The relationships your kids have with their grandparents can be extremely especial 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. As more parents rely on their own parents for child care and support, it's important to know the signs of an emotionally abusive grandparent. After all, they aren't always straightforward.
According to Lana Adler, writer and founder of Toxic Ties — an organization that provides support and resources for people in toxic relationships — one sign of a toxic grandparent is playing favorites. While you might not think your kids notice that their cousin gets showered with praise, while they receive only criticism from grandma, they do. Child advocate and parent educator Lori Petro adds that often emotional abuse will manifest as behavior changes in your child — like aggression or acting withdrawn — before or after a visit with their grandparents. The Mayo Clinic website adds that other signs of emotional abuse include a victim constantly seeking approval or love from their abuser, and since children can easily blame themselves and feel responsible for breakdowns in their relationship with their grandparent how they behave around that individual will be a large indicator that something is amiss.
For more signs of an emotionally abusive grandparent, and tips on how to protect your child if it happens to them, read on:
Your Child Constantly Seeks Their Approval
As Petro notes on Teach Through Love, one counter-intuitive sign of emotional abuse is approval-seeking behavior. If your parents or in-laws are constantly telling your child that they don't measure up, they might do everything they can to earn their love, approval, and affection.
They Play Favorites
As Adler writes for wehavekids.org emotionally abusive grandparents often compare their grandchildren, making it clear that one or more of them are "better" than the others. They might buy special gifts for them, spend more time with them, or even express their favoritism out loud in front of your kids.
They Belittle Your Child
According to Prevent Child Abuse America, one subtle form of emotional abuse is belittling or criticizing a child's appearance, behavior, or abilities. The same site notes that while a person might think they have a child's wellbeing in mind when they set expectations and offer opinions or advice it can actually do lasting harm to a child's self-esteem and even physical and psychological development, especially if your child feels like they can never measure up.
They Are Controlling
As Adler notes on wehavekids.org, one sign of an emotionally abusive grandparent is a desire to maintain control over their grandkid's appearance, behavior, or decisions. "Her grandkids are the extensions of her, so she will do whatever she can to mold them into something she can find 'worthy' of her," Adler writes.
They Use Or Threaten To Use Physical Discipline
According to a November 2018 statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), using physical discipline, like spanking, both doesn't work and can cause lasting harm to children. Unfortunately, some people — especially those from older generations where physical discipline was more commonplace — still use spanking or threats of physical punishment to try to control children's behavior.
As Prevent Child Abuse America notes on their website, using or threatening physical punishment can be a form of emotional abuse, especially when it's used to penalize them for simply being a kid by playing, running, talking, and laughing. These threats can not only cause children to fear their grandparents, but also have serious mental health consequences.
They Are Manipulative
According to Adler, one sure sign of emotional abuse is manipulation. If your kids' grandparent attempts to play on their emotions to get what they want — for example, telling them that they will feel sad if a child doesn't give grandma a kiss — they're attempting to manipulate a child for their own personal benefit.
Adler adds on wehavekids.org that it can be hard for adults to recognize coercion, and nearly impossible for kids to understand that they are being abused, which can lead to things like lowered self-esteem, confusion, and even psychosomatic illnesses and mental illness.
Your Child Acts Different Before Or After A Visit
As the Mayo Clinic website notes, children who are emotionally abused often act out. For some, this might manifest as defiance or aggressive behavior. For others, it might mean they act withdrawn, sad, or not excited about a trip to grandma's house. As Petro notes on Teach Through Love, they might even show physical symptoms, like complaining of stomach aches, wetting the bed, or potty training regression.
As family relationship expert Amy Goyer tells the Mother Company, it's important to know that your child likely will not understand that they are being abused, so it's up to you to recognize that it's happening and set appropriate expectations and boundaries for their grandparent to prevent it from continuing. She adds that if you do decide to cut off contact with an emotionally abusive grandparent, you should be honest with your kid about it so they don't blame themselves for the relationship changing.