Dealing with Toxic Grandparents

Today’s post diverges slightly from our typical posts about minimalism and our planned move, but it does relate to sculpting our life and fulfilling our dreams.  For a long time now we’ve been dealing with toxic grandparents.  The grandparents I’m referring to are my daughter’s grandparents, not my own.  I want to share our story and then see if anyone has dealt with anything similar.

Our daughter, Faith, is very shy.  It takes her an extremely long time to warm up to people she hasn’t seen in a while, even if that “while” has only been a week or two.  This is especially true around adults.  The shyness is caused by social anxiety, and often results in a mild form of selective mutism.  That is where the child is unable to speak even though they would like to be able to.

It is important to understand that her inability to speak to adults and her extreme shyness in social situations isn’t caused by poor discipline or stubbornness.  She exhibits signs of selective mutism, such as changing her voice when forced to speak (she will speak in a higher pitch.)  She freezes up physically, with arms stiff and head down when in situations where she needs to speak, and her sweet little heart races when in those situations.

Outside of the social anxiety, Faith is a wonderful child.  Of course I think so, because I’m her parent, but I’ve interacted with enough other children to make a somewhat unbiased observation.  She is in kindergarten, and she is already reading level 1 and 2 books.   We are not even half way through the school year and she has already mastered the kindergarten sight words, and her teachers have given her first grade sight words to work on.  She is very well behaved.  In school they have wristbands to reward children for behavior, and Faith is always at the top of her class.

At home she speaks and interacts without any problem at all.  When we are out in public she speaks to my wife and I without any problem.  Among kids her own age, once she has grown comfortable with them, which takes much less time than with adults, she talks and plays with them.  In school, though she speaks softly, she does speak to the teacher and raises her hand to ask and to answer questions.  Her teacher does not see any problems with her.

So, Faith is a good kid that simply doesn’t speak to adults unless necessary, or with some prodding, or after she has had enough time to become comfortable.

We have one set of grandparents that find her shyness to be a personal insult.  They believe a child should say hello and give them a big hug upon greeting them.  They apparently feel it’s required to have conversation in order to interact with her.

Over the past five years of her life, I have witnessed a few things that were completely unacceptable.  The grandfather has made comments on several occasions after being around other kids, saying “that’s how children should be,” implying they should be outgoing.  I have witnessed, in our home, this grandparent bribing Faith with cookies or food, saying “you can’t have this until you say hello to me.”  I have witnessed at their home, the grandfather tell her she can’t play with any toys until she says hello, this being after we were ignored upon entering because they were busy cooking.

That day of the “no toys until hello” I told this grandparent that is not acceptable and that she was going to play. The grandparent was in a foul mood for the rest of the day, and generally treated everyone poorly all day.

On one occasion our daughter had just learned to ride her bike.  Despite her shyness, she is generally pretty good at communicating through performance and play.  She was excited to show her grandparents her newly learned skill.  The grandparent had intended to show us some of his plants, like he does every time we visit, and when we paused from that to show the bike riding, this grandparent says “you give her too much attention,” and goes back in the house, completely missing the opportunity to share in this milestone achievement.

Recently, a new grandchild of sorts entered the picture.  It’s the young daughter of my brother’s fiance.  So, not a grandchild by blood, but still entering the family.  This child is very outgoing, and the grandparent has been praising her non-stop.  Even at a celebratory dinner after Faith’s dance recital, where she performed just as good as every other kids there despite her social anxiety and shyness, the conversation was turned to the other child.  Not one nice thing was said about Faith’s performance.

The entrance of the other child seemed to amplify the negativity towards Faith.  The other child has even been praised for bad behavior.  One example was when she had been taking toys out of Faith’s hands all day, it was said “she is going to be a real go-getter.”  Faith is not even complimented for good behavior and this new child is praised for bad behavior.

We had spoken briefly to the grandparents on a couple occasions about their treatment of our daughter.  They were usually brief conversations and sometimes ended up in improvement for a very short time, and sometimes in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

A couple of months ago, we decided we had to do something, because we felt we could no longer continue to expose Faith to all the negativity and poor treatment.  The advice of several friends trained in or practicing psychology was to cut them off completely.  If we lived far away, this would have been easy.  We live about an hour away, and they had been inviting us over every other weekend.  A complete break would have been awkward and didn’t feel right.

We felt it best to have a discussion with the grandparents to highlight or concerns.  Anticipating the “we don’t do stuff like that,” I came prepared with a number of examples, many of which I shared above.  I laid it out how Faith is, and that she is introverted by nature, not by choice.  I told them that I didn’t want them trying to parent her, because I knew her social anxiety couldn’t just be parented away.  My wife, Dream, has a degree in psychology and is certified in behavior modification, so we are working with Faith and have made much progress, and the grandparents trying to parent her shyness away is counterproductive.

We discussed the negative situations, the comparisons, and the lack of positive attention.  I made it clear that we wanted Faith to have a relationship with her grandparents.  I told them that we could help them communicate with her.  Faith communicates very well through play and we offered to help facilitate that.

The results of the conversation were not what we had hoped.  I got a call the next day from grandmother saying that grandfather didn’t sleep all night.  (Grandfather was actually the root of most of the negativity so the majority of the examples we gave related to him.)  She said it wasn’t a good time to have that conversation because she was about to leave town on business.  (Note that there was no good time and I did wait until after his birthday had passed.)  She also said “you know how he treated his aunt when she disagreed with him.”  The result of that was he cut off all contact with the aunt.

We agreed to give it a little time.  A good month went by and we didn’t hear anything from the grandparents. On my birthday, grandmother called to wish a happy birthday.  She put grandfather on the phone and I attempted to strike up conversation by asking what he’d been up to.  He grunted, “nothing,” and handed the phone back to grandmother.

In the years past we had established a tradition of sharing a Halloween event together.  We weren’t holding any grudges and really still did want to have Faith’s grandparents as part of our lives, just with less negativity.  Grandmother decided to share in the event, but grandfather refused.   Funny thing is, by the end of the day, Faith had warmed up to grandmother and was talking away like she does with us at home.

My brother and his fiance invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner at his new apartment.  It would be their first Thanksgiving together, and their first in their new apartment.  We agreed to go even though we knew it would be awkward with the grandparents there.  When we arrived and walked in, we greeted everyone and were introduced to the fiance’s family.  Grandfather just sat in his chair and didn’t say anything.  He ignored us the entire time we were there.

That reinforced our opinion that we had made the right decision to have a discussion with them even with the possibility of less contact.  We saw more of the negative behavior and became even more aware of grandfathers controlling nature.  The apartment was small, and it was a very casual buffet style dinner.  Dishes covered the dining room table, a side table, and part of the kitchen.  Most people got their dish and ate with plates on their laps.  Grandfather tried to get everyone (not us, but everyone else) to belly up to the dinning room table that was serving as the buffet table.  Then he scoffed when someone said that the guys were eating on the couch because they were watching football while they ate.  I could tell he was irritated because that wasn’t his idea of how a Thanksgiving dinner should be served and eaten.

Grandmother did make an effort to chat with us, and to interact with Faith.

Now we are a little unsure of what to do.  Grandmother seems to want to remain in our life, although she hasn’t called us to spend any time together like she used to do.  Grandfather doesn’t want anything to do with us if it’s not on his terms.  We are tempted to just cut them off completely at this point, since the relationship continues to be toxic, and as long as it remains this way it causes conflict in our own home since it’s an unresolved situation.

If it weren’t for grandmother wanting a relationship, it would be a no brainer to sever our ties.    Although grandmother does seem to want a relationship with her granddaughter, it is difficult when the controlling grandfather doesn’t.

What would you do in this situation?  Have you ever had to deal with something like this?

Toxic Grandparents Series:


  1. says

    Your daughter sounds very much like my partner’s daughter, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s this summer. (She is 10.) You might check into the work of Tony Attwood, on Asperger’s in girls. Another person with more of a layman’s perspective is Rudy Simone. Asperger’s presents differently in girls (your daughter sounds pretty classic for girls), so it is often undiagnosed.

    For both of us, realizing that some of Ella’s behaviors (including selective mutism) are not a choice helped us tremendously in dealing with them and accepting her for the person she is. I applaud you for making difficult choices to protect your daughter. I shared some of your post with Ella’s dad, who said something along the lines of “Hell, yeah. I wouldn’t let my child be around those who treated her like that.”

    Good luck–
    Rita@thissortaoldlife´s last blog post ..What you don’t see is what you get

    • says

      Hi Rita,
      Thanks for the info and for the support. I’ll have to look into Asperger’s, I don’t know much about it. I only know what I read very briefly on Wikipedia and she doesn’t have the clumsiness or trouble talking to or relating to other kids. But, I don’t want to rule anything out, so I’ll look into it some more. Thanks.

  2. says

    I don’t have any answers for you. You are the one who will have to live with whatever you decide.

    We had somewhat similar situations at various times with varying grandparents over the years. It sounds like they don’t have lots of experience with being grandparents. They might still be defining their roles. It definitely sounds like you and they have different ideas of what being a grandparent means. Education might work, explaining how you feel and trying to teach them how to treat you and your daughter. But it might not. Especially if it has already met with resistence. No amount of talking and trying to work things out will improve things if he doesn’t think he’s wrong and isn’t willing to change.

    All you can do is trust your heart as you protect your daughter. And you and your wife. The toxic relationship isn’t good for the two of you either.

    Over time, I’ve had to learn that I might not have the relationship with my parents or my husband’s parents that I want. My kids might not either. I can either choose to accept the relationship these grandparents are capable of having and willing to have or I can choose to not have a relationship.

    In our case, I had to pull back a lot. Sometimes they are fine. When that’s the case, we will spend time with them. Other times, my father is very controlling and verbally abusive. At those times we cut off contact. We ignore the phone and invitiations. And we live in the same small town as my parents, so I know it’s tough.

    My dad is of the “If you don’t like the behavior force it to change” midset. “Make the child submit to your will.” It’s very old-school and it’s been tough for us. He’s mellowed a lot with age and my kids have a better relationship with him now than I ever did. (Which is still probably nothing you’d see on a Hallmark card.)

    I send you well wishes and empathy. You are in a difficult situation trying to do what’s best. May you be blessed in your efforts.
    misssrobin´s last blog post ..Snips, Spice, Sugar, Snails – Gender Identification

    • says

      Hi missrobin,
      Thanks for the well wishes and for sharing some insight from your own life. I don’t imagine anyone will have the answers for us, but it is helpful to see how others deal with this kind of thing. We typically get together as a family for Christmas and Faith’s birthday is coming up in January, so we have to start making some decisions as to how we are handling everything. Thanks again for your kindness and for sharing.

  3. says

    Oh, dear. Your father sounds exactly like mine. I’m sure Dream recognizes his behavior as Narcissistic. Everything is about him–what he wants, what he is interested in, what he considers right, normal, correct, polite, etc. There is no pleasing such people, and anything that goes wrong is always someone else’s fault. He will never treat you like an adult, or respect you as one. Very toxic. Being around people like that makes sensitive children feel very uncertain and insecure, especially when all the adults seem to kowtow to the Narcissist’s whims and preferences. If he is truly like this, he is a sociopath–and of a kind that almost never gets better. I’m 56, my son is turning 30, and we are just now coming to terms with the effect such a dominating personality has had on us.

    Please follow your gut instincts on what is best for your child–and yourself and Dream, and do it now, not after he does permanent damage to your child and your relationship. My father has driven every man in my life crazy, and contributed in a huge way to the destruction of two marriages. I’m not letting him touch the third, but all those decades of conditioning are hard to break. My heart goes out to you, it really does.
    Meg´s last blog post ..A Teatime List of Annoying Questions

    • says

      If I didn’t know better, I’d say Dream wrote your comment. She has been saying the exact same things, especially about the narcissistic behavior. Thanks for sharing examples from your own life. I’m sorry you had to go through this also, but it helps to hear of your examples.

  4. says

    It is possible that somewhere in the mix grandfather is ashamed or embarrassed by his own behavior but just too stubborn to admit it. That’s a never win situation. Can you just ignore grandfather? I know that may exacerbate some behavior but the modification on grandfather’s actions may help (unless he is like Meg has described in her email which is possible). Toxic people who get away with their unacceptable behavior will never change unfortunately. Your responsibility is to Faith and Dream not to the grandfather. (Kudos to grandma though for breaking out and interacting with Faith)

    I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. It stinks.
    Willow´s last blog post ..A Simple List

    • says

      Hi Willow,
      It’s a possibility that he’s to stubborn to admit it, but I feel more like he doesn’t think he has done anything wrong. We actually did ignore his behavior for a long time. He’s been doing stuff like this all along, and it continued after the birth of our daughter. It’s just gotten to the point where we couldn’t ignore it anymore as the behavior has gotten worse and Faith is at an age where she is starting to recognize that something isn’t quite right. As you said, the behavior doesn’t change. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Minimalist Wannabe says

    I agree that your daughter’s well being is the top priority here… That said, sounds like grandmother does not agree with grandfather’s approach either. She’s likely of a generation where the woman tended to follow the husband’s lead, but she has showed you that she wants a relationship with your family. I’m not sure where the balance is, but grandma sounds like a good person to be in your daughter’s life. Faith is even warming to her. Would she stand up to her husband and visit solo? That’s for her to decide…

    I would pass the message to all grandparents (and other relatives) that they are welcome in your daughter’s life if they can respect who she is and give her the room and time to get out of he cocoon… How many impatient children have tried to “help” a butterfly out of its cocoon to only see that their wings will not unfold and dry properly? Same for Faith, she needs the time and rushing it is not helpful.

    Having this type of friction or cold in the family is difficult and sad. My own sister has a daughter with an autistic syndrome… After a disagreement with my mom (who was physically and emotionally drained after my father’s passing at that time), my sister left town (she lives about 3.500 km away) and totally shut her out. It’s been some 7 years without a word. Mom suffers from it greatly, she has kept up birthday cards, etc. but to no avail. Mom is now 81 y.o. and giving up ever talking to her daughter again. That’s why I say that if in your case grandma is not toxic and willing to stand up to grandpa, she should not be painted with the same brush…

    It is in any case a difficult decision, one that is yours to make. You are right to protect your daughter at any cost… as a previous reader said, you have to be ready to live with the impact that your decision will have.

    PS – I had a childhood friend who was also quite shy outside her little circle of friends. She too reverted to mutism, and I remember teachers keeping her after school to try to make he talk!! That was 45 years ago, and guess what? When they stopped all that attention and just let her be, she slowly came out of her shell and turned out fine!

    • says

      Hi MW,
      Grandmother does definitely follow grandfather’s lead. From what we’ve seen so far she’ll stand up and spend time with us only when invited or if we happen to all be at the same place. It doesn’t look like she’ll go as far as to call us to schedule things as she had done in the past. It would actually be easier to handle this whole situation if she didn’t care to make any effort at all, but since she does, it’s been something we have to consider.

      The message you suggest is basically what we told them when we had our big talk. We talked about the negatives, but then I tried to make it very clear how things could work better and what we expected of them, and offered to help them communicate with Faith. The butterfly metaphor is good, I may use that the next time someone gets a little too pushy with Faith.

      Your childhood friend sounds like Faith. We’re very lucky she has an understanding and supportive teacher. Thanks for everything you shared, we appreciate all your support.

  6. says

    Funny — the grandparent(s) in question sound exactly like my MIL. She gets frightfully upset when I don’t hug her instantly when I see her and bounce up and down as if I’d just won the lottery. Then she tells my husband that I’m anti-social.

    It’s turned into a lesson of “you must do what’s right for you, if you truly want to be happy.” We realized that trying to fake my way through my interactions with her just made me stressed and upset. It was more unpleasant for me to fake it than for me to work hard on blocking out her reactions.

    I really admire that you’re working so hard to figure out the root causes of the problem and also rstay focused on what Faith needs to be happy. Figuring out how to find that balance is a lesson I wish I’d learned before I was an adult. Good for you.
    joanna k´s last blog post ..Items 19, 20, and 21: A sleeping bag and two bedrolls

    • says

      HI Joanna,
      I really dislike people throwing about the label “anti-social.” As if just because you don’t want to hug or strike up a conversation, that makes someone anti-social. I have found that it’s usually the people that are uncomfortable with themselves that throw that term around. It’s good to see that you chose not to fake it, I think that’s healthier in the long term. You can fake it for a short while, but long term it can be tiresome. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.

  7. Rebecca B. A. R. says

    It does sound like she has asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism). I used to work with ages birth to three, and help kids transition into preschool. You should be able to have her evaluated by the public school that she goes to, or you can take her to her doctor. I highly recommend it, b/c all the evalution involves is playing with her, and a diagnosis/treament can really help–both her and your family. Good luck with the family thing, I’m not sure what I would do myself. Many times I have found that men, especially older men, have a hard time accepting anything that is not typical behavior in children.

  8. Rebecca B. A. R. says

    BTW, autism is much more a “boy” syndrome, that may be why things didn’t sound like your daughter from the computer description of asperger’s. As I said before, Asperger’s is a mild form of autism, and symptoms can vary quite differently from child to child–especially when it is a girl. I had a little client (who was almost 3), who was very smart, but could not function (shy, froze up, etc.) in groups of people or new situations–although she was absolutely fine interacting one on one. Every child can display very different symptoms, but be somewhere on the autism spectrum.

  9. Claudine says

    Hi, I remember thinking the same things when my dd was that age. Now she is turning 12, I am not talking to her grand-parents, but she gets emails from them. I wish I had ended the communication a long time ago, for a fear they will hurt her as she gets older.

    Follow your gut!

  10. Dante Iscariot says

    This really made me angry to read about.. I have nothing really to add, I just wanted to wish you well and express hope that things are working out better now, even if that has meant cutting contact. To think of someone discouraging a child from expressing herself through play…

    • says

      Thanks for sending some hope. Things have been better since we cut contact. I need to post an update to this saga, but to summarize, we very occasionally see grandmother, but haven’t seen the rest of the family since January.

  11. Molly says

    Just found your blog and love it! The toxic grandparents really struck a chord with me. There are two very distinct differences, The grandparents are my husbands’ and I was the brunt of the passive aggressive behavior from the GM. His GF was the submissive type. It was even more hurtful since my parents/grandparents had all died young. I never witnessed this type of behavior before. My DH would try to intervene but the response was howls of laughter and “Don’t be so sensitive, it was a joke!” I stopped going on these visits with my DHs’ support. She passed a few years ago. It’s sad that there are hardly any good memories even with our child involved. My DH is also having long forgotten memories of her passive aggressive behavior toward him. It really is a lose-lose situation for everyone, especially my DD who, at 17, has no memories of what loving GGPs’ or GPs are. I’m blessed to have the memories of my own mother and grandmother who were both loving and supportive.

    • says

      I can totally relate to your experiences. I can imagine grandfather tell us or our daughter “don’t be so sensitive.” We are also saddened by the fact that our daughter will likely not have any good memories of these grandparents. I have a Toxic Grandparent update queued up. I’ll post it later this week or maybe next week. I’ll foreshadow that post by saying we have cut off all contact with grandfather and only have minimal contact with grandmother.

  12. Jennifer G says

    We had some trouble shortly after our first son was born and we made the HORRIBLE mistake of moving in with my inlaws. I felt guilty about being in their home, so allowed them as much time with my son as they wanted. After we moved out of their house, we all ended up moving to a piece of land (with separate houses) but still basically next door or across the street from them. And I still allowed them as much time with my son as they wanted. I found their constant interference annoying, but I figured it was just me being overly sensitive to my inlaws. Then about a year ago, I finally had all I could take. They had begun feeding him dinner at their house while I was home fixing dinner for him, they even started bathing him before they brought him home to me. So I had decided that I was going to limit their interaction with him. And about a week after I made that decision, I found out that in addition to basically taking over my son and treating me like a baby sitter (calling me in the mornings to make sure my son had slept through the night and eaten dinner and/or breakfast), they were telling family members that I was a bad mother, that they were “having” to raise my son. Also that I was needy and emotional (making MIL “walk around on egg shells”) and couldn’t do anything without my MIL. And granted, I invited her to go to the grocery store and such with me, since we live next door to each other out in the sticks…I figured it was common courtesy, hey, I’m going to the grocery store, do you need to go too? In the last year, my son has not had any “alone” time with them. He has not been to their house more than a couple of times (I tried taking him over there last spring, only to be insulted and belittled, so now I have put a stop to even visiting them without my husband). And surprise, surprise, since our son is not spending so much time with them…our relationship with him has never been stronger. It was the best decision for our family, and that’s all that should be expected. You do what is best for your child(ren), and if people don’t like it, then that is their problem.

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,
      I couldn’t even imagine living with my parents at this point. They actually encouraged one of my brothers to come back and live with them. He had his own apartment and bills were adding up, so in a way it made sense, but it put him back under their controlling thumb.

      I definitely relate to your situation. Your inlaws sound very controlling, and it sounds like they have not made the transition from being parents to being grandparents. Mine were similar in this respect, always trying to parent instead of taking on the more relaxed role of grandparent.

      I’m happy to see that you made the decisions that allowed you to strengthen your family. The things that led up to that and I imagine some of the aftermath were likely difficult. Thanks for sharing your story here. It can be hard to find others that are in situations like this, and it always helps to see some examples of what other people have done. By sharing your story, you are helping others, and I thank you for that.

  13. melissa fugate says

    I sympathies with the child because I have an overbearing grandfather in my life , he is unbearable to deal with at times but I still love him. Even though he is overbearing it drives me nuts at times.

    • says

      Yep, I hear you. We still love him, but unfortunately we can’t ge around him anymore. It comes down to what kind of people do you want in your life. If there are certain people that suck the joy out of your life, then you have to see less of them.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge