Dealing with a Mother with a Personality Disorder

Reader’s Question

My mother fits this description perfectly: “All personality disorders have core personalities of selfishness, insensitivity to others, narcissism, a refusal to accept personal responsibility for their behavior, and a sense of entitlement that allows them to abuse others when their selfish demands are not immediately met.” She can be a very sweet person, especially to those outside our family, but if something doesn’t go her way or she is in any way stressed, she snaps and is a different person. She is insanely controlling and was quite physically abusive to us as children. If I was to describe her behavior to an outsider, say someone who knows her from work, they would never believe my mother is capable of such terrible behaviors towards others.

Here’s my problem: she counters her very poor behavior toward others with gifts (strings are attached to those gifts), making it next to impossible to be angry with her for her outbursts or abusive tantrums. When I was a child and she had a “tantrum” and hit us, we were taken shopping and it was never mentioned again. She never apologized, just covered the pain with a gift. If we, any members of my family, confront her about poor behaviors, she immediately twists it into her being the victim because “she does so much for us and we are being unappreciative and how dare us” and then she doesn’t speak to us for months! My father is now sucked into this cycle and defends her…more in order to protect himself, I would imagine. He often behaves like an abused child protecting his parent. I have dealt with this for my entire life, but the problem now is that she is beginning to treat my children, now that they are a little older (8-15 years old), with the same terrible abusive tone! My mother and father have lived in Germany for 7 years, so our visits have been 2 or 3 times per year. It has been manageable and forgive me for saying this…quite peaceful with her only coming around occasionally for major holidays. She is planning to move back this summer, to the area we are currently living, and our exposure to her will increase incredibly. How can I protect my children from the pain and hurt she has caused me, but still let them visit with and know their Grandmother? Do I confront my father about it and try to enlist his help? Confronting her directly will be catastrophic. I’m just at a loss and getting quite anxious myself trying to figure out how to deal with her on a regular basis…I moved out and far away from her for a reason!! I got a taste/reminder of what she is capable of during Christmas this year and the thought of having to be within her grasp on a regular basis is quite terrifying.

Thank you,
From Virginia

Psychologist’s Reply

People with personality disorders becomes parents…not good parents…but parents still. Parents with Antisocial Personality Disorder (criminals, physical abusers, etc.) are easily detected by their children and the community. Other Personality Disorders are less obvious, except to their children and family. When we have a personality disorder in our family, we must first recognize the nature of the disorder. Your mother may have Histrionic Personality Disorder — the layman’s description of “The Queen of Drama”. As you describe, their exaggerated, dramatic and even theatrical emotional outbursts traumatize their children and create a form of Stockholm Syndrome (see article on this website) in their spouse.

Family members must typically develop a strategy to deal with a personality disorder in the family. That strategy begins with an acknowledgement that no matter what they do, how much they give, how much the try to please — it will never be enough! Once you understand that, the next strategy is to protect family members from the manipulations and behaviors. Some useful strategies I’ve seen in the past:

  1. Keep PDs at a safe personal and emotional distance. Don’t share personal or intimate information with them as they will use it against you later.
  2. Visit them at their home — that way you control when you can leave. Always visit “on your way” somewhere.
  3. When they have a temper tantrum…allow them to stew on it and pout. Don’t try to intervene and fix the situation.
  4. Ignore their attempts to use guilt and obligation as a manipulation. Accept those gifts but cut the strings attached as though the gift is not connected to the temper tantrum or the next manipulation.
  5. Contact her on regular schedules — calls every so many days.
  6. Try to meet in public places as that decreases the chances of a temper tantrum.
  7. Don’t try to cover for Mom with the children. Describe her behavior for what it is…a tantrum. Otherwise the children will be confused and be unable to protect themselves from the outbursts.
  8. Allow Mom to be uncomfortable. If she throws a tantrum…leave.
  9. Ignore her attempts at control…letting her know that you have your own theories about parenting, finances, etc. 1
  10. Don’t enlist the help of Dad…yet. If he’s got Stockholm Syndrome…he’ll tell her what you’ve said and that will cause more problems. Keep in mind, he doesn’t want to face her outbursts any more than you do.

Many people work with difficult “others” such as corrections officers, police, psychiatric staff, medical/nursing staff, etc. They stay healthy by not taking the behavior of their clients personally. They are able to listen to abuse, manipulations, guilt, etc. and still continue steadfastly on their path to get their job done. Rather than react to her outbursts…stay calm and watch it. You are free to leave. If she doesn’t like your behavior…she can stay away. If you stand your ground, she will need to adapt to your requirements rather than you being forced to react to her outbursts. This is why temper tantrums don’t work in psychiatric hospitals, prisons, or in the back seat of a police car.

If your self-esteem is high enough, there is no problem confronting Mom following an outburst…gift or not. Such confrontations are very uncomfortable to the personality disorder as you are bringing their behavior to their attention. Yes, confrontation is catastrophic — but catastrophic to whom??? If Mom recognizes that each outburst is followed by a very uncomfortable confrontation, those outbursts will decrease. In the confrontation, focus on observable behaviors such as yelling, screaming, threatening, etc. When we focus on behavior, the personality disorder’s claim to be a victim (they all do that by the way, even criminals) doesn’t hold much weight.

You might also want to seek supportive counseling as you establish ground rules upon Mom’s arrival.

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