Toxic Grandparents: They're More Common Than You Think

Do you ever hear people talk about how much they love their grandparents, and you just ... can't relate? No grandparent is perfect, but if your grandparent — or your child's grandparent — is a constant source of conflict, they may have crossed the line from frustrating to toxic.

Stereotypes of cute and loving grandparents make it difficult for people to talk about toxic grandparents without sounding unkind. But the truth is, not all grandparents are healthy, well-adjusted people. Grandparents are like any other adult and can have a mix of positive and negative qualities. Unfortunately, unkind or problematic family members often hide behind the grandparent title to avoid accountability. You might excuse a grandparent's bad behavior due to their age, or perhaps their position of authority within the family.

Confronting a grandparent feels disrespectful and will likely disrupt familial relationships. That said, finding a productive way to deal with a toxic grandparent can help break generational cycles and bring your family long-term healing.

Grandparents with big egos

Many toxic grandparents have narcissistic traits. People with narcissistic traits have an inflated sense of self and a lack of empathy. While everyone has a few narcissistic behaviors, having an excessive amount of narcissistic traits disrupts your interpersonal relationships (via Psychology Today).

Some forms of narcissism are obvious, such as the explicit dismissal of other people's feelings or constant bragging. Other narcissistic behaviors are subtle and easily mistaken in a grandparent as just the quirks of an older person. A narcissistic grandparent may frame situations exclusively around their needs. As an elderly person, it's reasonable for them to advocate for their needs, but unless they have dementia, they should still be capable of considering other people as well. Narcissistic grandparents may also have little interest in the lives of others. For example, your grandma will call you and tell you all about her day, but never asks you questions or listen closely when you're sharing something important.

A big ego can be a charming or funny trait, but it can also be deeply hurtful and models poor behavior to younger family members. Your grandparent's narcissism is likely related to negative behaviors they learned from their own parents (per Mayo Clinic). While you can't fix your grandparent's childhood, you can recognize the patterns of narcissism and prevent them from impacting your actions.

The controlling grandparent

Controlling behavior is another sign of a toxic grandparent. If a toxic grandparent doesn't like the choices you make, they may try to make you feel guilty. For instance, a grandpa that objects to your family's religious practices may frequently pressure you to attend his church and take on the role of victim when you politely decline. As therapist Liza Gold explains to PsychCentral, guilt-tripping shames the target for honestly expressing their feelings. In a healthy relationship, someone in the parent or grandparent role would encourage open communication, not shut it down.

Control is a particularly big issue when it comes to parenting. Your child's grandparents may not have good boundaries surrounding parenting decisions or discipline. Be wary of a grandparent who makes changes to bedtimes, meals, and other expectations when taking care of your kids. If you object to them undermining your parenting, a toxic grandparent will become offended and claim they have the right to make decisions about their grandchildren. This is not a normal expectation for a grandparent to have. An emotionally healthy grandparent will respect your parental authority even when they don't agree with your decisions.

Aside from emotional manipulation, a grandparent can also exert financial control. If the toxic grandparent in your life provides you with any financial support, they might threaten to withhold money if you don't follow their wishes. For this reason, you should be extremely cautious when accepting money from a grandparent with whom you have a fraught relationship.

Grandparents who play favorites

A problematic grandparent may have a good side, but they only show it to certain people. Favoritism is just as painful coming from a grandparent as it is coming from a parent. If the offending party is your grandparent, they might have an explicit preference for another grandchild in your family tree. When you're dealing with your children's grandparents, you may notice that they are favoring one of your kids over the other, or your sibling's family over yours.

Favoritism in families is common. One recent survey found that 40% of adults in the United States believe their parents have favorite children (via Survey Center on American Life). Even though favoritism is a common experience, you shouldn't let it become normalized in your family. Favoritism can cause problems that extend into adulthood, including feelings of loneliness and rejection. If you and your siblings have children, you may notice your parents repeating their favoritism as grandparents.

Although it's very upsetting when your kids' grandparents have favorites, it's important to mediate the situation as best you can so it doesn't negatively impact your children. Try to create positive family experiences even when the grandparents aren't putting in much effort. If your kids are starting to notice the favoritism, it may be time to set new boundaries with the toxic grandparent.

The negative grandparents

Some grandparents have sneakier ways of bringing negativity into a relationship. You can split a negative grandparent into two types: complainers and criticizers.

A complaining grandparent always has something bad to say about current events or their personal life. No matter what accommodations you provide, this grandparent will still find a way to take the joy out of a situation. Chronic complaining may coincide with narcissistic traits, demanding a disproportionate amount of attention from others. Be careful not to conflate narcissistic complaining with signs of depression. In older people, irritability and lack of interest in activities are more prevalent depression symptoms than sadness (via National Institute on Aging). If the grandparent in question has always been a complainer, you're probably just dealing with a difficult person. But if this complaining behavior is new, you may want to look for a deeper cause.

A highly negative grandparent may also be extremely critical. Do you find yourself tensing up when this grandparent comes to visit, fearing what error or failure they'll point out to you this time? Or worse, fearing what they'll say to your kids? An overly critical grandparent abuses their position of social influence in a family to belittle adults and children. In some cases, the grandparent doesn't realize how hurtful they're being and thinks they're giving helpful advice. Regardless of how self-aware a grandparent is, excessive criticism can still bring up a lot of anxiety and isn't a fair dynamic for the rest of the family.

Jealous and entitled grandparents

Jealousy is an issue that frequently comes up if you have a tough relationship with a grandparent. Grandparents might become insecure or offended when they notice that your family spends more time with another set of grandparents or other extended family members. Sometimes this is related to distance or busy schedules. However, if you're dealing with a toxic grandparent, limiting the time you spend together may be a conscious choice.

On the surface, it sounds reasonable for a grandparent to miss their grandkids. But spending time with grandchildren is not a grandparent's inherent right. Believing you have an automatic right to a relationship with someone is called relational entitlement. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology on relational entitlement in elderly people found that high levels of entitlement correlated with anxiety and depression in grandparents over 65 years old. You may notice a jealous grandparent making frantic attempts to regain the relationship to which they feel entitled. While the grandparent's distress is real and you can be sensitive to their concerns, remember that the root cause of the jealousy is their unhealthy entitlement and it's their responsibility to cope with it, not yours.

The absentee grandparent

The classic profile of a toxic grandparent is someone manipulative, controlling, and critical. But one of the most heartbreaking forms of a toxic grandparent is the grandparent who doesn't show up at all. An absentee grandparent is either never physically present with their family, or they are emotionally checked out. The emotionally distant grandparent never takes steps to create intimacy with family members and may feel more like a stranger than a parental figure.

Research suggests that having good grandparents isn't just a bonus for children. Grandparents can be an essential factor in a child's development. A 2020 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies concluded that when mothers have good co-parenting relationships with grandparents, children end up having better social skills. Grandparents can also serve as role models and sources of emotional support. When adolescents and young adults have close relationships with their grandparents, they are at a statistically lower risk of depression (via Journal of Social Issues).

An absentee grandparent is a significant loss for a child and is just as detrimental as other kinds of toxic grandparents. If your family has an absentee grandparent, you have the right to mourn that loss and set boundaries with the grandparent to protect your children from future hurt or disappointment.

How to set boundaries

Any advice on handling toxic grandparents will have the same refrain: set boundaries. At the fundamental level, boundaries are how we differentiate our sense of self from other people. Our boundaries define when and how we engage with others and prevent us from becoming overwhelmed (per Perspectives in Psychiatric Care).

Setting boundaries with a grandparent is a little tricky, especially when they are your child's grandparents. Your child's grandparents are transitioning from being the parental authority to having to respect your parental authority. Hopefully, being clear and upfront about your expectations early on will make it easier for them to adjust to the grandparent role. Depending on the context, some difficult grandparents simply need more direct communication about what behaviors are bothering you. If a grandparent is truly toxic, you may need to assert a zero-tolerance policy for emotional manipulation and bullying.

When expressing a boundary, try to use a firm but non-aggressive tone (via Psychology Today). Focus on the immediate boundary and don't bring up broader issues. Setting boundaries isn't about winning an argument, it's informing another person that you are not available to engage in a particular behavior or dynamic. How the grandparent reacts to your boundaries is not in your control. You can express compassion, but giving up on the boundary will only perpetuate the toxic behavior.

When to cut them out

Ending a relationship with a family member is a serious decision and should be your last option. Generally, grandparents have a positive impact on children, so you need to really consider whether losing the grandparent is in a child's best interest. If a grandparent is an unsafe person for your family, ending your relationship with them is probably for the best. When a grandparent is hurtful but not dangerous, it becomes more complicated.

Ideally, you can find a way for younger family members to have a good relationship with problematic grandparents. Even with extremely toxic grandparents, strict boundaries can help improve the situation. Deciding when to cut ties with a grandparent can also be a matter of cultural beliefs. Values such as trust, respect, forgiveness, and loyalty all affect how we approach conflicts with grandparents. Just be sure that you're following values that support your mental health and your family's well-being.

Breaking generational cycles

By setting boundaries with toxic grandparents, you can help stop unhealthy generational cycles. Disengaging from an older generation's dysfunctional behavior prevents younger generations from being exposed and models a better way of handling problems.

Research suggests that exposing children to negative emotions, even when not directed at them, can lead to anxiety, depression, and poor emotional regulation (per Child Development). Conversely, another study in Child Development showed that children raised in emotionally open, safe environments have a greater ability to manage fear and anger.

With that in mind, it's worthwhile to take those extra steps to address a toxic grandparent, whether that means ending the relationship or communicating new boundaries. You'll decrease tension in the home environment and teach your children that when people upset them, they can respond calmly and productively. Changing a toxic grandparent relationship won't undo past hurts, but it will help your family become happier and healthier in the future.