Monthly Archives: May 2014

Managing a Narcissistic Grandmother

OK so how do you manage the minefield that is grandchildren interacting with a personality-disordered grandmother? You do need to manage it. You need to recognise that this woman is not normal and you can’t treat her as a normal grandparent. While her behaviour will not be as damaging to your grandchildren as it was to her own children it can cause harm.

Favouritism between siblings must be dealt with firmly. We spelt out that if we thought one child was getting nicer, more expensive or more frequent presents than the other, all presents to everyone ourselves included would be rejected. Equal treatment or no treatment. We would stand together as a family. As my MIL uses gifts as a way of trying to control people or convey messages of worth rejecting all her gifts would be a real kick in the teeth. So she has a choice, not display favouritism through gifts or loose out on being able to manipulate anyone with gifts forever. So far she has chosen to keep gifts to equal value for both children.

Not all favouritism is that obvious however. At Easter an arrangement was made for MIL to meet my husband and daughters in a city half way between our two hometowns. The eldest child became ill and was on antibiotics so plans changed and my husband said he’d just bring the youngest, less favoured child. MIL cancelled the visit. She then proceeded to do a classic bit of psychological projection and attributed all her thoughts to the eldest child, “she will be feeling upset, she will want to see me, it will disappoint her” etc. At no point in any of the conversations around this matter did she mention the younger child, it was as if her other grandchild didn’t exist.

Now my MIL is slippery, she would argue that by cancelling the visit because she couldn’t see the eldest, favoured grandchild she was in fact treating both children equally. So you need to be clever too. Cancelling the trip doesn’t bother me, what bothered me was how she made no reference to the other child at all. That is where the unequal treatment is evident so this is what should be tackled. “We feel upset that you have made no mention of youngest daughter and what she may want in this conversation. Someone listening to this would think you had only one grandchild. Both our children deserve equal recognition”. Equal treatment and equal recognition, you can’t argue with that.

What you do if this request is not complied with to your standards is up to you but there needs to be something done. Not reacting to an infringement of your boundaries is tantamount to not having any in the first place. Shut down any conversation by saying “I’m going to hang up because…” or “I am not continuing this conversation because…” where there continues to be a problem with the way one child is talked about or ignored. There will be some times when one child has won a prize or been in a show when they do warrant some extra recognition but within reason. If MIL is constantly harping on about one child’s achievements spell it out, “goodness you are going on a bit, she’s not won an Oscar”. She will be huffy about that sort of comment, but so what.

The same applies to any manipulation and emotional abuse that you witness, it must not be tolerated, “do not manipulate my child”, “do not criticise my child” call it out and name the behaviour. Your child needs to see you standing up for them. If MIL cannot take the message then she is ejected from your house or you leave hers.

At this point I want to briefly talk about “making a scene” as my mother would phrase it. This was generally regarded as bad thing in our house when I grew up. Now there are several reasons for that, a big factor being that my mother was an immigrant. They were poor, Irish and regarded as second-class citizens in the UK when they arrived. It was important to them, as it is to many immigrant families, to keep their heads down, work hard, not get into debt and generally be accepted in their community. Hence not wanting to “make a scene”.

Many people are brought up believing the best thing to do in a situation is maintain a calm and pleasant manner. This is especially true of women who are still not encouraged to be ballsy and assertive. I remember reading a survey which revealed that most women would stay in a train carriage seated next to a man who was creeping them out rather than get up and move and be thought of as rude. Oh boy. When the majority of women would compromise their own personal safety in order to keep up appearances you can see how many of us just sit and wince but still just sit, while MIL does nasty things to the kids.

For goodness sake stop doing it. Move away from the creepy man in the train, who bloody cares if it looks rude. Get some boundaries in place and stop tolerating your MIL. What is the worst thing she could do, the absolute worst thing, the thing that stops you acting, what is it? Could it be that you will cause such strife and upset with your MIL that your spouse will leave you? That your spouse won’t back you up and you’ll be left trying to stand your ground looking increasingly isolated and ridiculous? That they will assault you?

Will that happen, I mean really happen, if you say something like “we don’t speak to the children like that MIL, it is hurtful please apologise” and then “if you are unable to apologise we would rather you left and came back when you felt able to respect our families rules”? No. You will have been assertive while polite. If your spouse would rather allow the kids to be treated badly, do you really want to be with them? Should their own behaviour be looked at a bit more closely? Parenthood means protecting your children.

Which brings us nicely to babysitting. My rule is MIL is never left alone with the kids. You can decide your own but you need to spell out your expectations regarding her behaviour and your family rules regarding, food, manners, bedtimes etc and also be very clear on what you will do if these are not respected. Do you say no more babysitting or some other sanction?

What if you need the grandmother to babysit so that you can work? Think about it, do you really need someone with a personality disorder to babysit your child; is there no one else more suitable? You get to choose who looks after your children, that is not set by other family members. Any expectation that they will automatically get babysitting rights needs to be quashed early on. If you have not done this already then a simple statement that you have had a rethink regarding childcare and will be starting a different system is all you need to say. Remember don’t justify, argue, defend or explain you decisions, you are an adult and they are your kids.

If your spouse is in denial they may feel their mother has a right to babysit and compare your views on your MIL babysitting with your attitude towards your own parents babysitting. Why should it be one rule for your family and a different one for theirs? A fair question. Give them a straight answer, you don’t want MIL to babysit your child, explain why and insist on it. You don’t think their mother is normal, she is not emotionally safe to be around, you are not having it.

It may be necessary to spell out to your other half that they are not objective about their mother’s behaviour, that they are in denial. If you spouse gets cross, explain your feelings, calmly give examples, don’t get drawn into compromising. If this is a line in the sand for you tell your spouse that. Should you find yourself wavering then that says something about your and your spouse’s relationship. Where is the give and take? You should be able to assert a different opinion and they should be able to make a sacrifice over something that means that much to you. You in turn may need to sacrifice having your mother babysit to keep things fair in your spouse’s eyes, but so be it, hire someone instead.

How much time your children spend with their grandparents will depend upon how much time you and your partner wish to spend in her company. The amount of contact with a personality-disordered parent follows a predictable pattern. Initially no one accepts there is a problem and a high level of contact occurs, all birthdays, high days and holidays with weekend visits thrown in too. Then the problem starts to become more conscious in your and your spouse’s minds. Visits feel strained and fewer occur. Conversation becomes guarded; phone calls are not returned or ignored. Then a decision to lower the level of contact is made openly between the partners. Eventually a decision to cut off all contact may occur.

Denial of the problem leads to attempts to act normally or even try to use the grandchildren to build a bridge to the disordered grandmother. Increasing awareness of the damaging behaviours she exhibits leads to less contact and a conscious decision is made on the amount and type of contact with the MIL. This is inevitable and is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Narcissistic Grandmothers and Abusive Behaviour

Abusive behaviour towards children takes one of several forms; physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. It is very rare for a grandmother to sexually abuse her grandchildren. A narcissist is far more likely to be emotionally abusive or neglectful but physical abuse and cruelty can also occur.

I’ve described the tendency for NPD MILs to demonstrate favouritism towards their children and grandchildren. This is a form of emotional abuse. It compares and excludes and thus implies inferiority or flaw in the excluded. Such conditional affection is typical. Demonstrations of love by an NPD sufferer really depend on what you can do for them. Sadly they often decide that the best thing one grandchild or set of grandchildren can do is provide them with an archetypal “bad” family for them to dump all their negative emotions on. Psychologists call this splitting. The damaged personality of your MIL is unable to contain good and bad and all shades in between in their mind at once so all the good gets projected onto one child or grandchild and all the bad onto the other. That way they enact their own internal split between the false perfect self they display to the world and the deeper flawed self they are so disgusted and ashamed of.

If your spouse was the disfavoured child when small, seeing this repeated in their own children can be incredibly hurtful. It is baffling as it is wounding to see one new little helpless baby being ignored while the older child is doted on or vice versa. It can be just the smallest thing that triggers the rejection. In the case of our children the eldest had blonde hair and thus reminded MIL of herself and her own children, the youngest had brown hair when born and so looked like me and was rejected. There is always some justification in the MIL’s mind for the favouritism, the rejected child did something to deserve it.

Other emotionally abusive behaviours towards grandchildren include name calling including unkind nicknames, belittling, undermining, unfairly comparing siblings or cousins, criticism, mockery, withdrawing affection, sulking, passive-aggressive acts like “forgetting” a birthday, withholding praise or compliments, denigrating parents or friends.

I think one of the most insidious things a MIL can do is undermine parental authority thus creating confusion in the child’s mind as to how their parents’ rules should be viewed. Narcissists think they know best and my MIL positively enjoys feeling she has got one over on an authority of some kind. Combine these two and you can see how she is never going to accept our parental authority over our children. If you say bed at 7pm and grandma who is babysitting cheekily ignores this, whispers to the child how this is their little secret and sends them to bed at 8.30pm you have one confused, guilty and manipulated child.

Any conversation with a relative where a child is pressed to keep a secret is abusive in my opinion. I try to use the word surprise rather than secret when talking about birthday presents or plans. A surprise is something that is kept quiet for a while before being revealed, a secret is something you never tell to anyone. Children should not be asked to keep secrets from their parents by anyone. This interaction is abusive. By taking a child into their confidence an NPD MIL elevates them to equal status, something that should not happen because they are not intellectually or emotionally the equal of an adult. Then using their status as an adult relative they coerce silence and cooperation. The only way people can or should keep a secret is if they are equals and they do so through mutual consent. Children cannot do this. If your child tells you “grandma says it’s a secret” or similar you need to take action. This is a red warning flag of further manipulation and emotional abuse.

Even normal conversation can result in the child being used as a go-between “Little Jenny, will Mummy let you have a biscuit?”, “Little Johnny wants to go to the park, don’t you?” as people with personality disorders struggle with direct communication. Watch closely how your NPD MIL phrases things, children can be made to feel they have to serve their grandmother’s needs, “Grandma is sad, give me a cuddle”, “I want to read you a story, come and sit with me”.  Manipulation at its heart is the use of covert ways to get someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Some NPD MILs will goad a child into doing something wrong, “go on take the biscuit, no one is looking” a then go and tell on the child, watch them get told off and delight in rescuing the child from the nasty mum or dad who is disciplining them. They have little empathy and play with people creating discord and antagonism and they enjoy doing this.

My MIL views her grandchildren as treats to be wheeled out for her enjoyment. On one of her birthdays she wanted our two year old to be delivered to her to be taken out all day as MIL’s birthday treat. I said no. Children are not objects to be ordered like a new toy, played with then sent away when bored. They are little people. Narcissistic MILs will not appreciate this fact.

I have not experienced my MIL being physically abusive or hurting our children. She has done that to my husband under the guise of discipline by forcing him to eat pureed food from the meal before that he hadn’t finished, or “jokes” like spraying him with cold water from a hose repeatedly until he ran away down the street and also through outright neglect by leaving him unattended and uncovered on a beach for so long he had second degree sunburn. I can make sure this doesn’t happen, she does not have contact with our children without myself or my husband being there. She cannot slap, poke, pinch, shove or otherwise interfere with them under our noses.

The first and only time I left my MIL to babysit was in her own house with our then just two-year-old while my husband and I went to the movies. We arrived to stay for a few days and found the front room filled with dozens of toys, books, colouring pens, paper and thirteen jigsaw puzzles piled up in boxes on the floor. She didn’t think this was enough however and said she would go up into the loft and get yet more down. Now this was unnecessary and since our daughter had worked out how to climb up loft ladders we said we’d prefer if MIL didn’t do that. While we were out this instruction was ignored.

I have no idea what my very overweight and arthritic MIL did with our daughter while she waddled into the spare bedroom to set up the wobbly stepladder she uses to squeeze herself through the loft hatch. MIL’s house has never been childproofed with safety catches and poisons out the way, we arrived one day to find she had taken up the carpets and left all the carpet grip exposed for the baby to crawl over.  Our daughter was either left alone out of sight and sound of her grandmother who risked knocking the ladder away from the hatch, getting stuck or falling, or she took the toddler into the loft with her, despite being sufficiently incapacitated that she struggles to get herself up from the floor. All for some paltry, plastic toy. Both of these scenarios would have exposed our small child to a significant risk that MIL failed to recognise. If our childminder had done this while caring for our daughter I would have complained, I would never leave a friend’s child unattended out of sight and sound and go rummaging around in our loft if I were babysitting. Would you?

Then to run salt in the wound she bragged about having done this in a phone conversation with my mother. She bragged that my husband had been upset when he found out that she had done exactly what he advised her not to. It was funny to her and worthy of a boast to show how she wasn’t ordered around by anyone. My mother was sufficiently disturbed by this to ring me and ask if I knew that MIL had left our child unattended while supposedly babysitting.

Narcissists overestimate their capabilities and this includes their physical abilities. They think they can manage physical feats and take risks that you or I would think twice over. MIL has rung us to say how she has been up a ladder chopping trees with a chainsaw or walking along the sea wall while huge waves are crashing around her. She does not see herself as nearly seventy, obese and creaking at the seams. In her mind she is fit, strong, attractive and capable and how dare we suggest otherwise. Narcissists think they are omniscient so don’t need to be told to keep their eyes open for cars or dogs loose off their leads when out with small children, they just know, right? This is something that makes a narcissist dangerous when around children. They do not correctly assess their own capabilities, they think they know best and so they are poor at determining risk and acting sensibly to minimise that risk. I cannot trust MIL with our kids and she hasn’t babysat them again. She never will.

If you have an NPD MIL your children will be in a relationship with a woman who has a track record of harming people close to her. Just read that through again to make sure you have grasped the full importance of that sentence. Your MIL is a bitch and you know it. She will be a bitch to your kids, it is simply a matter of time. She will make them feel bad, she will manipulate them and she will do these things to you in front of them.

Unless you have some very firm boundaries in place they will see her do this and think that either it is OK to treat others that way or that the best way of dealing with hurtful behaviour is to meekly take it. Your reaction to her abusive behaviour potentially more damaging than the behaviour itself as your relationship to your kids is much closer. They will follow your example, not just with her but into all relationships with difficult people. This includes school bullies, boyfriends or girlfriends as teens, work colleagues, their boss, their spouse.

So how should you intervene to ensure as little harm as possible comes to your children if you decide it is worth them having contact with their grandmother? Managing the narcissistic grandmother is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

I have been busy and have not posted for a while as we are selling our house. We have outgrown it and need to move to a larger home. It has been hectic, cleaning and presenting our house, viewing others, accepting and making offers, dealing with estate agents and solicitors. It all seems to be sorted, we have sold and we have somewhere to move to which is not bad given our house went on the market at Easter!

Moving house is cited as one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, beaten only by a death of a close one and divorce. Stress does funny things to people, I get butterflies in my stomach and find it hard to eat but I also find it quite energising. My husband gets very anxious and feels it somatically in his body as a pounding heart, tense shoulders and headaches. Anxiety is something he suffers with in many spheres of life. Looking at his relationship with his NPD mother helps explain why.

John Bowlby was a British psychotherapist who after the second world war researched the effects of being orphaned on children who were victims of the war. He developed a very influential paper on maternal deprivation for the United Nations and expanded this to a full theory of the emotional and psychological attachments formed by young children and the effects that they have on the child into adulthood. This is, hardly surprisingly, called Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory Basics

The basic assumption of attachment theory is that a child needs to form a single, secure attachment to a loving and responsive caregiver (usually the mother) for the child to develop healthy emotional structures and ways of relating to others. Things that can disrupt this attachment would include being orphaned or separated from one’s mother, like during the war, or having an emotionally unavailable or abusive mother. You can see where I am going with this right?

Children form a particular pattern of behaviour as a result of the type of attachment they have with their main caregiver, I’ll just use “mother” from now on as I’m assuming like my husband your spouses were mostly cared for by their mum.

The most common attachment is a secure attachment that forms with a good enough mother, 60% of adults have this sort of attachment. The good enough mother hugs the child when they are distressed, mirrors their smiles and grimaces, makes lots of eye contact, strokes them, responds to their interactions and carries them close when they’re little. There is an approach to parenting babies called attachment parenting advocated by William Sears and others which encourages the key interactions that foster close, secure attachments. He advises skin to skin contact with newborns, lots of carrying and cuddles using slings if necessary, breastfeeding and eye contact and cuddles if bottle feeding, having the baby sleep close to the mother for 6 months, next to her bed within touching distance.

There is a lot of evidence that shows these sorts of interactions ensure the healthy, secure attachment forms. This then means the child grows up expecting their interactions with others to similarly be secure and they feel comfortable expressing their emotions and needs and responding to others emotions and needs. Thus the securely attached child forms healthy adult relationships and friendships with a good balance between independence and intimacy.

But not everyone has this secure pattern. There are other sorts of mothers with other kinds of interaction styles which lead to less healthy attachment patterns. There is an anxious pattern, an avoidant pattern and a fearful pattern. Some research has suggested a final ambivalent pattern of attachment formed by inconsistent caregivers. Mary Ainsworth carried out several experiments with children aged around 1 year old, small toddlers, which extended much of what Bowlby had described in war orphans.

The patterns of attachment in small children are best observed when they are confronted with new situations or their mothers leave them temporarily in a play group or similar setting. The securely attached child goes freely forwards and back to the mother, touching base and venturing forth. If the mother leaves they are upset and cry for her then show they are comforted when she returns.

An anxious child has a different reaction. They are clingy, find it hard to cope with their mother not there and need constant reassurance. Without the presence of their main attachment they are panicky and have no real security in themselves. What sort of behaviour from the mother creates this type of attachment? An excessively controlling, over-involved mother who doesn’t allow or encourage risk taking or the independence of the child.

An avoidant child doesn’t seem upset when their mother leaves and doesn’t show much comfort or pleasure when she returns. This child may even ignore their mother or turn away from her, not responding to being picked up by her. The child doesn’t feel much of a bond to the mother. The mother in this case is unresponsive to the child if they cry, in fact even discourages them from showing upset or distress and pushes them to be independent of her.

The fearful or disorganised child freezes or rocks when their mother returns, they try to approach her for comfort but are so unsure of the response they do this with their back turned or creep round the room to get to her. This is a hallmark of an overtly abusive mother. The child wants comfort from the person they fear.

Now there is a theory, not espoused by Bowlby himself who worked purely on children, but developed in the 1980s that adults can exhibit similar patterns of attachment in their adult romantic relationships. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver spotted similarities between the ways adults react to the presence or absence of their romantic partners. In both situations the relationship with a person, the mother or lover, provides an opportunity for bonding and the enactment of expectations about the nature of close bonds that the adult has internalised through their previous close relationships. The most influential relationship in forming ideas and expectations about close emotional ties is the one we have with our main carer when we are small children, i.e. our mothers.

What if you are married or in a close relationship with a person whose mother has NPD? What sort of attachment behaviour will they have and how will it show itself in your relationship?

Attachment Theory and Adults

Having a mother with NPD means you could have any attachment pattern expect the secure one. Unless of course you weren’t actually raised by your mother but by another, psychologically normal person like an aunt or grandparent. You are reading this blog because your partner has a difficult (to say the least) mother who exhibits a lot of unpleasant and abusive behaviour. Your partner will not be fully secure and confident in their adult relationships unless they have done a lot of work on themselves in coming to terms with their family and its effects on them.

Hazan and Shaver described 4 patterns of adult attachment similar but not identical to the patterns of attachment in tiny children. They called them secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and dismissive-fearful.

Now my husband and I did an online test of adult attachment patterns http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl which is free and asks a series of questions where you choose your response on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. I came out with a secure attachment style, not surprisingly as my main caregiver as a child was my good enough mother who gave hugs, played with me and responded appropriately to any distress or upset I showed. My husband has the anxious-preoccupied style. I am absolutely sure if my SIL did this same test she would be dismissive-avoidant.

How do these patterns show themselves in adult behaviour? My husband needs constant reassurance that we, our relationship, is OK. He needs me to act in ways that reassure him and he resists anything that makes him anxious, things that may hint at a distance between us or possible conflict or separation, not just physically but of ideas, views, aims and emotions. He cannot argue or tolerate my showing anger as this makes him so anxious. So he diverts the conversation away from the difficult topic onto something else, like my tone of voice (unpleasant) or blunt talk (can’t you phrase that nicely). He finds it very hard to deal with if I am unable to be there emotionally for him due to a crisis of my own. Postnatal depression a couple of years ago for a few months was the worst thing ever to happen to our relationship as far as he is concerned because I was not there for him.

The underlying dynamic involves his expectation that I will soothe his anxiety by modifying my behaviour or he will try to change my behaviour through control of some kind including passive aggressive acts, sulking, withdrawl, blaming, diversions etc. He sees his emotional regulation as being the job of an external person, the person he is bonded to. He is not clear where he ends and I start. This is entirely due to having an engulfing, controlling mother who expected him to cater to her moods and change himself for her. She dictated what emotions he could show and how he showed them. He people-pleases to ensure the continuation of the relationship thus avoiding his extreme anxiety at being abandoned or rejected.

His sister is dismissive-avoidant in her behaviour. She has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with unsuitable partners and works extreme hours, in a job involving extensive overseas travel making herself unavailable for long periods of time. When confronted with an emotional situation she shuts down. Told some upsetting news she failed completely to react, got down on the floor to play with her nieces as if nothing had been said. She avoids her own emotions and other peoples. Keeping others at arms length is normal for her. Her emotional regulation is to suppress and deny her emotions and needs for intimacy acting in a very independent and self-sufficient way.

Of course she had the same mother as my husband but she was the second child and so had less of her NPD mother’s attention, much less if her behaviour is anything to go by. She comments on how much fewer photos there are of her as a child compared to my husband and how she was given all his hand-me-down clothes. She was not the substitute spouse in the same way as my husband, my MIL was clearly overly involved with her son alternately infantalising him to keep him close and using him for emotional support.

Both these patterns have been described as pseudo-independent by Robert Firestone. True adult independence requires a complete sense of yourself as separate from others combined with a capacity to be fully able to emotionally connect with another at an appropriate time. It is all about balance. These two attachment patterns are unbalanced.

The final adult attachment pattern is dismissive-fearful and is shown in people who want, often desperately want a close bond but are scared of being hurt physically or emotionally by the object of their attraction. They fundamentally do not trust their partners and have doubts about their intentions as they have negative views about themselves. They ask “why are you attracted to me, what do you really want?”. This form of attachment in an adult can stem from sexual abuse as a child or teen or from a childhood with significant losses through the absence or rejection of a parent. Unlike a dismissive-avoidant person they are aware that they want closeness and intimacy but like dismissive-avoidant they act in a way that restricts intimacy and don’t share their emotions.

Which pattern does your spouse exhibit? I am interested to hear what sorts of attachments your spouses seem to have and how you think this may be related to their mother’s behaviour towards them.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL