Thursday, May 1, 2014

Abusive/Neglectful Parents Become Doting Grandparents

On my Psychology Today blog on June 22, 2011, I re-posted an entry about the huge increase in the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren since 1990, a trend which is continuing. Some of this is due to economic factors and military deployments, but in many cases, the “missing” parental generation consists of deadbeat parents who are addicts or alcoholics, those who exhibit signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD), or antisocial types who end up in jail.

I discussed how, in my opinion, the grandchildren are being – covertly - given up to the grandparents as “gifts,” since the grandparents seem to exhibit a pathological need to continue to take care of children – even as they complain bitterly about how much they dislike having to do so.

A completely different pattern of relationships between grandchildren and grandparents that I have been seeing more and more lately is the subject of today’s post: Parents who had been neglectful, abusive, generally unloving, or distancing towards their own children when those children were growing up seem to have a personality transplant when those children themselves have kids.

They begin to dote on the grandchildren. They are warm and generous to them and have a very close and loving relationship with them. They tell them how much they love them, buy them things, and take them to various fun activities on weekends. In return, their grandchildren adore them, and usually think that their own parents must have been treated similarly when growing up by these wonderful, upstanding people. If the parents tell them differently, they may find it extremely hard if not impossible to believe.

Such grandparents are giving the grandchildren everything that they did not give to their own children when their children were growing up.

Imagine for a moment that you are the parent in the middle generation. Can you imagine how this would feel?  On one hand, you know that you should be happy that your parents have apparently reformed their ways, and that your own children are getting from them all the things that you missed. On the other hand, however, your kids are getting from your parents everything that you wished you had received from them. You probably do not want to appear to be jealous of your own children, but why didn't you get that?

What are you? The proverbial chopped liver? These contradictory feelings really can do a number on your head. Was it all your fault that you were treated badly? What have your kids got that you don’t?

When patients in this predicament challenge their parents on this issue, the parents tend to get defensive or deny that there has been any sort of double standard at all. One such grandparent recently replied, "You already knew I love you!  Why should I have had to tell you that?"

So what might be happening here? My theory would predict that, as the grandparents are getting older, they are mellowing out, as people with personality disorders often (but hardly always) do. Their own parents are often dying off as well, and are no longer feeding into their destructive behavior. So they start to have the relationship with their grandchildren that they might have preferred, had the family dynamics been different, to have had with their own kids.

If and when their children confront them on the change, they go into attack or denial mode because down deep they feel horribly guilty and ashamed about their own behavior when their children were growing up. In fact, they are indirectly trying to atone for their sins with the grandkids. However, because they are guilty and ashamed of how they treated their own kids, they can’t face them, and push them away, similarly to the way other parents push their children away described in my post, Hatefulness as a Gift of Love.


  1. My mother did well with her granddaughter until the granddaughter became an adult. Then, blammo, my mother started accusing her of not appreciating her enough and staging scenes. Now the granddaughter understands our problems with my mother.

  2. I can see this happening with one of my aunts. My aunt didn't have much to do with her own children/my cousins while they were growing up. Once my one cousin had a daughter, my aunt became very involved with this grandchild, giving her all the undivided attention and material possessions in the world. I don't know if this is the right way to describe this but I often get the impression that my aunt is trying to overcompensate with this granddaughter in a way.

  3. ....*sigh* I want the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind option.

    As always David, you have your finger on the zombie parents pulse..

  4. Ha ha ha. I cut my neglectful parents off almost completely. They are allowed to see my daughter briefly under my supervision. And I also explained to my daughter - in a sugarcoated way - that they aren't nice people to be around.

    I had neglectful parents, but I am overcoming the past. Keeping them out of my life and my child's has made me a better person and a better parent. Sorry old heads, but you can't compensate for your mistakes. You lose.

    1. I completely agree! Being a grandparent is not a second chance at being a parent. If you feel guilty about how you treated your children that needs too be addressed directly with them. Trying to make up for it by spoiling grandchildren is passive aggressive and not really the best thing for anyone including the grandkids. Why should I hand my kids over to someone who miss treated me, that makes no sense?

  5. This is my in laws to a tee. It was very hard for me to trust them with my daughter, and they live close by and were itching to get her alone from the time she was an infant (which in itself put me on the defensive). I myself had never seen them act badly, they've never been anything but loving and generous, but they were pretty horrible and abusive parents to my husband. Ironically, my husband was trusting of them from the beginning, and pressured me to give them more allowances, which caused a lot of tension between us and many fights. It finally came down to observing the visits they spent with her, and her behavior before and after each "alone" visit (and her increasing awareness and communication skills) and seeing her happy and excited to see them every time, that something clicked and I felt I could trust them for the long haul. It's still hard for me to accept what they put my husband through, but I can appreciate that they have changed and for that I am grateful. It is a nice thing for my daughter to have doting grandparents in her life.

  6. I grew up with the spoiling grandparents who were abusive to my mom and aunts and uncles. I denied the horrible truth because it did seem impossible. However, in overcoming my own childhood sexual abuse by my cousin, who's father sexually abused my mother, I had to accept that my aunt's claims of sexual abuse by her father, my doting grandfather, was true. I am angry I was allowed around them and I feel hatred for my grandparents for being so duplicitous. I feel deceived. My mom can't let them go and neither can my aunts. Although, my one aunt recently died from a drug overdose while living under their roof. My grandparents are truly awful as they guilt people in the family to take care of them. I hate my grandpa for molesting his daughter. I confronted my grandparents last march and disowned them. I went to my aunts funeral and to my grandparents house afterwards, which I regret.