Momfession Monday :: When Grandparents Are Toxic

Coming into adulthood and becoming a parent has brought a harsh reality check, shattering childhood perceptions of certain family members. Like most kids, I grew up with idealistic, warm and fuzzy thoughts about grandparents. Conversely, some grandparents are toxic. 


My family has fractures and issues that I never realized as a child. These subtle and deep-seated dysfunctions were hard to identify from the vantage point of childhood.

Now that I see them, how do I navigate parenthood? How do I coach my own children through relationships that can be not only dysfunctional, but also toxic. The toxicity I’m speaking of isn’t to the point that these family relationships should clearly be severed, but this middle ground is tricky to maneuver.

Here are the issues, and I think you may identify with some of them.

Anyone have grandparents who show favorites, stating that one child is welcomed for one-on-one time, while the others are not?

Any of you have grandparents who manipulate by offering gifts that come with certain expectations?

How about grandparents who have passive aggressive and narcissist tendencies, accepting an invitation though they may or may not actually show up? Uninvolved grandparents are even more complicated when they live in close proximity.

I look at those around me, and I feel lonely here. It seems every other mother has parents and in-laws who bring soup during sicknesses, babysit often, and come to every game as the cheering section.

But, as I share our true story with others, I realize many others are in the same situation. So, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Quit Saving Spots for Those Who Don’t Show Up

At the advice of a mentor early in motherhood, I’ve sought to fill my children’s lives with the love of those who want to be part of their lives. This has meant choosing and investing our time and efforts with committed and loving people, often swapping babysitting and other help with our peers. Along the way, the life lesson for our kids is that we invest ourselves most deeply and freely with those relationships that are life giving.

Love Well, with Lowered Expectations

In teaching ourselves and our kids to mindfully invest in healthy relationships, the other side of this is learning to accept the limits and lower expectations with those relationships that aren’t healthy. It’s possible to choose love and show grace to family members, while also building boundaries.

With the help of counseling, my husband and I have learned that boundaries may mean not inviting grandparents to things they actually don’t want to attend.

Boundaries include choosing grandparent time at a restaurant or neutral territory during seasons when the toxicity is flowing rampantly, as well as shortening visits with these relatives that drain us by their conditional love.

At times, boundaries mean politely saying “no thank you” to extravagant gifts that could come with the price tag of attached strings. Even if the strings aren’t attached, we ask if the potential strings are worth it? Boundaries may also mean stepping out of certain scenarios that proved toxic and giving the gifts back.

Through it all, our children can learn to be true to expectations of themselves in a relationship, while also not holding the grandparents to expectations that can’t be met. These life lessons can be taught in greater detail and with more vigor the older the children are.

Be the Buffer

This is hard. This is super hard — to be the punching bag and take the heat when kids are young, buffering them from some of the hard things. It might mean saying no, or having hard conversations away from children about how the kids are treated. At younger ages, kids don’t have the tools to navigate such windy roads, and being the buffer is part of being the parent. As kids grow up, they’re better able to be informed and coached about how to identify and respond to toxicity in relationships, even when it’s a family member.

Here is the verbiage that has helped us all with relationships that continually inflict wounds: There is a brokenness in some people that has nothing to do with us, and it handicaps their ability to show love or act kindly as we would define it. 

If you are living with the same cycle of being wounded, know that you’re in good company with many people walking through fields of familial land mines. We can survive and thrive by taking complete control of our response and teaching our kids to start new traditions and new definitions for family.


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