9 Difficult Signs Of Toxic Grandparents And How To Handle Them

You’ve likely landed here because of grandparents overstepping boundaries. 

Time and again, you’ve explained you need nuclear family time.

And every time, it zips through their ears like a pussywillow’s breath. 

Or, maybe you want them around, but they’re behaving inappropriately.

Whichever the case, we’re breaking it all down below. 

So break out the snuggie, grab a hot cup’a, and let’s break down inappropriate grandparent behavior together.

What Is a Toxic Grandparent?

When most people think of grandparents, visions of sugarplums and “spoiling” affection come to mind. 

But for many folks, the opposite is true. Instead of showering you and the grandkids with love, some grandparents cause significant stress for everyone in the family by behaving inappropriately or being overbearing to a harmful — and breaking — degree. 

Frankly, you’re pulling out your hair.

For some, the toxicity directly involves the grandchildren. For others, narcissistic nanas and pop-pops treat their grown children so horribly that it affects the little ones. It’s the seedlings of generational trauma.

So how many people are subjected to pernicious grannies and grandpops? Interestingly, a whopping 70% to 80% of Americans hail from “toxic” families, many of which feature a problematic grandparent. 

But it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Like all personality styles, toxic grandparenting is usually rooted in the subconscious. Many don’t even realize they behave in ways that can damage the children and strain family dynamics. 

9 Difficult Signs Of Toxic Grandparents 

The leading indicator that someone will morph into a toxic grandparent is if they were also a toxic parent. But don’t assume. People who were picture-perfect moms and dads can also become emotionally harmful grandparents. 

With that in mind, let’s unpack nine signs that one or both of your parents is veering down a noxious path.

1. They Assume It’s Fine if They’re Always Around

Having family around to help with the kids can be a godsend — especially when they’re babies and toddlers who require constant diaper changes and feedings. 

But there is such a thing as “too much time together.” 

grandfather with an angry face toxic grandparents signs

Young families need space to establish their own routines and dynamics, and grandparents should aim to give the kids some space. 

Wanting to be around the wee ones constantly is understandable. Many loving grandparents adore spending as much time as humanly possible with new members of their families. However, it’s important not to indulge every visitation impulse.

2. They Don’t Respect Boundaries

A daughter or son asks their mom or dad not to travel every weekend to see them, but the parent in question disregards their requests and continuously shows up on the doorstep every Saturday morning. 

Other times, it could be a matter of buying the grandkids things their parents specifically deemed off-limits, like a particular toy, electronic device, or even type of food.

We’re not saying parents can’t sneak in an ice cream cone every once in a while. That’s normal. After all, part of the fun of being a nana or pops is spoiling the little ones. 

But consistently disregarding boundaries established by the children’s parents is a big no-no and, in excess, can amount to toxic grandparenting.  

3. They Expect All the Attention and Adoration

Instead of smothering grandchildren with affection, some toxic grandparents torpedo in the opposite direction and crave all the attention and adoration for themselves.

They may wear all the “grandparent gear” to garner attention but fail to actually (and lovingly) spend quality time with the kids. Instead, they crave praise for their kids having kids!

For some, it’s an extension of lifelong narcissistic traits. For others, it’s a matter of not smoothly transitioning into the role of grandparent, which can be rooted in a sense of loss and a lack of parental control. 

4. They’re Verbally Abusive

In the words of Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a’changing.” But some grandparents are stuck in reverse, and that translates to using inappropriate language. 

Back in the day, yelling and screaming at kids was de rigueur. Chucking cruelty around was the norm in many families. And some grandparents have become locked in past behavior. They refuse to make changes based on current norms and continue to use abusive language when talking to their grandchildren.

They’ll say things like, “In my day, we did it this way, and it worked!” or “This is how I raised you, and you turned okay!” But this standard, scolding, stubborn fare can become toxic when taken to extremes.

5. They’re Physically Abusive

In worst-case scenarios, grandparents may be physically abusive, believing hitting, smacking, and shoving children is okay.

Professionals have routinely found that physical abuse leads to mental health challenges that,  if not addressed, can affect people well into adulthood. As such, according to modern standards, engaging in the practice is widely seen as problematic. 

Yes, some folks opt to spank their children. It’s a personal choice, and we’re not condemning families that go this route. 

However, punishments should fit the “crime” and be used sparingly. If anyone is leaving marks and bruises, there’s a good chance they’re overdoing it. 

6. They Gossip About Everyone in the Family

In some ways, gossip is an unavoidable part of life. But taking it too far can be mentally and emotionally damaging.

Talking smack behind everyone’s back — including family members, friends, and service workers — can be toxic, and grandparents who regularly engage in the practice may foster a poisonous atmosphere that ultimately affects a child’s social development. 

It may also cause impressionable kids to second-guess themselves and develop self-centered, ungenerous personalities. 

When divorce is a factor, it’s important to ensure that grandparents don’t bad-mouth either parent in front of their grandkids, regardless of the circumstances. 

7. They Don’t Follow Through

Another type of “toxic grandparent” is the kind that doesn’t follow through on promises to their grandchildren.

Please don’t read us wrong. Life throws obstacles in people’s paths, and sometimes, issues arise at inopportune times. Moreover, “senior moments” are a biological phenomenon, and sometimes, people simply forget.

children eating looking at their grandma

However, grandparents that constantly promise the world and never deliver can do a lot of emotional damage. It can also spark abandonment issues in extreme cases.

8. They’re Sexually Problematic

It’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around, but some grandparents can be intimately inappropriate with their children’s children.

But sometimes, the dicey behavior may not involve actual touching but instead openly talking about adult topics in front of young ones or allowing little ones to watch movies and television shows that aren’t meant for kids. 

We’re not suggesting that taking an 11- or 12-year-old to a PG-13 movie is the height of obscenity. So long as the parents are fine with the choice, grandparents are good to go. 

9. They Punish the Grandchildren When Mad at Their Children

Unfortunately, it’s common for people to act out when upset, and sometimes, grandparents punish their grandchildren when they’re actually mad at their children (the grandkids’ parents). 

For example, let’s say a grandma has a standing monthly date to take their grandkids out to eat. But something happens that causes a rift between the child’s mother and grandmother.

So, to punish their daughter, the grandmother calls off the monthly gathering, which can leave the grandchild feeling vulnerable and at fault.

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How to Deal with Toxic Grandparents 

We’ve unpacked the telltale signs of a toxic grandparent. But what next? What should you do if your parents are demolishing a healthy relationship with your kids? Let’s take a look.

Stop Trying To Live Up to Their Expectations

One of the main reasons people wind up with “toxic grandparents” is because they’re still clawing at the unreasonable expectations of their parents.

And what’s maddening is that seven times out of 10, the standards grandparents purport to set are often expectations they, themselves, never amounted to.

Humans are complicated, and we sometimes expect more from others than we can perform. So, instead of trying to fulfill their wishes, do what works for your family, and forget about the rest. 

Build Your Children’s Self-Confidence

Bad grandparenting can lead to low self-esteem and other mental health challenges. As such, if your parents are being difficult, focus on the kids and build their confidence. 

mature man and woman trying to talk to mom

When they understand they’re not the problem, the symptoms of noxious family dynamics won’t have as much of an effect.

Be Cognizant of Your Parent’s Health

Unfortunately, the human body — mind and limbs — deteriorates over decades. And often, the changes cause people to behave oddly. So, if the grandparent in question acts out of character, it may be tied to a medical issue. Even a simple urinary tract infection can cause significant upset and behavioral changes. 

In other words, head to the doctor before jumping to conclusions and cutting people off. A medication change could be the magic, curative bullet.

Establish a Pavlovian System

Reward good behavior! If a grandparent acts appropriately sometimes but not others, ensure you praise the upside. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive reinforcement to get everyone on the right track.

Consider Family Therapy

Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists can be a soothing and helpful resource. 

They’re trained to objectively analyze family dynamics, recognize patterns, and provide tools that make the rough patches easier. If your budget is unforgiving, consider online therapy. It’s more affordable and can be just as effective, thanks to video chat.

Set Form Boundaries

Establishing boundaries is healthy for any relationship. Granted, it can be tricky when one party is oblivious to them. But that’s when you must lay things out clearly. Make a schedule. Send them packing when they violate the rules. It’ll be challenging initially, but it often turns out for the best.

Final Thoughts

Toxic grandparenting may seem insurmountable at first — especially if the kids are young and everyone is still learning and navigating their new roles. 

It’s normal to go through a few growing pains in the early months. Figuring out new family dynamics is often a rocky road.

But if things persist for months or years, it may be time to seriously consider defining new family parameters.

Find out if your grandma and grandpa are overstepping their boundaries. Learn the signs of toxic grandparents in this post.