Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

(Part 1 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

There have been several comments about dealing with a narcissistic grandmother which concern the emotional hold the grandmother has got over one or more children and how to manage this. It has cropped up often enough for me to devote this post to the topic of emotional grooming of a grandchild by the disordered grandparent. I read what you have experienced in your families and it makes me feel sick. I can so easily see how it happens and how powerless you feel as a result. I am so grateful to those of you who have found ways to deal with this problem and for the experience and wisdom you have shared in responding to these comments.

This is one of those topics which are hard to tackle because we are culturally programmed to believe children SHOULD have relationships with their grandparents and that we are doing something very cruel by putting boundaries around this natural relationship. Standing against this cultural expectation is the power of a parent’s protective love for their child. We can overlook some behaviour when we are on the receiving end, but if our kids get involved then our primal defences rise up. Trust that prickly down the neck, hyper alert feeling you have. Your gut instinct has spotted there is something wrong about grandma’s behaviour. Do you feel queasy? Do your shoulders grip, jaw clench, eyes narrow, do you strain to hear what she is whispering in your kids ears? Your badass parenting instincts need some respect, you are not imagining things, something dodgy is going on.

Maybe you have let this instinct slip by and not paid attention to it and now things feel like they are pulling away from you and your NPD MIL has somehow got inside your child’s head. Bear in mind there has also a great deal of grooming of YOU going on in your partner’s family. You have not been allowed to see what is going on, you have been conditioned by your partner and their family to minimise the disordered grandmother’s behaviour. That makes it hard to even think of it as abusive. It makes it hard to trust your instincts when you nearest and dearest are brushing it off or ridiculing you. Grooming and abuse are a dirty words reserved for other, really damaged people, not anyone in your family right? Wrong. Take my word for it, even people in families with rampant sexual and physical abuse grow up thinking it was normal and not that bad. They really do. Remember you are entitled to your own interpretations of what is going on, you don’t have to follow your partner’s take on it. If you feel something is wrong about your MILs relationship with your child then it is.

So what is grooming by a grandparent?

The main take away point in this article is the following statement: any behaviour by an adult which makes a child loose the trust and loyalty they have for their parents is abusive.

Turning that on its head means healthy relationships with a child always respect the primary relationship they have with their parents and never get in the middle of that.

I hope this is common sense, blindingly obvious and goes without saying. Except that somehow NPD MIL is getting between you and your child. They have managed to wheedle themselves into the position where your child takes their side against you. Maybe they plead granny’s case, maybe they blame you for tension or arguments, they turn to grandma to get things you can’t or won’t give them. They cry because they can’t see grandma and it’s all your fault. You look on in horror as your dear child acts like granny’s flying monkey. How on Earth did this happen right under your nose? They have been groomed.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in the UK has this definition: grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purpose of abuse or exploitation. A lot of the time grooming of the extended family occurs also so defences are lowered and the abusive adult is trusted by the other adults in the child’s life. One step further is what is termed institutional grooming where the abusive person presents such a convincing face to institutions such as schools, doctors, social workers etc that these professional services believe their act and do not see the abuse.

The most pernicious and obvious grooming occurs with the intention of sexually abusing a child. A great deal of information on the internet about grooming pertains to this particular situation, including warnings about online grooming. This is not what we are dealing with in most cases of a narcissistic grandparent. Instead the grooming is for the purpose of using the child as a weapon against the parents, as a substitute of healthy adult relationships, as a prop for the narcissist’s egotistical needs. The abuse is emotional and psychological. This sort of grooming is also found in families where there is physical abuse or dependencies problems. It is the behaviour of a drug pusher trying to ensnare a new customer, of an abusive man or woman dazzling a potential new lover with attention, the religious fundamentalist recruiting youngsters to their cause, the con artist stealing money from an elderly person. It is the behaviour of a date rapist (see Anton de Beckers book “The Gift of Fear” for many examples of red-flag behaviours that abusers use early on, precursor signs). Grooming is not unique to the sexual abuse of children. Once we are comfortable with that idea it becomes easier to assess if our disordered MILs are acting in this way and what to do about it.

Grooming follows a set series of steps which enable the abuser to worm their way into someone’s trust and affections and then control them once there. Here’s a brief outline of the typical behaviours.

Stage 1: Target a child – size up the child’s vulnerabilities. That could be emotional neediness, lack of self-confidence, social isolation, distracted parents, financial strain in the family etc.

Stage 2: Gain their trust – Trust gaining behaviour on the surface appears nice, that is the point of it. It can involve offering advice or understanding, buying gifts, giving the child attention, using their professional position or reputation, taking them on trips, outings or holidays.

But hang on this is normal grandparent behaviour right? The damaging aspect of grooming is not building trust but the intention behind all that attention and what comes next. Next is divide and conquer in secrecy. Once a groomer has the child’s trust, once the child sees them as a friendly person who does nice things for them the next stage kicks in. The grooming person has to exert control over the child and to do this they use isolation, secrets, dependency, guilt and fear.

Stage 3: Fill a need – emotional abusers are very good at spotting the achilles heel of a target. This stage is where their influence starts to be applied behind the backs of the parents. Got a new baby sibling, never mind grandma is here. Mum and Dad didn’t get you that cool Christmas present, here’s one I bought earlier. No one to talk to? no one understands you like I do. The subtle message here is “I can provide for you in a way your parents can’t, lean on me”. She may be spoiling one child over and above their siblings and cousins and telling them how special they are to grandma. Along with this special level of attention is the equally subtle imposition of indebtedness to the grandmother.

Stage 4: Isolate the child – The grandmother wants babysitting, visiting, holidays, day trips, phone calls and other access to the child apart from the rest of the family. Parents can unwittingly enable this if for example the grandmother is teaching the kid to play the piano, takes them to a ball game, pays for their dance class and so gets to take the child to class. Parents are grateful for the opportunity for the child to do something they like. A family with a new baby, several children or a child with special needs will also really appreciate grandma taking one or more of the kids off their hands for a while which overrides any feelings that the attention may be getting a bit much.

Stage 5: The abuse – This is the emotional incest I’ve discussed before where the child is used as a substitute adult by the grandmother. The child listens to the grandmother’s problems, her bitching, her opinions on everyone and everything so they are groomed to be her obedient audience. It may be that the stealing of the child’s affections from the parents and the opportunity to berate the parents to the child is the goal, as punishment to the parents. It may be that the birth of a baby to the adult child of a narcissist causes a conflict in the narcissist’s perception of their status so they insist upon becoming the parent to the new baby even though it is not theirs. This is about control and maintenance of their position as absolute head of the family. There are a myriad of ways a narcissist can use a weaker and more easily manipulated person to their advantage, it all boils down to satisfying a need the grandmother has. It has bugger all to do with what is right for the child.

Stage 6: Maintaining control of the child – When the grandmother starts to tell the child how bad/cruel/hurtful/unreasonable the parents are and if only the child could speak up for them and then they do you know the child is being controlled. The child is being pressured to buy into the disordered grandparents world view. If the child has disclosed secrets to the grandmother then these can be used against them. The grandmother may lie and imply the child is not really loved by the parents. She may feed them a sob story about how she has no one else and if the child doesn’t pay them this attention they will leave granny bereft. They can imply the child is ungrateful for all the special attention they never asked for in the first place. The narcissistic grandmother will use the exact same manipulation she uses to control your partner and turn them on your child.

Now we know what it all looks like let’s consider the effect this has on the child and how you can fight back. Please don’t feel powerless, that is part of her game. Abusive manipulative people work in ways which always leave victims feeling they are stuck. You are not stuck. You are the parent and you have enormous untapped power there. She really is nothing, has nothing to offer your child that you can’t give in droves. Narcissists are emotionally bankrupt, their pot of giving is empty expect for false promises and material treats. The goal is to untangle your child before they realise this several years down the road and are hurt by it. The most damaging thing you can do in this situation is nothing, then you are betraying your child. You must protect your child from the harm being caused by an emotionally and psychologically damaging narcissist even if the child screams, cries, pleads, begs, blames and hates you in the short term. They have been brainwashed and you need to help them see what has really been going on. That’s what the next post is about.

Some further links on grooming:

A woman’s experience of her narcisistic mother and the effect on her child:

A summary of the steps which groomers take to ensnare a child:

The NSPCC’s information about child grooming:

Understanding grooming of adults, often by narcissists looking for a romantic relationship. This is similar to the honeymoon stage some people describe as having with their NPD MIL before she turns nasty:

Hoe grooming extends to families and institutions:

A research publication on the familial and institutional grooming by abusers:’Setting_’Em_Up’_Personal_Familial_and_Institutional_Grooming_in_the_Sexual_Abuse_of_Children

A brief overview of grooming by personality disordered people :


Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

23 responses to “Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

  1. Al

    Thank you for writing this, FCW. Another Bullseye. I have sensed this happening to my child. We (hubby and I) joke about it: grandma magic we call it. Detoxification is the term we use for what we need to do to the kid the week after she leaves. But I can only say these words in jest. If I were to be say this seriously, hubby and I would have a conflict. And that is how she wins – one conflict at a time.

    • Your husband sees it well enough to give it a name but won’t address it?! Good grief! these men need dragging into the harsh light of reality. She doesn’t actually win when you fight, she wins when you let it go on unchallenged. What’s worse is not challenging your husband will steadily erode your relationship in just the way you fear conflict will as you will loose respect for him and your own self worth. Please do think about how to raise this concern or any other concerns with your partner. If you can’t talk to him about things which bother you then your relationship has weaknesses that go well beyond NPD MIL’s behaviours. One effect that NPD mother’s have on their kids is to instil a great fear of conflict and anger as they like to go unchallenged and act as the supreme authority. This can be successfully dealt with but your husband needs to be opened up little by little to what he is letting happen.

    • Oh! My kids need a grandma detox too. My daughter goes absolutely loopy when she’s around narc mil. To the extent that now daughter is a bit older she can articulate it. She often says “grandma makes my brain feel confused.” I am always saying no to her spending time with mil but my husband, his weakness is trying to see the best in people and he despairs at the notion of going no contact.

  2. BT

    FCW…another great piece and timely for something that just happened to my 7yr old. My husband and daughter were at a family party. I didn’t go because I don’t enjoy NMIL’s company and low contact/no contact is where my relationship with her currently stands. When my daughter came home with a goody bag, I didn’t mind that because all of the kids at the party got one. However, my daughter proceeded to tell me that she got an extra coloring book from NMIL because daughter was helpful at the party, but NMIL specifically told daughter not to tell anyone because NMIL didn’t want to make the other kids upset (this is what NMIL told my daughter!!!!). The fact that NMIL asked my daughter not to tell anyone about it made alarm bells go off for me. This just felt like grooming and testing my daughter to see if she would keep secrets. I asked my husband to tell his mom (my NMIL) that this was inappropriate. He said he would, but hasn’t yet. He didn’t see it as a big deal which is making me doubt myself. This type of reaction from my husband once led me to doubt myself in the past which led to our relationship getting to a really bad place a few years back. I don’t want that to happen again. I want to learn from my mistakes. I guess I’m looking for validation that I’m not crazy in regards to this situation. Thank you for listening (er…reading my post).

    • Hi BT. If it feels wrong to you go with it. You are the mum, you get to set the rules. I think you are right to pull up the phrasing of what your MIL said to your daughter. It is one thing to say grandma got you a special gift but I don’t have one for every child here so go put it away for later and for the grandma to say keep it a secret or don’t tell anyone.

      You are being perfectly reasonable to ask that any adult in contact with your child doesn’t ask them to keep secrets or “not tell”. Any reasonable adult when asked to do this would immediately agree as they would recognise the potential problem with such a comment. It would also be interesting to know what “helpful at the party” meant exactly. Did that mean doing what grandma wanted? Spending time with grandma? What behaviour is actually getting rewarded with special gifts? Were other children at the party also her grandchildren and is your daughter getting singled out as a favourite? In which case that is grooming I’m afraid.

  3. Thank you for these posts. My MIL is a narcissist and we are expecting her first grandchild. I’ve been very anxious about preparing myself mentally and protecting our future child from whatever new mind games NMIL will have in store. I’m only in my 2nd trimester and she’s already sent us multiple care packages filled with toys! Thankfully DH and I are on the same page when it comes to her, but these posts are a great heads up!

  4. crochetlady

    My (strongly suspected) NMIL tried to do this once.

    She is a very devoutly religious person. We do not practice any religion. We allow my children to attend church with her when they visit, but do not force them to go. The choice is theirs.

    While in town for BIL’s wedding on a Sunday morning she asked my girls if they were going to go to church with her. I was in another room and could hear but not see them. When they declined she said, “If your mother really loved you she would make you go to church.”

    Before I could come out of my skin and leap through the wall my 5 year old said, “No grandma. If you really loved me you wouldn’t say bad things about my mom.”

    How bad do you have to be for a kindergartener to see through you?

  5. This is very helpful. My family of origin is by no means perfect, but I had wonderful grandparents and my own parents are doing a great job as grandparents. When my father paid for my kids’ swimming lessons, it was purely that. He is well off these days, compared to when I was a kid, and he so he tries to help us do the things he wishes he could’ve done when I was a kid. I just wasn’t prepared for how different my in laws would be but early on I noticed they’d say things to my kids like, “Your mummy is very silly,” and just stuff like that, undermining my ‘authority’ (for want of a better term) as a parent and going so far as to buy books for me on how to be a parent because I wasn’t getting it right from their perspective (the religion-heavy books involving descriptions on how to, basically, ‘discipline’ kids in a fashion that is illegal in our part of Australia). But after I told them a few times that they were to stop criticising me to my children, they backed off a bit. I sometimes wonder why I put up with their controlling crap for so long. They even went as far as convincing my husband to enrol our kids in the strict religious school that mil worked in, despite my husband being one of the many traumatised ex-students with not a shred of happy memories about it. It was a terrifying day when my son was 11 and we finally told mil that in light of the bullying and psychological harm my 9 year old daughter experienced in that travesty of an education, we had ended their enrolment. Then it was a year of hearing mil despairing that she couldn’t see the grandkids every day at work. She’d phrase it in the sense of how her own emotional stability was in jeopardy because my son wasn’t there to prop her up and I often found myself talking to my son about how grandma’s emotions were not his responsibility. And I don’t feel guilty about it in the slightest, because I see how happy my kids are in their new “godless” schools – they’re like different people.

    PS I should add that I went to a different type of religious school – I’m not trying to negatively generalise about people of faith (it’s very common in Australia to attend religious schools, not sure what it’s like in other countries) and I had a predominantly positive experience of education – not perfect, but good. I mistakenly thought the mil’s school would be similarly good, and that is partly why I agreed to my children enrolling there. Not that I was given much choice. It seems to me that decision was made behind my back, by my husband and his parents. And yet it was my own non-religious parents bailing us out every time we couldn’t pay the fees, despite their distaste for what they assumed was my freely chosen school for my kids. Is it a narc thing to be terrible at handling money?!

  6. mandy

    It pains me to say that im at the other end of this story, My children were groomed over several years. My mother abducted them when I was going through a financial crisis. I never knew she broke any laws, I never knew my family could be prosecuted for abetting, I never knew she had groomed them and the extent she did that.
    I had a breakdown, my youngest was still at school.
    The consultant wrote that I had ‘placed them’ with their grandmother even tho I told him she had stole them and described a textbook abduction.
    Another consultant wrote that my children left because a man was moving in.
    Both are total lies.
    I have been disenfranchised and treated with disdain because Ive been painted as a terrible mother.
    Its now 20 years since my two babies left laughing and smiling for their unexpected ‘two week holiday’
    She took them 135 miles away and i was penniless.
    6 years ago I happened to watch the news about abduction, I looked up the definition, then grandparents rights and then grooming.
    The more I learned the more terrible I felt. Why didn’t anyone else notice a crime had took place. I had told my single parent friends and they just said don’t worry mandy, they’ll come back.
    time and again i had poured my heart out to the mental health services to be fobbed off with pills, nodding dogs, anger management and even tapping, but never a call to the police.
    I found out about 5 years ago what had been written in my medical records,
    The consultant wrote that I had ‘placed them’ with their grandmother even tho I told him she had stole them and described a textbook abduction.
    Another consultant wrote that my children left because a man was moving in.
    Both are total lies and i have complained whole heartedly but they either wont or dare not listen to the truth.
    I have been disenfranchised and treated with disdain because Ive been painted as a terrible mother.
    Its now 20 years since my two babies left laughing and smiling for their unexpected ‘two week holiday’
    She took them 135 miles away and i was penniless.

    My mother ensured I couldn’t get near any other members of the family.
    so I don’t have any family or friends or children.
    I know where they are but I cant go near them and its been a living nightmare trying to get help all these years and being tarred and feathered by the nhs and my family.
    Im now 61 and racked with a grief no one will acknowledge, a chronic sorrow which bores through my soul.
    My mother died being loved by my daughters, i will die being hated and thought of as a drama queen.
    can anyone tell me what i have to live for???
    ive tried to move on but its impossible. I can barely move outside my home because i hate being part of this world.

    • Kate

      Your case is more dramatic and criminal than mine, but I think I do understand, at least in part. My mother and my husband (two Narcissists — I married my mother the first time) spent years slandering me to my children behind my back. I was too affected by the abuse from both of them to recognize what was going on; although I knew something was “not right.” So — like you — here I am today — 70 years old, with no relationship with my two oldest girls. The middle one will roll her eyes and call me a drama queen when I make even the blandest remark. My youngest, who also has a personality disorder, lives with me — she has told me some of the destructive things said about me behind my back when they were growing up. So all I can offer is sympathy. For myself, I am a Christian and that is what I have to live for.

  7. Hi there

    Your blog is incredible and so informative. I could really use your help with my situation.

    My grandmother definitely has many of the traits you have described in your blog. I have been experiencing this grooming my entire life. My parents have sadly both passed away, my dad when I was 16 and my mom when I was 19, and most my family live far away. I have a younger brother who has a problem with drugs.

    When my mom died I took responsibility of my 16 year old brother and her estate. I was in university at the time and had to manage my degree as well. I have also been helping my grandmother with her email correspondence, paperwork and basically been her rock through my mother’s passing and well beyond it. My mother was my grandmother’s daughter in law and she complained about my mother while she was alive.

    My grandmother constantly makes me feel responsible for her and my grandfathers well-being as well as my brothers. She is demanding of my attention and demands favours from me. If I am unable to help she makes me feel guilty.

    I also have a boyfriend of 7 years and she is constantly pushing the idea that my boyfriend will never marry me. She also dislikes and badmouths anyone I am close to outside of her and my grandfather.

    I recently became ill and as I am unemployed I needed to ask for her help financially. The last few months have been absolute hell. My brother recently went into rehab and she is reluctantly looking after his son and finances. She is constantly demanding my help with things but knows that I am unwell and unable to fulfil all her demands. I do try to help as much as I can but I do need time to handle myself and get better so that I can get a job and become financially independent again.

    I have no idea what to do and feel terribly trapped and depressed. I am 24 and need to start having my own life but it seems impossible at this stage.

    I would appreciate any advice on the subject.

    Kindest Regards

  8. Felicity

    Would love to speak to you about this Your article basically summed up my childhood until the day my granny died in 2005. It literally felt like I was reading exactly what happened to my family.

  9. Natalie

    This article is so true. I am at the stage of just realizing that I grew up with a narcissistic mother. As a child I knew something was not right, but I could not put my finger on it. I blamed myself for nearly 30 years. In and out of psychologist who all stated that it was not me – it was my mother. They all said that her behavior was not right and I was asked if she was a narccisist. I always answered No because I did not know what it meant and when I did; I did not want to believe that she did not care for me.I have several children and I have never been able to control any aspect of their lives. She does and she puts me down so much that my children now think I am a joke. It is becoming over bearing and it is now at breaking point.
    Thank you for this article

    • It can take a long time to realise the truth about an abusive childhood and narcissistic mothers do abuse their children emotionally and verbally. I read research that stated it take 15-30 years from the last incident of abuse before a person can fully start addressing the issue which is why so many people aged 35-50 find themselves dealing with their childhood legacies. Don’t blame yourself for that. I couldn’t talk about my father’s abusive behaviour, drink problem and psychological difficulties until after my own children were born. Even though I always knew something was wrong about how he acted I couldn’t use the word “abuse” until my late 30s. This is a man who thought dragging small children out to the garden while screaming threats in their face and flinging them on the grass was suitable punishment for dropping gravy on the tablecloth. Seriously it took until I was 37 to call that child abuse.

      Becoming aware and learning the words to describe your experiences is a necessary and slow process. You will also be able to regain your power and step into a more productive parenting relationship with your children. If you can now sit down with a therapist and move forward with your recovery maybe things will go faster and more effectively for you. Becoming aware is half the battle. Keep going.

  10. Pingback: I danni psicologici prodotti da nonni narcisisti: il grooming parentale, parte I – L'arte di salvarsi

  11. Ariel

    My mother did this with all 3 of my kids. Took my first daughter and called me crazy. Then caused my divorce and helped my ex win full custody of my youngest 2 by saying I needed supervised visits. She is dead now n I am left with a trust fund controlled by my siblings.

  12. Michele

    I identify with this on so many levels. It happened to me and now it’s happening to my daughter. So glad I found this article. It was very eye opening.

  13. Jennifer Thomas

    I’m going through this and I feel like I’m crumbling. I’m so heartbroken and devastated and I don’t know if I have the strength to battle this anymore.

  14. michellepoint1777

    This article has blown my mind. I am currently living a nightmare because of my narcissistic mother. She has placed herself head of family, stolen all grandchildren by turning every member of family against me. All lies and horrible things that I can barely function. No one believes me, no one will help me and no one will even tell me why. Please help me through this. I don’t want to post my email address here. Could you please reply with contact info of someone I can reach out to?

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