Signs Your Kid Has Narcissistic Grandparents—and What to Do

Think your child's grandparent might be a narcissist? Experts share the red flags and describe how to cope with troubling moments that might occur.

An image of a grandparent with their grandson.
Photo: Getty Images.

Research shows that grandparents can be wonderful role models for kids, encouraging academic or other success and providing endless advice and emotional support. And there's no denying that having an extra set of hands around can be hugely beneficial when you're raising a child. But most parent-grandparent relationships aren't without their challenges, and it can be even tougher to navigate the bond if your child's grandparent is a narcissist.

"These grandparents often deeply care about how they present and appear to the world and will enlist significant control strategies to maintain their need for presentation," notes Amber Claudon, LICSA, CEDS-s, a licensed independent clinical social worker and Vice President of Clinical Training at Lightfully Behavioral Health.

And that's precisely what can make it so tough to identify whether or not you're dealing with a grandparent who's a narcissist, points out Claudon.

But here are red flags to look out for — plus tips for navigating difficult moments that can arise.

How To Tell If Your Child's Grandparent Is a Narcissist

A bit of head-butting with your parent or in-law is to be expected when you simply don't see eye-to-eye on the best ways to care for a child. However, there are specific traits you can look out for that might point to your child's grandparent being a narcissist—or having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), according to Claudon:

  • An inability to have genuine and sincere connection, as the narcissistic grandparent's connection is often correlated with a constant need for validation.
  • An overall lack of empathy.
  • Demanding that a grandchild comply and respect them (even when there is no relationship to support these "asks").
  • Undermining your parenting authority.
  • A persistent need to challenge and derail any attempt by you to guide and support your child.
  • Tendencies/patterns of playing favorites or triangulating between siblings.
  • Attempts to challenge your values and family structure.
  • Transactional control through money, gifts, vacations, etc.
  • Attempts to create division between you and your partner, if you're in a relationship.

Dan Peters, Ph.D, host of The Parent Footprint with Dr. Dan, also encourages parents to look out for a grandparent who:

  • Needs to be the center of attention.
  • Lacks boundaries and awareness of the impact of their behavior on others.
  • Bullies and exhibits mean behavior ("narcissistic rage") if you challenge them or do not readily meet their needs.

The Difference Between Narcissistic Traits and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

And it bears noting that your parent or in-law might have narcissistic traits or have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

"We all have narcissistic aspects to our personality that help build self-esteem and self-worth," explains Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert in Los Angeles. "The difference with NPD is that the person has a persistent way of constantly feeling wounded, wronged, and victimized and can't tolerate your success when set alongside theirs. They do this to such an extent that they are always upset and can't sustain relationships that require them to give and take. They are entitled and feel no shame in it."

Why It's So Important to Know If You're Dealing With a Narcissistic Grandparent

"Grandchildren typically love and adore grandparents because of the role they play in their lives," points out Claudon. Kids get to engage in different activities, get special treats, and enjoy a general sense of love and acceptance that's unique.

And children often have open, accepting, and naïve hearts and intentions when it relates to engaging with grandparents, notes Claudon, which is why they can easily become the target of hurtful behavior and emotional patterns of a narcissistic grandparent.

Peters agrees, adding, "Narcissistic grandparents are harmful to both parents and grandchildren due to their need to control situations and their verbally abusive and divisive behavior when they feel threatened or challenged—by either parent or child."

For this reason, it's so important to identify the grandparent's behavior and realize that it's not personal to you or your child—or acceptable.

How to Deal When You Suspect Your Child's Grandparent Is a Narcissist

If you're concerned that your parent or in-law might be a narcissist, consider making these expert-backed moves.

Discuss boundaries.

"Talk to children about boundaries and let children practice implementing boundaries that feel OK to them," suggests Cauldon. "This may be something as simple as, 'I do not want to go to my friend's house today.' Or 'I do want to go to the park.'

You can then practice reinforcing those boundaries, encouraging them to stand strong in their convictions, and validating their opinion of what feels OK—or not.

And as their parent, it is important to set limits, without getting involved in a power struggle—which will most never go well, says Peters. "It is critical for parents to be assertive and hold their boundaries, while teaching and modeling for their kids to do the same," he notes. "Our kids are always watching how we act and it is important to show them how to deal with toxic family members in a way that shows respect for oneself."

Demonstrate unconditional love.

"Coupled with boundaries, we want to demonstrate unconditional love and positive regard for the child to teach about secure attachment," says Cauldon. "Secure attachment offers a child a 'home base' to return to because they understand that a parent's love is unconditional which gives them permission to assert themselves and take developmental risks apart from the parent."

Model healthy relationship dynamics.

Either with your partner, friend, or your child's aunt or uncle, Cauldon suggests showing your child what a healthy relationship looks like by exhibiting:

  • Healthy communication.
  • Unconditional positive regard.
  • Reciprocity.
  • Empathic interactions.

"Allowing a child to witness these types of relationships and interactions will help build a counter-perspective to the things they may witness with their grandparents," says Cauldon.

Set boundaries around your child's interactions with the grandparent.

"Parents can attempt to find parameters that are effective and more manageable," notes Cauldon. This might look like meeting up at a favorite restaurant. Being in public means you can control the interaction more, and it'll have a definitive end point.

Know when to walk away.

When a narcissistic grandparent's behavior is severe, a limited or no relationship situation might be called for, says Cauldon. "This would be a step necessary if there was significant emotional abuse from the grandparent to the grandchild," she points out.

In these cases, you might also want to pursue professional support for yourself and your child to process your experiences and practice setting healthy boundaries.

The bottom-line, according to Peters: "It is not OK to be verbally and emotionally abused, nor is okay for your child to experience the same—by anyone."

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