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Narcissism

Should Your Narcissistic Parents Have Access to Your Kids?

Here's how narcissistic grandparents really affect their grandchildren.

Key points

  • To make smart choices about contact, adults with narcissistic parents need to be aware of the risks of giving them access to their grandkids.
  • Common abusive behaviors unique to narcissistic grandparents include controlling with money and ignoring family rules.
  • Some adult children of narcissistic parents limit or end contact to protect their children and themselves.
Ethan Prater, Creative Commons.
Source: Ethan Prater, Creative Commons.

One of the most confusing and difficult issues many adult children of narcissistic parents face is how to navigate the relationship between our children and our parents.

Even after identifying the dysfunction in our parents and acknowledging the neglect and abuse we grew up with, we may make misguided assumptions about our parents as grandparents that can have serious consequences for ourselves and our children.

False Assumptions About Narcissistic Parents as Grandparents

1. My parents will be better with my child(ren) than they were with me.

The idea that our narcissistic parents will care about our kids more or treat them better than they did us is a form of wishful thinking that reflects underlying self-blame for our parents’ deficiencies. It is common for adult children to continue to carry the belief, consciously or unconsciously, that we are inherently unlovable and at fault for the ways our parents harmed us. We may think that our kids will elicit the love from our parents that we could not. Every child is lovable and deserving of nurturance and protection. People who are narcissistic do not care about or honor the humanity in anyone, and that won’t change for your kids any more than it did for you.

2. My parents have probably mellowed with age.

Some people mature with age, growing more self-aware, centered, accepting, and giving. This is rarely the case with the narcissistic personality. Instead, narcissists tend to react to the losses and vulnerabilities of aging by digging deeper into their willful denials and projections and stepping up their manipulation and victimhood.

3. The grandparent/grandchild relationship must be preserved.

Just as there are probably things our parents gave us that are worthwhile, there may be positive ways our parents can show up for our kids. But it is crucial to recognize that for narcissists, relationships are always transactional. Just as they do with you, your parents will take an interest in your kids for the status or service they offer them, end of story. And if they are doing childcare for you or helping financially, there will always be a price to pay, both for you and your kids.

4. My kids won’t be affected by the problems I have with my parents.

The main work of childhood is learning how to relate to others and developing the self, and kids take their cues from their parents and other older family members. If your children spend time with their grandparents, they will internalize their attitudes and behavior as well as the roles you and your partner play in the narcissistic family hierarchy. Your children will feel the unsafe, conditional nature of “love” from their grandparents, and it will play a role in shaping their identity.

5. I can protect my kids from my parents’ narcissism.

Many parents believe they can have their kids spend positive time with their narcissistic grandparents while also protecting them from potential negative effects. While we can support our children’s resilience and buffer some effects, the reality is that we can’t let in the good without the bad too. Narcissistic people are relationally antagonistic with everyone, treating others competitively, opportunistically, and without empathy, even—and often especially—children. If your narcissistic mother dismissed and pathologized your feelings, she will do the same thing to her grandchildren when they have needs or emotions that make her uncomfortable. If your narcissistic father fat-shamed you, he will fat-shame your children or enlist them in fat-shaming others.

Narcissism is a generational disorder with a traumatic impact on everyone exposed to it. Passive-aggressive or brashly domineering narcissists are bullies who get energy from devaluing and exploiting others. The effect they have on those around them is a destabilizing fear response—a form of hyperarousal, which may be subtle or intense, that interrupts healthy brain development and drains the body of its resources over time in devastating ways.

Common Things Narcissistic Grandparents Do

Narcissistic grandparents do all the neglectful and abusive things narcissists of any age do, but there are some patterns more specific to the role. Whether the following behaviors are blatant or subtle, directly stated or implied, the intent is the same:

  1. Judge your and/or your partner’s parenting
  2. Ignore your family values and rules
  3. Control with money—gifts, dinners, vacations, memberships, etc.
  4. Play favorites and scapegoats between siblings
  5. Play favorites and scapegoats between sibling families
  6. Put family members in either-or categories
  7. Weaponize food and gifts
  8. Triangulate sibling families
  9. Foster divisions between you and your kids
  10. Foster divisions between you and your partner
  11. Use you/your kids to show off to and/or gain sympathy from friends and acquaintances
  12. Control with promises and threats around inheritance

Some adult children of narcissistic parents limit or end contact to protect their children and themselves. Others find ways to structure and contain time between their children and parents that seem positive enough to justify the inevitable downsides. Either way, it is a loss for all involved. And that is the tragic reality of narcissism.

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