Abusive behaviour towards children takes one of several forms; physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. It is very rare for a grandmother to sexually abuse her grandchildren. A narcissist is far more likely to be emotionally abusive or neglectful but physical abuse and cruelty can also occur.
I’ve described the tendency for NPD MILs to demonstrate favouritism towards their children and grandchildren. This is a form of emotional abuse. It compares and excludes and thus implies inferiority or flaw in the excluded. Such conditional affection is typical. Demonstrations of love by an NPD sufferer really depend on what you can do for them. Sadly they often decide that the best thing one grandchild or set of grandchildren can do is provide them with an archetypal “bad” family for them to dump all their negative emotions on. Psychologists call this splitting. The damaged personality of your MIL is unable to contain good and bad and all shades in between in their mind at once so all the good gets projected onto one child or grandchild and all the bad onto the other. That way they enact their own internal split between the false perfect self they display to the world and the deeper flawed self they are so disgusted and ashamed of.
If your spouse was the disfavoured child when small, seeing this repeated in their own children can be incredibly hurtful. It is baffling as it is wounding to see one new little helpless baby being ignored while the older child is doted on or vice versa. It can be just the smallest thing that triggers the rejection. In the case of our children the eldest had blonde hair and thus reminded MIL of herself and her own children, the youngest had brown hair when born and so looked like me and was rejected. There is always some justification in the MIL’s mind for the favouritism, the rejected child did something to deserve it.
Other emotionally abusive behaviours towards grandchildren include name calling including unkind nicknames, belittling, undermining, unfairly comparing siblings or cousins, criticism, mockery, withdrawing affection, sulking, passive-aggressive acts like “forgetting” a birthday, withholding praise or compliments, denigrating parents or friends.
I think one of the most insidious things a MIL can do is undermine parental authority thus creating confusion in the child’s mind as to how their parents’ rules should be viewed. Narcissists think they know best and my MIL positively enjoys feeling she has got one over on an authority of some kind. Combine these two and you can see how she is never going to accept our parental authority over our children. If you say bed at 7pm and grandma who is babysitting cheekily ignores this, whispers to the child how this is their little secret and sends them to bed at 8.30pm you have one confused, guilty and manipulated child.
Any conversation with a relative where a child is pressed to keep a secret is abusive in my opinion. I try to use the word surprise rather than secret when talking about birthday presents or plans. A surprise is something that is kept quiet for a while before being revealed, a secret is something you never tell to anyone. Children should not be asked to keep secrets from their parents by anyone. This interaction is abusive. By taking a child into their confidence an NPD MIL elevates them to equal status, something that should not happen because they are not intellectually or emotionally the equal of an adult. Then using their status as an adult relative they coerce silence and cooperation. The only way people can or should keep a secret is if they are equals and they do so through mutual consent. Children cannot do this. If your child tells you “grandma says it’s a secret” or similar you need to take action. This is a red warning flag of further manipulation and emotional abuse.
Even normal conversation can result in the child being used as a go-between “Little Jenny, will Mummy let you have a biscuit?”, “Little Johnny wants to go to the park, don’t you?” as people with personality disorders struggle with direct communication. Watch closely how your NPD MIL phrases things, children can be made to feel they have to serve their grandmother’s needs, “Grandma is sad, give me a cuddle”, “I want to read you a story, come and sit with me”. Manipulation at its heart is the use of covert ways to get someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Some NPD MILs will goad a child into doing something wrong, “go on take the biscuit, no one is looking” a then go and tell on the child, watch them get told off and delight in rescuing the child from the nasty mum or dad who is disciplining them. They have little empathy and play with people creating discord and antagonism and they enjoy doing this.
My MIL views her grandchildren as treats to be wheeled out for her enjoyment. On one of her birthdays she wanted our two year old to be delivered to her to be taken out all day as MIL’s birthday treat. I said no. Children are not objects to be ordered like a new toy, played with then sent away when bored. They are little people. Narcissistic MILs will not appreciate this fact.
I have not experienced my MIL being physically abusive or hurting our children. She has done that to my husband under the guise of discipline by forcing him to eat pureed food from the meal before that he hadn’t finished, or “jokes” like spraying him with cold water from a hose repeatedly until he ran away down the street and also through outright neglect by leaving him unattended and uncovered on a beach for so long he had second degree sunburn. I can make sure this doesn’t happen, she does not have contact with our children without myself or my husband being there. She cannot slap, poke, pinch, shove or otherwise interfere with them under our noses.
The first and only time I left my MIL to babysit was in her own house with our then just two-year-old while my husband and I went to the movies. We arrived to stay for a few days and found the front room filled with dozens of toys, books, colouring pens, paper and thirteen jigsaw puzzles piled up in boxes on the floor. She didn’t think this was enough however and said she would go up into the loft and get yet more down. Now this was unnecessary and since our daughter had worked out how to climb up loft ladders we said we’d prefer if MIL didn’t do that. While we were out this instruction was ignored.
I have no idea what my very overweight and arthritic MIL did with our daughter while she waddled into the spare bedroom to set up the wobbly stepladder she uses to squeeze herself through the loft hatch. MIL’s house has never been childproofed with safety catches and poisons out the way, we arrived one day to find she had taken up the carpets and left all the carpet grip exposed for the baby to crawl over. Our daughter was either left alone out of sight and sound of her grandmother who risked knocking the ladder away from the hatch, getting stuck or falling, or she took the toddler into the loft with her, despite being sufficiently incapacitated that she struggles to get herself up from the floor. All for some paltry, plastic toy. Both of these scenarios would have exposed our small child to a significant risk that MIL failed to recognise. If our childminder had done this while caring for our daughter I would have complained, I would never leave a friend’s child unattended out of sight and sound and go rummaging around in our loft if I were babysitting. Would you?
Then to run salt in the wound she bragged about having done this in a phone conversation with my mother. She bragged that my husband had been upset when he found out that she had done exactly what he advised her not to. It was funny to her and worthy of a boast to show how she wasn’t ordered around by anyone. My mother was sufficiently disturbed by this to ring me and ask if I knew that MIL had left our child unattended while supposedly babysitting.
Narcissists overestimate their capabilities and this includes their physical abilities. They think they can manage physical feats and take risks that you or I would think twice over. MIL has rung us to say how she has been up a ladder chopping trees with a chainsaw or walking along the sea wall while huge waves are crashing around her. She does not see herself as nearly seventy, obese and creaking at the seams. In her mind she is fit, strong, attractive and capable and how dare we suggest otherwise. Narcissists think they are omniscient so don’t need to be told to keep their eyes open for cars or dogs loose off their leads when out with small children, they just know, right? This is something that makes a narcissist dangerous when around children. They do not correctly assess their own capabilities, they think they know best and so they are poor at determining risk and acting sensibly to minimise that risk. I cannot trust MIL with our kids and she hasn’t babysat them again. She never will.
If you have an NPD MIL your children will be in a relationship with a woman who has a track record of harming people close to her. Just read that through again to make sure you have grasped the full importance of that sentence. Your MIL is a bitch and you know it. She will be a bitch to your kids, it is simply a matter of time. She will make them feel bad, she will manipulate them and she will do these things to you in front of them.
Unless you have some very firm boundaries in place they will see her do this and think that either it is OK to treat others that way or that the best way of dealing with hurtful behaviour is to meekly take it. Your reaction to her abusive behaviour potentially more damaging than the behaviour itself as your relationship to your kids is much closer. They will follow your example, not just with her but into all relationships with difficult people. This includes school bullies, boyfriends or girlfriends as teens, work colleagues, their boss, their spouse.
So how should you intervene to ensure as little harm as possible comes to your children if you decide it is worth them having contact with their grandmother? Managing the narcissistic grandmother is the topic of the next post.