Toxic Grandparents – A Breakthrough with Grandmother

I wrote this a few months ago, and then sat on it for a while. I guess I wanted to see how things would work out before sharing.  This is a continuation of our Toxic Grandparents series.  If you are new here, you may want to follow that link and get caught up on our situation.

We had a nice visit with Grandmother this weekend. She’s been caught in the middle of this mess, and she isn’t exactly toxic, so maybe I need a new description for her. Being caught in the middle causes its own set of issues.

If you are new to the toxic grandparent saga, you may want to read the full series to get caught up. As a very brief summary, we have a narcissistic grandfather that placed certain demands on us and our granddaughter. The granddaughter (our daughter, Faith) was unable to meet these demands due to a condition called Selective Mutism (SM). The demands were basically a hug and a hello when greeting and speak when spoken to. To someone with SM, these are impossible demands, even though she tried and we tried to parent her into them. I confronted him to highlight some of his toxic behavior and told him she would no longer have these demands placed on her.

Since that time, we found a great psychiatrist that made the SM diagnosis. After much thought we placed Faith on Prozac, and we have been working with her using positive reinforcement to slowly reduce her social anxiety and bring her out of her SM tendencies.

Part of the breakthrough happened at one of Faith psychiatrist appointments. My wife, Dream, was talking to the psychiatrist about the grandparents. The psychiatrist mentioned narcissism based on the description of grandfather, and has been supportive of our distancing ourselves from him.

The breakthrough was when the psychiatrist said that Grandmother is a victim. If grandmother did anything to stand up for Faith (or for us) then grandfather would make her life hell. Without even knowing my grandfather, she nailed it. He would fuss and pout and generally make her miserable if she went against him to support us. I’m actually a little surprised that he lets her come and visit without any repercussions. Or maybe there are repercussions and we just don’t know about it.

The possibility of her being a victim gave us pause for thought.

Overall, grandmother disapproves of grandfather’s behavior towards us. Sure she sometimes takes his side on things, but after living with him for so many years, I can see how it might be difficult to separate from his views.

With the victim mentality in mind, we approached grandmother’s visit in a different light.

We had a nice Mother’s Day lunch at Olive Garden. During lunch, she expressed that she really wanted to be part of our life.

We were trying to work out whether she really wanted to visit, so it was good to hear that she did. We also had to decide whether we could handle the emotional aspect of her visits as each time we saw her it reopened the old wounds and we can’t help but think of the poor treatment that Faith has received.

The discussion over lunch got a little more heated than we wanted, especially in front of Faith and her friend that came with us. It wasn’t fighting or yelling, but there was a lot of emotion swirling about. At one point grandmother teared up, and at that point we were able to see the sincerity in her request.

It’s too bad it had to end up with grandmother spilling some tears, but in a way it was good as she hadn’t really let her defenses down in the past. There had always been a part of her defending grandfather, and for a moment that faded away and her desires came out unobstructed.

With the victim mentality in mind, the brief insight into how she really feels, and our desire for Faith to have a relationship with her grandmother, we have decided to open the door to more visits and more sharing with grandmother.

One of grandmother’s longstanding requests has been to get re-friended on Facebook. We unfriended her a little over a year ago.

One of the reasons we unfriended her is that we are affected by what we see grandfather doing with the other grandkids (or more accurately the kids of my brother’s fiancé). He essentially replaced Faith with a child that was more outgoing and would satisfy his view of “how a child should be” (his words). It’s hard on us emotionally to see these things, and we don’t care to see any of it on Facebook.

We talked about it after she left, and decided to re-friend grandmother.

Dream barely slept a wink on the night after grandmother’s visit. There were too many emotions swirling around. Grandmother has taken on a number of grandfather’s tendencies and views, and being caught in the middle, the way she handles things with us has been very defensive. She has also taken on some of his manipulative ways, and she uses these more than she probably realizes.

You can see as I write this, the back and forth that goes on as we work through this. I’m still going back and forth on my feelings even as I type this post.

I have to keep going back to thinking of grandmother as a victim. Can you really be mad at someone for not standing up for you if they are powerless to do so? Well… we can, but I’m not sure we should.

After lunch the rest of the day went well. Grandmother stayed much longer than usual. We flipped through some vacation pictures, spent some time by the pool while Faith and her friend swam, and then grandmother even came with us for part of Faith’s cheerleading camp in the evening.

Things still aren’t completely peachy, but we’re happy to try to make things work. We’re going to make an effort to include grandmother in more of our activities. She’s on Facebook now, so she’s plugged back into seeing everything we’re up to, and she’ll get to see plenty of pictures of Faith. All visits will have to be at our place or wherever we happen to be doing some activity; we still can’t be around grandfather, so visits to their home are not possible. That’s fine with us though, we’d rather be out having fun than meeting someone else’s demands of how we need to act and what we need to do.

We think our new direction is good for Faith as well, as she likes her grandmother, and we want to allow that relationship to grow as long as it’s mutually beneficial.


Back to today with some additional thoughts…

It’s been a few months now since I wrote this. We’ve seen grandmother one time since then when she offered to take Faith school shopping. We already had everything she needed, but we let Grandmother take her anyway so they could spend some time together. We also invited her to see Faith cheer at a football game before the shopping trip.  It means a lot to Faith when her friends or family come to see her cheer.

I have some more family posts planned for this week, so check back to get caught up on some more of our recent developments.


  1. MrsBean says

    Thank you for posting your grandparent series. I’ve been facing eerily similar issues since my son was born last year and while it’s profoundly sad, it is a comfort to read other people’s experiences, and most blog posts aren’t that relevant (i.e. my problem isn’t that the grandparents spoil the children too much, or other garden variety conflicts). Like you, these are long-standing (lifelong) issues which I have ignored or tolerated in the past but which are now coming to a head because I have my own child to think of. Although it’s been a while since your post I thought I would share some information I came across, including by talking to a counselor about this family dynamic, in case it helps you or any other readers.

    First, the counselor recommended a book called “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Patricia Evans. I was a little skeptical; “verbally abusive” seemed like kind of a dramatic label for my father, and the book is aimed more at women with abusive spouses (rather than parents or grandparents). But in the end I found a lot of useful information there, and was able to identify a large number of my dad’s behaviours as elements of verbal abuse, including several that you mentioned: the silent treatment, denial of wrongdoing and contradicting basic facts when you confront him with an issue, belittling or discounting your concerns (“I was joking”, “you’re oversensitive”), etc. The book then delves a bit into where these behaviours come from, and why trying to reason with such a person is not going to work.

    As for the grandmother dynamic, I am facing almost the exact same thing there as well. I constantly feel guilty that she is not able to spend as much time with the grandchild as she would like, because I know she genuinely loves him and wants to be there, but I am also angry with her for enabling and defending dad’s bad behaviours, “doubling down” on whatever he says even though I think on some level she actually does know he is out of line. The way the counselor summed it up was helpful to me: mom has been living with a verbally abusive husband for four decades and has chosen to accept and remain in that situation, presumably thinking that is her best or only option. Probably she has internalized a lot of the abuse and actually believes she’s oversensitive, she’s provoking him, etc. By standing up to Dad and telling him I won’t accept certain comments and behaviours anymore, it’s almost as if I am saying that Mom’s whole approach to living her life has been wrong, i.e. that we actually DON”T have to put up with Dad’s behaviour. Mom could perceive that as deeply threatening, so much so that she will frame me as the villain for rocking the boat, rather than confronting the issues with my Dad.

    The little ones grow up so fast, it’s heartbreaking to see the time being wasted, but I am trying to accept that I can’t control Dad’s behaviour, and that he may never be the father/grandfather I would have hoped for.

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