Just a mom of two trying my best to keep up with all the latest trends, pitfalls, philosophies, and challenges of parenthood.
Is Your Kids' Grandmother a Narcissist?
Sometimes, we choose mates without first taking a hard look at their parents, and we overlook some telltale warning signs. Even with our eyes wide open, we might not recognize the clues that suggest our partner had a narcissistic mother. Maybe we just didn't know. . . or perhaps we always knew but simply couldn't premeditate what effect narcissism would wreak on our future family. Either way, narcissism comes as an unexpected surprise.
Other times, it is our own parent—not our partner's—who is the narcissist. If you were raised by a narcissist, how could you NOT know it would affect your children, too? But you may have endured the emotional and mental abuse of a narcissistic parent without ever learning the word or the proper diagnosis. Maybe you never knew that your mother's behavior wasn't "normal." Maybe you thought she'd get better with time or old age, that she had learned from the mistakes she'd made with you, that your mother could redeem herself. Maybe you were wrong.
And it's possible you simply didn't see it coming—it takes a while for narcissism to rear its big head, and it's also true that as they age some people change and become increasingly self-serving and preoccupied with their own comfort. According to Nina Brown, EdD, LPC, and author of Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed: A Guide, age often increases a self-absorbed parent's negative behaviors and attitudes. Sometimes narcissism expands with the years, shall we say.
But for whatever reason, you now find yourself in a bad situation: Instead of a cute little cookie-pushing granny, your kids have a manipulative, selfish, self-centered boss whose petty emotional antics threaten the health and happiness of your whole family. Is she a narcissist? The list below will help you know for sure.
10 Signs of a Narcissistic Grandmother
Although we don't expect grandparents to be perfect—and we will gladly excuse any who exhibit a few of these behaviors from time to time!—a narcissistic or dangerously self-absorbed grandparent never apologizes and never stops. These are the signs to look for.
- She wants to be the "favorite."
- She says critical, negative things behind your back.
- She feels entitled to "ideal" relationships.
- She doesn't really seem to care for her grandchildren.
- Your kids don't bond with her.
- She uses guilt trips and manipulative tricks to get what she wants.
- She doesn't respect your parental roles or policies.
- She acts like nothing she does is ever wrong.
- She uses people.
- She's a bottomless pit.
How to use this list: Think of narcissism as a scale. On it, a person might rate anywhere from mild to extreme self-absorption. If the grandparent does all of these things all of the time, they fall on the extreme end of the narcissism scale; if they do some of these things some of the time, they are lower on the scale.
1. She wants to be the "favorite."
She expects her kids and grandkids to love her best and she will act out in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways if it ever appears that she is not Everyone's Favorite Grandmother. She has a grandiose attitude about her role as the grandmother. Even if she doesn't do much to earn their love, she expects them to always behave as if the relationship were picture-perfect and expects you, their parents, to believe, enforce, and maintain this fantasy. She also plays favorites with her kids and grandkids, spotlighting her special pets and disregarding the rest, hoping they'll all compete for her affection.
2. She says critical, negative things behind your back.
Not only does she question your skills as a parent, she also criticizes you openly behind your back. She also says negative things about your kids, even to them directly when you're not there to defend them. She scrutinizes them to find faults and cuts everyone down to make herself feel better. You may stop feeling comfortable leaving her alone with your kids.
3. She feels entitled to "ideal" relationships.
She may be so self-centered and have such lousy relationship skills that she never connects on a personal level with any adult (much less kids). . . but she still expects everyone to pretend. She feels that she's owed time with her grandchildren and that their adoration is her due. She dictates when she'll see them, where, for how long, and how they'll feel about her. She wants everyone to go through the motions of an Ideal Relationship and play their part, even when no one is really, truly feeling it. If she doesn't get preferential treatment, she will accuse you of hatefulness or say that your kids are rotten.
4. She doesn't really seem to care for her grandchildren.
Narcissists are known for their shallow feelings and for having a limited range of emotions. She never took the time to know her grandkids very well, isn't interested in how they are, forgets their birthdays, doesn't know about their allergies, and has never given them a bath or changed their diaper. She talks at them rather than with them. If the kids visit her she ignores them, forgets to feed them, or puts them to work. She treats her grandchildren as accessories, props, or hired help.
5. Your kids don't bond with her.
She's so busy controlling the narrative you might overlook your kids' subtle cues of discomfort. If they don't look forward to seeing her, get quiet when she enters the room, seem hesitant to approach her, avoid spending time with her (especially alone), or seem sad or upset after seeing her, these are all signs that your kids do not feel a positive emotional connection with their grandmother.
6. She uses guilt trips and manipulative tricks to get what she wants.
If things don't go her way, she will rant, pout, cry, lash out, criticize, pit family members against each other, create diversions, play the victim, or find some other way to pull strings behind the scenes to control the narrative and get what she wants. What she wants is to feel good about herself. In his book, Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life, Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, says, "Like dropping sandbags off the side of a hot air balloon, narcissists elevate their own egos by offloading their insecurities on those around them." She is really good at playing emotional games, and she plays dirty.
7. She doesn't respect your parental roles or policies.
Your family rules don't apply to her. She is the only authority she respects, and she will undermine you as a parent not only because she disagrees with you but simply because she wants to be the boss. If you say "no sugar before dinner," she will send the kids to the corner store for a gallon of ice cream. If bedtime is at 9 p.m., she'll keep them up after midnight. She feels threatened by anyone else's authority and will disrespect your parenting style, rules, decisions, and character to your face and behind your back.
8. She pretends like nothing she does is ever wrong.
It's never her fault, no, no, no. Even if there were eyewitnesses and video evidence to show how she left little Enzo in the hot car while she went to make a nail appointment, she'd find someone or something else to blame. And if you dare to voice any criticisms or concerns, she will react defensively, play victim, take offense, cry, sulk, rage, or conveniently forget what you're talking about. She's not really listening to you, she's just thinking about herself: this is what psychologists call a "failure of empathetic attunement." In her mind, she's always completely blameless.
9. She uses people.
So many of her antics are motivated by her desire to make herself feel better. She has the whole family doing things for her but acts like it's for their benefit, not hers. A narcissistic grandmother occupies the family like a hungry spider in the center of a web. She will take every move you make, every word you say, and use it to her advantage. She thinks of her grandkids not as real people but as crutches or mirrors, tools for her happiness and fuel for her ego. She uses them to do her chores, get her way, and boost her ego. She might literally eat the food off their plates.
10. She's a bottomless pit.
She might seem to have a very strong personality, but a narcissistic grandmother lacks a core self. Despite appearances, inside she's empty, fragile, and broken, and nothing you can do or say will ever heal her or make her whole. She never has enough, she only wants more: more time, more attention, more admiration, more validation, more adoration, more worship.
How to Deal With a Narcissitic Grandmother
- Recognize the patterns. Once you have determined that you are dealing with a narcissist, it's up to you to remember, learn from it, and do something different next time. For example, if she always acts out around the holidays, then make plans to go out of town.
- Set and maintain clear rules and boundaries. She'll continue to ignore and flaunt them, but calmly repeat your household rules and tell her what the consequences will be if she fails to follow them. Then it's up to you to uphold your boundary and follow through on what you said. You can't control her, but you can control your reaction and mitigate damage.
- Don't let her upset you. A narcissist will poke and keep poking in an attempt to get a reaction. This is how she holds onto her power and control. If you let her upset you, she's already won. If you give her the reaction she's hoping for, you'll always be stuck in this narcissistic cycle with her. Learn new techniques for controlling your reaction to her.
- Discuss narcissism openly with your kids. Don't try to pretend everything is "fine" and "normal" when it's not. When they're old enough—or when they start wondering what's wrong with grandma—you should start defining and discussing narcissism openly with them.
- Have a family plan for how to deal with it. Make a family plan for how to deal with it if the kids' grandmother acts out.
- Don't force your kids to be close with her. Don't force them to adore her or spend time with her if they don't want to, and don't let her spend time with the kids alone if they really don't want to.
- Go no-contact if you must. As a last resort, if her behavior causes too much upset and damage to your family, you might consider cutting her out of your life, at least for a while.
Where does your kids' grandmother fall on the scale?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 17, 2020:
With four children of my own and two very heavy handed grandmas I still don't get this.