What's a toxic grandparent? Close-up of senior woman's hands holding her walking sticks.
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What Is A Toxic Grandparent?

Knowing the signs can spare your family some stress.

Relationships aren’t always easy, but the one you’d probably never imagine would be problematic is with your child’s grandparents. And yet, it happens more often than you might think. It can be particularly painful, since grandparents are supposed to be the safe haven from daily dilemmas, the cuddling caregivers of the family who, bless their hearts, try to learn the latest TikTok trends so they can do them with their grandkids. So if you’ve been having issues with either your own parents or your in-laws, understanding what a toxic grandparent is can save you a lot of mental distress and clear the lines of communication.

What is a toxic grandparent?

Not all grandmas bake cookies in the kitchen — some serve up some snark aimed at you or even your kids. So it’s important to understand the difference between a grandparent who might be crotchety (or simply stuck in another era) from someone who can be a threat to your mental well-being. “A toxic grandparent is someone with inflated self-esteem, meaning they think they are better than everyone else,” Dr. Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist and social worker, tells Romper. “This type of grandparent has a difficult time showing validation and empathy — the exact opposite of a grandparent who is loving and nurturing.”

Thing is, the person might not even realize that they’re being toxic, try as you might to explain that their indifferent nature or lack of empathy can be emotionally damaging. “We have to remember they are from a different generation and the things we deem toxic now may be seen as normal to them,” Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist tells Romper. “It does not make it right, but it is important to acknowledge the difference.” Your grandparent’s upbringing does not excuse their toxic behavior, but having an understanding of why your grandparent makes certain decisions can help you feel more calm and in control of the situation — you can then decide for yourself if and how to approach your grandparent’s behavior, and what boundaries you want to set up moving forward.

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Signs of a toxic grandparent: checklist

  • They are emotionally absent and negative

Since relationships can be murky, you’ll need to know what the signs of a toxic grandparent are so that you determine how you want to move forward with the relationship. “A toxic grandparent is consistently negative and emotionally unsupportive,” says relationship coach Christy Piper. “This often includes critiquing your parenting skills or your children’s development.” It can also be someone who basically brings the mood down and complains all the time. After all, when it feels like the grandparent is sucking the life out of the room (and you), it’s natural that you might dread being around them — and that’s a sign of toxicity.

  • They ignore your feelings

“Signs of a toxic grandparent can include a dismissal of thoughts, feelings and emotions, attempting to uphold family traditions and belief that are unsubstantiated, and harsh discipline methods of children,” continues Jackson. “It can also be their lack of empathy, downplaying others lived experiences because they are/were different from their upbringing, and an unwillingness to learn new things to adjust to the current culture.”

  • They don’t respect your boundaries

If boundaries (or the lack of them) is a point of contention, that falls into toxic territory. “Toxic grandparents tend to disrespect the parents’ boundaries,” adds Phillips. “They may show up at your home unannounced or insist that you see them right away.” And in insinuating that they (and not you) know what’s best for their grandchild, they can either intentionally or subconsciously try to sabotage your own parenting efforts.

  • They openly have a favorite child/grandkid

Ideally, a good grandparent loves all their grandchildren equally, but that might not be the case with a toxic one. In fact, it may not be a secret who their favorite grandchildren are, mostly because they openly dote upon some of them, and not others. “Another common practice of a toxic grandparent is someone who compares grandchildren, but not in a sweet loving way, like they all have the same eye color or smile, but rather in a way that makes you feel bad,” Piper explains. Sadly, this twisted behavior might make your kids feel like they don’t measure up to the other grandkids, no matter how hard they try to get their grandparents’ approval. This could lead to issues with low self-esteem later on in life, Piper adds.

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Dealing with a toxic grandparent

Deciding how to handle a toxic grandparent isn’t an easy conclusion to come to. And chances are pretty high that a toxic grandparent was once a toxic parent as well, meaning that this most likely isn’t newly adopted behavior. “Trying to change someone who has been set in their ways for decades can be hard and feel almost impossible, which is why it’s important to lead by example,” suggests Jackson. “If you desire the grandparent to listen to others’ thoughts and feelings, make sure you listen and do not dismiss theirs.”

Create and stick to your boundaries

Building bulletproof boundaries is way to handle a toxic grandparent. “Setting and sticking to your boundaries are important. No one has ever achieved a goal by being inconsistent,” she continues. “If you want to challenge a perspective, thinking or tradition, you have to set the boundary verbally and then with action.” For example, you can tell the egregious grandparent, “When you do X, I feel X. If you continue to do X, then I am going to have to X.”

Keep calm

As much as you may want to raise your voice or retaliate when a toxic grandparent gets out of line, Piper recommends trying to keep your own composure. “Don’t show any emotional reaction. You can either ignore the comment, laugh sarcastically, or say you disagree and offer a positive comment instead,” she says. “Do not argue or show anger because a truly toxic grandparent loves getting a rise out of you.”

Spend less time with a toxic grandparent

You can also spend less time around them and see them sporadically and for shortened stints. But try as you might, you might reach a point in which you have to put your family’s well-being first, even if that means cutting family ties with a toxic grandparent for a while — or for good.

Even though they might be your child’s grandparents, that doesn’t mean you have to accept toxic behavior. By standing up for yourself as well as your children, you’re being a positive role model by providing them with an example of healthy, loving family relationships where toxicity is never tolerated.

Sources interviewed:

Dr. Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, certified substance abuse counselor, and sex therapist

Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist

Christy Piper, a relationship coach and author of Girl, You Deserve More: How To Break His Spell Over You, Escape Your Toxic Partner, And Become Independent