is ever good enough for their little one. They may even feel like nothing is ever good enough for you, their child.
It may be that they don’t agree with, like or accept the other parent. It may be that the house you live in is not good enough. Maybe it is your chosen parenting styles, the clothes you picked for your kids or the food you feed them.
It may be that they care so much for their grandchild and cannot see how hard they are making it and the extra stress they are putting on your life. But they want to be toxic grandparents.
The Victim Grandparent
It can be hurtful and hard growing up with a parent or having a grandparent in your children’s lives who act like a victim. It may be a problem that exists as an emotional, mental or wellbeing issue; on the other hand, this behaviour is often used as a form of control (with or without knowing).
You may care for them so deeply and want them to be okay or get the help they need. On the other hand, this situation can become so damaging that you can’t handle it any longer.
It can be awful knowing that this person is unhappy or needs help and then seeing their behaviours or illness harm your family. It can lie as a massive conflict between what to do for your kids and how to convince that person to get the help that they need. How much do you put up? You struggle with the feelings of being selfish because you can’t continue this way and want to draw the line to protect the needs of your family.
Some parents get to a point where the behaviour becomes quite damaging, and they feel like they offer so much help or plead for grandparents to get the help that they deserve, but they do not act. You may feel like you are reaching a point of absolute frustration and helplessness.
Effects of Mental Illness
The results can be devastating to everyone involved. Sometimes parents will put up with so much hassle from their parent because they understand that they are ill or crave a kind parent or a sweet grandparent for their children that they continue to put up with these behaviours over and over again. It isn’t always sustainable.
It may be that the grandparent has myopic vision due to their illness or mentality and cannot perceive what is happening from your situation. They cannot comprehend that their behaviours are harmful, exhausting or just over the mark. As a result, they cannot alter or control how they act.
It may be that they expect you as their child to handle all of their emotional baggage and question you when you ask for a break for the sake of your mental health and brain function.
It may be that they act in ways that are alarming and make you question the effect this is having on your children. Mentally ill grandparents or grandparents with a victim mentality will often not have the ability to self-reflect and see that their behaviours are not healthy for themselves, you or your children.
The Martyr or Hostage-Holding Grandparent
You may be experiencing a parent of your own or grandparent who has a martyr complex. It describes people who see themselves as being endlessly self-sacrificing. They feel that they are suffering because they don’t receive ‘fair’ behaviour from others in return.
Grandparents who have a martyr complex may feel like they should have more say over the parenting of the child. They link this to all the self-sacrifices they made when they were a parent themselves. There is a tendency for them to express they have more value, worth or knowledge. They fuel from what they have done as your parent and that you should listen and adhere to their advice.
‘I gave up my life for you. I took you to the sport and sent you to private boarding school.’
It can be tricky because the truth is that they did make sacrifices. But they chose to make them, and this should not be thrown back in your face. When you decide to enter parenthood, you ‘choose’ to make sacrifices. It is unfair to hold adult children hostage as a result of parenting sacrifices when they were children.
Some people who are martyrs will give help when not asked. It is not a bad thing. But, it can become difficult when they expect others to behave in a certain way in return. They may even hold others hostage because of the help they have given.
A particular mother chose for her children to spend Christmas time with their father as they had not seen him for many months. The initial plan was that the entire family would spend Christmas at the grandmother’s house. But, the plans had changed because the father could not make it interstate for Christmas.
It was expressed to the grandmother that it was not a personal attack or reflection of her as a grandmother. But, it was made due to circumstance, in the best interest of the children and around the children’s and father’s right to spend time with each other.
The grandmother in this instance felt so hurt that she was not able to let it go. She thought it was unfair as visiting her was the original plan. She was looking forward to it. And, she felt she had played a more prominent role in the children’s lives than their father.
The conversations about this Christmas went on for over a year. It went on until the point where the grandmother became so consumed. She would express her sufferings due to her daughter’s decisions to people her daughter was close to. It ended with severed relationships. She could not understand and accept it. So, she continued to rehash and even became physical with her daughter as a result.
The Troop-Rallying Grandparent
Often we share the same connections, friendships and family relationships with our children’s grandparents. They are your parent after all. Their sisters are your aunties; also, their brothers, your uncles. Their best friend was a possible mentor for you growing up. Now, he/she is a friend and support of your own.
It can get messy and unpleasant when there is conflict or dismay between you. The grandparent may look for someone to talk to. It will potentially be someone close and involved with yourself or your children. Huddling is fine. Friends and family should be with one another, but rallying the troops is a whole different scenario.
Rallying the troops refers to someone who gathers all the support they can for their cause. They focus on their perspective rather than giving both sides of the story. It is used solely to protect their social herd, rightfully or wrongfully.
Different Cases of Rallying Troops
In some cases, a troop-rallying grandparent may extend or shift the truth. It happens so they have the upper hand and support to the person they are talking. It is often designed to make them feel safe in their social circle but can result in breaking down yours.
I am aware of a case where rallying troops through lies, gossip and playing victim to situations that grandparents had no right to be involved in have resulted in extended family turning against the child’s parents.
The extended family took information from one person and became unwilling to listen. This lady is now separate and estranged (by choice) from those who she used to belong to, love the most and feel supported.
Troop rallying can be something that is with or without intention. The sad thing about this is it can result in you, the parent or the child becoming isolated from those who you used to be able to turn to during your time of crisis. It can be hurtful and frustrating that people have taken ‘sides’ and it is not for just or fair reasons. Isolation is a form of abuse.
Rallying the troops and isolation can create an emotional wedge between you and other people that were once a part of your support system. I withdrew from my family and childhood friends. This is a result of feeling misunderstood, judged, unheard and unsupported.
What Does Overstepping the Mark Look Like?
The role of being a grandparent is excitedly awaited on by many. Grandparents can play a decisive role in the life of their grandchildren and your parenting and adult life. It can be very disheartening and even heartbreaking when this is not the experience.
If the impact your child’s grandparents are having on you and them is not a positive one, there are steps that you can take.
The basic rule to keep in mind here is that YOU ARE THE PARENT of your children. It is your right to decide where the boundary is. You can decide what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour from other people towards your children and yourself.
As your children grow, they will be able to communicate with you. They will let you know if they feel that their grandparents are overstepping boundaries.
Unfortunately, sometimes our parents can be detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. As a mother and a mindset coach, it is vital for our quality of life to take action or cut out anything that diminishes our daily experience of life and our happiness.