As with other forms of abuse, the desire for power and control is the root of verbal aggression. Those who are verbally abusive intend to intimidate you and diminish your self-esteem. Even grandparents, who are expected to be warm and loving, are capable of verbal cruelty. Carefully preparing ahead of time for interactions with abusive grandparents can minimize emotional harm caused by the experience.
Refrain, as much as possible, from dealing with your grandparents. While there may be obligatory family functions you must attend and visits you might be expected to make, keeping contact with them to a bare minimum will save you some undeserved mental anguish. Also, consider the use of telephone contact and mail in order to maintain distance. Abusive people generally do not take responsibility for their behavior; unfortunately, keeping a close relationship in the hope it will improve is not likely to be beneficial.
Consider your Boundaries
Think about what you will and will not tolerate prior to any potential verbal altercation. For instance, you may be able to handle criticisms of your appearance, but refuse to entertain insults regarding your parenting abilities. You may be willing to meet them for dinner in a public setting, but not in the privacy of your home or theirs. Having a clear sense of your boundaries ahead of time will help you know when and how to react to violations of them.
Responding to the Abuse
Prepare a script prior to an anticipated verbal exchange. Use clear and direct language. Own your feelings by telling your grandparents how their behavior affects you. Let them know how you will respond to future verbal abuse. For example, you might warn them that if they continue to refer to your children as "fat" or your parenting as "lazy," contact between you will be terminated. Remember that, although elders should generally be afforded respect, it is not selfish or disrespectful of you to refuse to be mistreated.
If the verbal abuse continues -- even after you have firmly made your boundaries and the ramifications for violating them known -- it may be necessary to end your relationship with your grandparents. If you do not follow through with your stated repercussions, your grandparents may continue their abuse or ignore future warnings. You, in turn, will receive the message that your boundaries don't matter and your sense of self will be diminished.
Jill Avery-Stoss is a graduate of Penn State University and a writer and editor based in northeast Pennsylvania. Having spent more than a decade working with victims of sexual and domestic violence, she specializes in writing about women's issues, with emphasis on families and relationships.