How Can I Handle a Toxic Mother-in-Law?

Reader’s Question

My mother-in-law was always very strange from the first time we met. She explained to me in vivid detail about her seeing dead people, had a different job every month, always seemed to be the victim in every situation, and called my husband at least three times a day. At the end of my pregnancy, she seemed to have become obsessed with me and hovered over me. She also made several comments about “when I have the baby”. As soon as I had the baby, she became very rude to my mother, got extremely possessive over the baby, and came over unannounced.

Any time my husband or I would confront her about her behavior, she would stay away for a few days, then call and tell me how she’s been having seizures. She wouldn’t tell my husband, just me. I’m an RN, and I was alarmed at her report. I made her a doctor’s appointment despite her protest. Suddenly, it wasn’t a seizure after all — just a headache, and she canceled the appointment. The only time I’ve ever heard of her having a seizure is after someone confronts her. Anytime she doesn’t want to do something or needs something, she seems to feel a seizure coming on.

My sister-in-law lives in another state and used to allow her daughter to stay with my mother-in-law for a week here and there. She hasn’t allowed this in two years because her daughter came home telling her that “grammy gives me medicine at night”. My sister-in-law realized that her mother always reported her daughter to be sick anytime she visited her. Since I had my baby, my mother-in-law (MIL) has always tried to insist that my baby is sick. My MIL does actually watch my other sister-in-law’s 5-year-old at least five times a week because she would rather party. He sleeps in the same bed with her and upon request rubs her arm so she can go to sleep. My mother-in-law tells me that she should be allowed to have the same relationship with my child.

I have never left my mother-in-law in the same room as my child. I just have a bad feeling about it. She begs and begs to babysit. I’m a stay at home mom for the moment and don’t need a babysitter. Occasionally I leave my baby with my mother to run errands. When my mother-in-law finds out, she throws a fit or resorts to laying on her couch for days feeling suicidal because I won’t let her have her grandbaby. I allow her to visit any time she wants, but she said that it isn’t good enough because she needs to be alone with her grandchild to bond with her.

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After several months, I informed her that I was uncomfortable with her watching my child because of her seizure disorder. Even though I know they’re fake, I didn’t want to tell her it was because I thought she was crazy. She said that she understood and it was fine because she would have the baby next year when she didn’t need her mother anymore. I informed her that I would be present as long as my child needed adult supervision. She started hyperventilating and crying and screaming at me that she needed to be alone with her grandchild.

My husband believes her seizures and feels sorry for her like the rest of her family. He wants her to be a part of my child’s life, and I’ve really tried to allow her to be a part of our life, but the only time she “behaves” is when she’s getting exactly what she wants.

How should I handle this in the future? I hate that my child is exposed to someone so toxic. Is there anything I can do to defuse the situation? Why am I the only one who sees these things?


— Can’t Take it Anymore

Psychologist’s Reply

Your mother-in-law (MIL) probably meets the clinical criteria for a personality disorder — namely Histrionic Personality. Individuals with Histrionic Personality are not just attention seeking — they are attention demanding! They use a variety of manipulations to control everyone around them and expect to be the center of attention and have their immature demands met with question. If you confront them or block their demands, they retaliate with temper tantrums, theatrical scenes, fake illnesses and spells, threats of suicide, and pouting. In most social circles, they are known as “Queens of Drama”.

As a young adult, Histrionic Personalities are often seductively manipulative, overly emotional, and superficially charming. In my experience, as they become older and previously controlled people begin to move away from them and into their own lives, the Histrionic Personality moves into hypochondriasis and a preoccupation with illness in an effort to maintain the same level of control and manipulation with those around them. Family members quickly learn not to upset or confront the individual for fear of her developing a “spell” or in this case, a seizure. At all ages, the Histrionic Personality controls/manipulates others, remains immature and selfish, has no concern for how her behavior affects those around her, and feels totally justified to use her manipulations to obtain her demands. The goals remain the same, it’s the strategies and techniques that changed over time.

All of your concerns both as a parent and a nurse are valid. Your husband will have a difficult time understanding the situation because a personality disorder (see my introduction to personality disorders) is an adult-life situation and he has always known her to operate in this manner. Like other family members, he has accepted these manipulations and demands as part of his relationship with her. Sadly, because you are aware of the nature of her behavior/personality and are difficult to control, you will be singled out for bad treatment. She will whine, complain, and exaggerate stories about your treatment of her. She will use a different strategy with each family member, but you may find yourself up against multiple rumors in the family. Hold your ground, and maintain your (and your child’s) distance from her. She is “toxic” in more ways than one.

Histrionic Personalities love the attention they receive being a grandparent or when babysitting. However, parenting and babysitting require a focus on the child and that’s difficult for a personality disorder. As a result, after the fun time is over (a few hours maybe), she quickly develops the perception that the child is sick. What that really means is it’s time to give the child Benadryl — that nighttime medicine.

You’re doing the right thing in controlling contact with this toxic MIL…but it’s difficult. Focus on your family, your mother, and maintaining a safe distance. Prepare a press release when asked about the situation by family members such as “I guess daughters always focus on their mother rather than their mother-in-law, just like her daughter spends a lot of time with her (the MIL).” Remember that anything you say to the MIL will be reinterpreted, exaggerated, and used against you. Continue to emphasize the “seizures” as a reason for no overnights, followed by the sudden headaches.

I’d also recommend reading questions on Personality Disorders by selecting that topic from the list of tags in the sidebar. Protecting our families from personality disorders is difficult when they are neighbors, friends, or partners. It becomes even more difficult when they are in the family.

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