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Toxic grandparents might criticize or belittle a child's abilities.
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7 Signs Of A Toxic Grandparent, According To An Expert

Red flags of unhealthy behavior can sometimes be subtle.

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The relationships your kids have with their grandparents can be extremely special and among the most important relationships in their young lives. Unfortunately, however, some grandparents aren't all that "grand" when it comes to how they treat their grandkids. Worse, their behavior can take a turn toward the emotionally abusive. If you’re a parent who relies on your own parents for child care and support, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of a toxic grandparent so you can intervene when necessary.

Domestic violence doesn’t always occur between intimate partners — it can happen in all types of family relationships, including the one between a grandparent and grandchild. In fact, 6.5% of perpetrators of child maltreatment are relatives other than a child’s parent, according to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. One thing to keep in mind about destructive behavior is that it usually occurs in patterns. “An adult can goof once or twice, but the way to know it's abusive is that it's consistent, and the grandparent doesn't respond to feedback from the parent about how this is not OK,” Laura Brown, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Fremont Community Therapy Project in Seattle, tells Romper.

Every instance of a toxic grandparent is different — you’ll need to rely on your own family history to figure out which of these red flags apply. But if you notice one or more of these concerning behaviors from your child’s grandparent, it’s worth taking a closer look at whether their relationship to your child might be unhealthy.

1

They Were A Difficult Parent

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The most telltale warning sign of an abusive grandparent dates back a generation. If “they were emotionally abusive to the parent,” Brown explains, “then very likely they will continue with the child.” If you or your partner’s childhood was marked by verbal or emotional abuse from a parent, the chances are high that this parent will use these same tactics on your child. Domestic violence often occurs in patterns, and even if you don’t directly see a grandparent mistreating your child, it’s worth being vigilant if you have been harmed by this person in the past.

2

They Play Favorites Between Grandchildren

Another sign of a toxic grandparent is someone who obviously likes one grandchild better than the others. They might buy special gifts for them, spend more time with them, or even express their favoritism out loud. “Making one grandchild a favorite [and the] others [scape]goats” signals potential relationship abuse, Brown says. While it is OK for a grandparent and child to have a special bond — say one child plays a sport that their grandparent is especially passionate about — it should never feel like one child has favored status. This could force the other children to go to unhealthy lengths to earn a grandparent’s love, approval, and affection.

3

They Belittle & Criticize The Child

One subtle form of emotional abuse is belittling or criticizing a child's appearance, behavior, or abilities. Brown specifies that this might come in the form of little comments about weight or clothing choices, framed as “You’d look so pretty if…” or “If only you would…” Even if the comment seems flippant in the moment, these little slights can slowly degrade a child’s self-esteem over time. Even if the grandparent truly believes they have the child’s well-being in mind, they may inadvertently be causing the child to question their self-worth.

4

They Make Inappropriate Comments

It’s never OK for a grandparent to comment on a child’s looks, let alone talk specifically about any part of their body. Brown notes that especially for children going through puberty, it’s a huge red flag if the grandparent makes direct comments about how their body is changing. Again, this comment may be intended in a harmless way, but it can make a child feel deeply uncomfortable during an already vulnerable stage of their life. Make sure to put a stop to this behavior as soon as you notice it.

5

They Don’t Accept Or Respect The Child’s Identity

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Affirming a child’s identity is critical to their mental health and well-being — according to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, trans and nonbinary youth surrounded by people who respect their pronouns attempt suicide at half the rate of those whose home environments are hostile to them. Keep in mind that your child might be exposed to discrimination at the hands of grandparents or other relatives, even if you are supportive of them at home. Brown cites two examples of toxic behavior in grandparents: deadnaming a transgender child or refusing to use “they/them” pronouns on the “specious grounds of grammar.”

6

They Expose The Child To Substance Abuse

This isn’t about having one glass of wine or having a dose of a medically prescribed substance in front of a grandchild. If the grandparent is “consistently altered in the child’s presence,” Brown explains, that’s cause for concern, especially if this behavior is normalized in front of them. While addiction should never be shamed or stigmatized, it is important to talk to your child about why it occurs and how to minimize their risk — especially if the child is seeing it firsthand through a grandparent.

7

Your Child Acts Differently After A Visit

Pay attention to your child’s words and body language when discussing their grandparent. “If the kid says that they don't like how the grandparent treats them, parents need to engage with the child and be their advocate for fair treatment,” Brown says. Listening to your child is the first step toward helping them process and heal from any trauma they may have experienced.

If they do bring up their concerns to you, don’t hesitate to address this with the grandparent directly. “The parent needs not to regress and make excuses for their parent, [such as] ‘Oh, don't take seriously what your grandparent said,’ or some version of that,” Brown urges. “The parent needs to act immediately and clearly.” The sooner you label this behavior as unacceptable, the sooner you’ll be able to nip it in the bud before it gets any worse. Even if that ultimately means cutting off contact with a toxic grandparent, you can do so knowing you are making the best choice for your family right now.

Studies cited:

Child maltreatment 2019: Summary of key findings - child ... (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/canstats/.

The Trevor Project National Survey. The Trevor Project. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2021/.

Experts:

Laura Brown, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and director of the Fremont Community Therapy Project

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for LGBTQ+ mental health or safety concerns, call The Trevor Project's 24/7 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386). You can also reach out for instant message or text message support via TrevorChat and TrevorText, respectively. For additional resources for trans people, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.