7 Signs of Toxic Grandparents — And How to Talk to Them About Their Behavior

Grandparents add a lot to a family. But it's good to recognize the signs for when their actions need to be addressed.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 
Senior heterosexual couple are quarreling while sitting on couch at home.
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Even the best grandparents grate on parents’ nerves once in a while. As older people who either aren’t aware of or don’t feel constrained by current codes of social conduct, they can have trouble taking their adult children seriously. And since they’ve been through parenting before, they may think they know everything. The fact that they’re often right makes this part even worse.

But what if a grandparent’s behavior edges into toxic territory? That is, if their behavior adds a lot of stress and negativity to your household. Telling the difference between run-of-the-mill aggravating grandparents from toxic grandparents can be challenging. For one thing, your family might be the sole target of the grandparent’s toxicity. As Manhattan, NY-based therapist Natalie Capano notes, some grandparents are only toxic when they’re grandparenting.

“A toxic grandparent may engage in toxic patterns specifically around their role as a grandparent, or they could generally be a toxic person that happens to be a grandparent,” Capano says.

Moreover, they could be accidentally toxic, unaware of the effect their actions and communications have on their family. “Some grandparents may engage in toxic behavior unconsciously [by] expressing their hurt or disapproval in front of grandkids,” adds Philadelphia therapist Kim Wheeler Poitevien.

As it’s smart to know the signs, here are some of the biggest red flags and warning signs of toxic grandparents as well as some advice on how to address those issues.

7 Signs of Toxic Grandparents

1. Bullying

Constant bullying is a clear sign of toxic behavior. But not all bullying is obvious. We often associate bullying with loud voices and physical domineering. But more subtle forms of bullying and methods of control exist, like maintaining a constant stream of judgmental insults. “You might be in the company of a toxic grandparent if they frequently bully, judge, or ridicule you,” Capano says. “They might purposely seek to insult you and make you uncomfortable, whether they do it subtly or not.”

2. Sowing Division

Good grandparents foster connections in families and bring people together. Toxic grandparents would rather see their families pitted against each other. “A toxic grandparent might try to turn their grandchild against their parents or other family members,” Capano says.

3. Breeding Loyalty Through Manipulation

Once they’ve gotten family members at odds, toxic grandparents often use manipulative tactics to get them to compete with one another. “Toxic people like to have others on their side and treat things as a game,” Capano says. The end goal of those combative games is increasing control of all the people around them and getting more loyalty from the family members that “win.”

4. Playing Favorites

Toxic grandparents will often pick a single grandchild to shower with affection at the expense of others. And they aren’t shy about their preferences or opinions. Ohio therapist and family mediator Amy Armstrong says toxic grandparents make a habit of “playing favorites between children and grandchildren and bragging about the other [preferred] grandchildren rather than the ones they are with.”

5. Disregarding Boundaries

Toxic grandparents don’t understand or acknowledge that parents need space. For them, there’s no boundary. “This could include showing up unannounced, insisting all holidays be with them, guilting grandchildren for not giving hugs or kisses, or withholding affection or support if they don’t get their way,” Poitevien says.

6. Undermining Parental Authority

Good grandparents let the parents be in charge. Toxic ones insist on always imposing their will. Maddeningly, this could be unconscious behavior sourced from a good place. “Some grandparents have such an overwhelming outpouring of love for their grandchildren that they don’t realize the necessity of following rules,” Capano says.

7. Unwillingness to Change Their Behavior

Capano says how grandparents respond to criticism can be a great litmus test of toxicity. “You may find that they were completely unaware and will work hard to resolve this issue,” she says. “If they continue to do this and purposely go out of their way to go against a parent’s wishes, they may be veering into toxic territory.” She adds: “We can’t always get toxic people to see why they are toxic, which is really unfortunate. If you find yourself in the company of a toxic grandparent, start with a conversation and take steps from there depending on how they respond.”

How to Respond to a Toxic Grandparent

It can be difficult to bring up issues that present themselves. But the key is to be clear in your criticisms, to use “I” statements, and explain why you’re saying what you’re saying.

If the toxic grandparent is your mother- or father-in-law, convincing your spouse of their toxicity is certainly tricky. “You cannot convince anyone that someone they know and love is toxic if they do not want to believe it,” Capano says.

So, when you make your case, do your best to sideline emotions. Speak objectively, with facts and examples at the ready. “You may point out the times that a grandparent has used condescending or inappropriate language directed at someone after being asked not to,” advises Capano. “Or use examples of times they were asked to respect a boundary or rule and purposely went against it.”

Boundaries, she says, are key when dealing with toxic people. Unfortunately, this can be tricky. As we mentioned above, boundaries often mean very little to toxic people. “We usually need to set boundaries to protect ourselves from people who will not respect the boundaries, so it can feel really difficult and draining to have to repeat your boundary several times,” Capano says.

In the best-case scenario, repeatedly emphasizing those rules should hammer the point home. If the grandparent in question doesn’t get the point, it might be time to limit their time. “You may find it’s best to limit or completely cut out contact with toxic grandparents, especially if it is a matter of physical or emotional safety,” Capano says.

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