“Little Red Riding Hood”, or “The False Grandmother”

The Hidden Role of Maternal Figures in Incestuous Child Sexual Abuse Scenarios

The origins of Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale about a child’s unfortunate encounter with a big bad wolf while visiting her grandmother, is traceable to various folk tales under different titles back to the tenth century. One from Italy was called “La Finta Nonna”, or “The False Grandmother”. Here I discuss actual grandmothers, as primary caregivers, that behave like ‘false grandmothers’. These are not wolves dressed up and disguised as grandmas as in Little Red Riding Hood, but ‘big bad’ grandmothers disguised as the quaint “grandmother” caricature. It is this peculiar yet well-concealed role (grand) maternal figures potentially play within incestuous family systems that is of key clinical relevance here.

That grandmothers, consciously or unconsciously, fail to protect their young seems preposterous. True grandmothers, according to society, are not expected to behave like that. We need to assume she’ll look after you. But will she? Can it be that “false grandmothers” actually do exist beyond this historical fairytale? A question springs to mind: why would maternal figures ever fail to protect children in the context of, say, male-perpetrated child sexual abuse?

To my knowledge, there are no specific dynamics that uniquely apply to the grandmother/grandchild relationship in the child sexual abuse context. Yet such victimised grandchildren appear in my clinical practice as adults. Just as we tend to overlook women and focus on male perpetrators of crimes against children (for good statistical reasons), in the context of women we tend to overlook the role of grandmother. This is probably because of the kindly, saintly caricature of grandmothers as it extends to the third generation, i.e., the sexual abuse of grandchildren.

It has been known for decades that grandparent incest is highly damaging (e.g., see Goodwin, Cormier & Owen, 1983). We also know that within marital relationships, maternal figures maybe too frightened to leave their paedophile husbands risking the appearance of being complicit (Anderson & Saunders, 2003). Whatever the case might be, there is a need to shed light on the quite confronting scenario of grandmothers, who can but do not, protect their grandchild from their husbands’ transgressions against their own grandchildren.

In “The Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse & the Incestuous Family”, Courtois (2010) applies a feminist-based, trauma-referenced, relational-model lens to incorporate attachment, developmental and loss issues in incestuous child sexual abuse scenarios. She spells out many factors that interact to create an ideal psycho-social environment for male perpetrators of sexual abuse to put into action their paedophilia tendencies, enabled by the dominant maternal figure. In this case, due to circumstances in contemporary society where one or both parents are busy with work, the dominant maternal figure is increasingly the grandmother (Settles, et al., 2009). Unlike in Little Red Riding Hood, the grandchild no longer “visits” grandma because grandma may be their primary caregiver.

Broadly, Courtois discusses three common behaviours that potentially apply either independently or in combination, directly or indirectly, to these (grand) maternal figure types:

  • becoming an accomplice by knowing about the abuse all along, i.e., noticing sexual abuse as it is happening yet doing nothing, or even encouraging or participating in it by being a willing (often passive) participant;
  • subtly or perhaps blatantly defending the grandfather-perpetrator; or
  • remaining silently complicit, i.e., going ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’ toward what they might hear the child say or not say, or casting an unsuspecting eye toward a child’s fearful or acting-out behaviours.

For instance, in my clinical practice, one confused and highly distressed survivor said: “as a child I was touched inappropriately by a family member. Grandma watched”. Yet another recalled their grandmother standing by the doorway of the bedroom and, like a voyeur, passively participating by watching the sexual abuse of that person as a four-year old. She did not intervene despite it being safe to do so.

So why would a grandmother whose husband sexually abuses child family members plead ignorance, turn a blind eye, or go so far as to deny what occurs right beneath their nose? I’ve taken Courtois’ ideas (see p.58–92) and modified them to apply to this vexing scenario. I list several factors, which may or may not apply in every case, below.

Fall out from unresolved childhood traumas: Due to the (grand) maternal figure’s own unresolved, intractable childhood trauma, abuse history and resultant distress, they might normalise or not notice sexual abuse by grandfather-perpetrators even as it occurs within plain sight.

Disorganised attachment and dissociative response patterns: Maternal figures noticing abusive behaviours, and randomly protecting the child one moment but not at another moment, are examples of disorganised attachment and dissociative response patterns. One survivor spoke of a dark stormy evening when grandmother quietly carried the kitchen knives outside their house, tip-toeing, because she feared, in the eyes of my patient, the worst if her husband, the paedophile, got into another rage. But the next day, when the grandfather-perpetrator was gone, she threatened to disown or abandon the grandchild. The resulting maternal neglect, made up of a combination of dissociation and a history of disorganised attachment, can also be voiced in flippant lines, such as “he wouldn’t do that to his own grandchildren” or “oh he’s too old now”. Such a toxic maternal dynamic probably occurred in the previous generation only to be subsequently transmitted. Even years later after the sexual abuse secret was out, one adult survivor spoke of how grandma urged them to “forgive him” or minimised the trauma by saying, “you know what he’s like”. Such vocalised thoughts represent (intergenerational) mechanisms which work together as a dynamic to overlook the sexual abuse.

Rationalising, denying and externalising to avoid disclosure: Some grandmothers might fear disclosure as they believe their family might not want to hear the truth. So they deny by hiding the truth (e.g., “we can’t believe that this has happened”) or by rationalising, i.e., blaming it on something external, e.g., on addiction or alcoholism. This type of externalising is convincing because alcohol may indeed be implicated as it can override inhibitions in some paedophiles who might otherwise not molest. But the reasons for child sexual abuse within incestuous families cannot be justified or rationalised as originating from external factors.

Divided loyalty: The sexually abused child often sacrifices him- or herself by giving themselves up to the abuse. Their fear of hurting their parent’s relationship to their own parents (i.e., the grandfather-perpetrator and any other family member, knowingly or unknowingly, acting as accessories) is often partly why survivors don’t disclose or do so only many years later. They simply do not want to cause family friction by, seemingly, choosing sides. For example, when a mentally disturbed grandmother is the main attachment figure for a vulnerable child traumatic bonding might occur. Grandma might therefore have the distinct power to create, or at the very least encourage, divided loyalty. This mechanism reinforces the destructive silence while deepening the child’s internal conflict. The grandmother might prefer, consciously or unconsciously, to sacrifice her grandchild than to blow the whistle on the grandfather-perpetrator. Such a grandmother might use bribes, e.g., tasty dinners, threats or other enticements all ultimately aimed at coercion.

Axioms such as ‘blood is thicker than water’ sometimes facilitate the valuing of “family” as being all important, thus empowering potential perpetrators. Sticking to traditional beliefs above all else fires up conflicted loyalties, making it that much easier for grandfather-perpetrators to maintain ongoing abuse. In the therapy hour, some of my patients retrospectively report hearing various expressions made by their grandmothers long after the abuse ended, and after such victim-survivors have entered adulthood. These effectively functioned to prolong or cover up the early abuse. These messages may have been verbally or non-verbally communicated during the survivor’s earlier life or during their adulthood:

  • “put it aside for the sake of the family”
  • “we are the grandparents, we want to see our grandchildren”
  • “oh, we missed you… we’ve been so concerned that we’d never see you again”

Such phrases produces dissonance in the victim-survivor’s mind and are often aimed at entrapment, i.e., to get the sexually abused child or adult-child to retract (Summit,1983).

The triumph of grumpiness: It is not uncommon for a grandfather to be known as ‘grumpy’ while the grandmother shuffles around downplaying, tolerating, even catering to such grumpiness and demanding the same of others. A grandfather-perpetrator’s anger might be about his inability to accept his ageing or his resentment at perceived derogatory ‘old man’ stereotypes. Courtois notes that wrongly assigning stereotype roles such as ‘babysitter’ to a potential perpetrator may precipitate incest. She adds that grandfather-perpetrators appear to be motivated by a number of psycho-social factors rather than by senility, such as loneliness, low self esteem, hangups about their sexual potency and desirability, etc. Such factors contribute to the ongoing sexual abuse of their grandchild. But once the dark secret is disclosed, the (grand) maternal figure, if it goes against her traditional beliefs, may refuse to believe it happened, plead total ignorance or deny it in some other implausible way. Sadly, it may even be too late to educate certain maternal figures within incestuous family systems in ways of suspecting, weighing up the evidence, etc., to enhance maternal protection (Plummer, 2006).

Normalising the abnormal: Sexual offending by the elderly has been historically associated more with personality factors than mental illness or organic brain disease (Fazel, Hope, O’Donnell & Jacoby, 2002). However, if seriously mentally ill, any grandparent would likely be too psycho-emotionally absent to pay attention to or care for a child’s safety needs (Misrachi, 2012). Failing to check a suspect via, for example, earlier observations, trusting one’s instinct or experiences, etc., can in part set the scene for sexual abuse. Courtois notes that perpetrators who had already abused their own daughters or sons may need little by way of rationalisation to perpetrate the same abuse on the next generation, i.e., their grandchildren.

The normalisation of sexually abusive behaviours within incestuous family systems can occur and can continue unnoticed. Under this kind of dysfunctional radar system, even presumed heterosexual grandfathers sometimes sexually abuse grandsons. They simply view such contact as their prerogative extended into another generation irrespective of sex type. The vulnerable grandchild is thus objectified and exploited to meet the needs of the perpetrator while the grandmother, pottering around in the background, does nothing to prevent it.

So who are these cognitively distorted grandmothers protecting? Generally, they are protecting themselves, tragically, at the expense of the disclosing child. That is, the vulnerable child becomes objectified to satisfy the (perceived) needs of those very adults morally and legally charged to do the protecting (Walker & Shapiro, 2010; Dickens, 2007). The surrounding adults are the priority in this scenario and not the abused child.

The hidden role of maternal figures in male-perpetrated child sexual abuse cases within incestuous families is convoluted. It requires careful assessment and the ability to look beyond any facade of ‘all is OK’. The immense toll of emotional and psychological trauma must never be discounted. Contrary to common belief, trauma’s impact does not dissipate on its own (Putnam, et al., 2015; Felitti, 2010), and that in whichever context, time alone conceals rather than heals trauma. The danger is, early trauma often leads to poor health outcomes and economic prospects which then continue into adulthood, transmitting itself across generations (van der Kolk, 2015; Felitti & Anda, 2010; Felitti et al., 1998). Hence why early life trauma and its impact on health and disease has become a hidden epidemic (Lanius, Vermetten & Pain, 2010) with strong economic implications not only for survivors (Currie & Spatz Widom, 2010) but for all of us (Kezelman, Hossack, Stavropoulos & Burley, 2015). This justifies the critical urgency for skilled, trauma-informed assessments to nip such twisted issues in the bud (Kezelman & Stavropoulos, 2012; Jennings, 2004). So can we afford to be charmed by the stereotypical image or fantasy of the all-protective grandma figure?

In conclusion, maternal instincts, just like paternal instincts, are a great part of what protects each child. But some grandmothers may have lost their protective instincts well before their sexually abused grandchildren were born. Whereas most attachment figures would intuitively check for danger before placing a child in the care of others — including family members — the type addressed here do not. I wonder whether the fairy tale story “Little Red Riding Hood” should be re-written to reflect when actual “False Grandmothers” appear in real life. Let’s face it, even false teeth can be sharp!


Suzette Misrachi, Master of AdvSW (Research), MBSW (Acc — Medicare). International presenter, consultant and professional supervisor specialising in trauma and grief. For info on Suzette’s workshops, including “Legacies unmasked: Recognising and working with the lasting trauma for adults raised by parents with a serious mental illness”, email suzette.misrachi@gmail.com Website: goo.gl/W47Mr

This article was originally published in Mind Cafe, Issue 34, September 2017.


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Suzette Misrachi, International presenter and consultant specialising in trauma and grief.

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Suzette Misrachi

Suzette Misrachi

Suzette Misrachi, International presenter and consultant specialising in trauma and grief.

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