Tag Archives: Child development

Infantilization

The last post covered a type of behaviour where the narcissistic MIL uses her relationship with her adult children to get her core emotional needs met. This parentifying is a natural result of the NPD MIL’s perception of her children as extensions of her will, there to do what she wants, not as separate to herself and free to do what they wish. In order for parentifying, or any other dynamic where the children provide for the mother, to exist the children must be controlled and conditioned in ways that motivate them to continue going along with it. One way this happens is by infantilising the adult child, your spouse. It creates dependency in the adult child by treating them as if they lack the emotional and practical skills necessary in adulthood while dismissing any signs of their maturity. It is a form of brainwashing and as such is abusive.

What is Infantilisation?

Unlike passive-aggressive behaviour or dysfunctional communication which is something your personality disordered MIL can do in any situation with anyone; infantilization is the deliberate collusion between MIL and your spouse to treat them as much younger than their age. It is an interaction that exists between two people, the MIL and your spouse.

Our family of origin is a blind spot in all of us until we reach adulthood and start to see our relationships with our parents from a more detached perspective. Part of adolescence is to separate from the family of origin. To leave behind the roles you played in it and the habits there formed and forge your own independent identity.

If your family of origin is dysfunctional or abusive in some way then it is often difficult to go through this process of separation and independence. There are a few reasons for this. Each family member is under a large degree of emotional control and conditioning to accept the family situation as normal and allow the abusive parent to continue the abuse. Keeping the family secret and accepting the family way of behaving takes precedence over normal growth and development, even if this harms the children. The children raised in a family with a narcissist are not encouraged to separate and become independent, they may not go through the usual teenage rebellion against their parents values. On the contrary they are encouraged, bullied and coerced into being dependent. As far as a narcissist is concerned they exist for the narcissist’s benefit. Something small children do is hero worship their parents. As you grow you are more able to see your parents’ flaws and faults and their sacrifices and admirable traits also, they become human not heroes. This is an appalling prospect to a narcissist.

Narcissistic mothers infantilize their adult children in order to control them. This ensures they maintain a supply of people willing to do whatever they want and mollifies their of fear of abandonment by keeping their children dependent. Infantilization can happen even  out of rivalry with the children who are kept enmeshed so they can’t achieve more than she did.

Part and parcel of keeping the children trapped in the web of the narcissists making is to feed them the idea that they really can’t cope on their own, that they are weaker, less mature and capable than they really are. This can be done directly by actually telling them that or indirectly through actions, body language, tone of voice and what is not said or done.

My MIL manages to convey through her actions and the way she relates to her adult children that she still sees and views them as her little kids, not her now adult offspring. Most adults I know call their parents mum or dad, she insists on being called mummy, and refers to herself as mummy in emails or on birthday cards. Mummy is a term used by small children.

She constantly refers to things from my husband’s childhood in a way that makes it still present, for example she kept, boxed and categorised in a folder (I’m not kidding) all his old toys and rarely fails to mention how she has some Lego, cars or train sets of his and what does he want to do with them. She sends him old childhood memorabilia in the post, an old comic, a picture. Childhood pets are brought into the most inappropriate conversations and what she sees as humorous incidents that invariable have my husband or his sister acting in a particularly silly or childish way, she tilts her head and smiles at them indulgently as if they were still those children. She calls her daughter by a baby pet name that no one else uses. She calls my husband “my big boy” and practically pinches him on the cheek, bleugh. He is thirty eight for goodness sake.

If the adult children mention a problem or mistake they are dealing with she uses the exact same voice you would use to speak to a toddler when picking them up off the floor, all exaggerated sympathy concealing a core of parental disapproval. She takes what was an adult-adult interaction and twists it over and over again into parent-child. She even had my husband’s birth certificate, which you need in the UK to get your passport and various other official documents, in safe keeping until he was thirty six years old and then presented it to him in an over the top manner, presumably as she now thought he was just about old enough to have it himself. He took it rather bemusedly wondering why on Earth she was making such a big fuss of it. In contrast, I’ve had my birth certificate since I was a teenager.

Transactions and Your Spouses Role

So that is her behaviour, but what about the spouse? Well for this to work at all, they have to play along. It is a trap and it keeps them under her control. Both my husband and his sister went along with calling her mummy until I pointed this out, at which point my husband did a double take, thought about it and stopped. Hallelujah! She constantly tried to rescue him from completely normal incidents, which conveys the message that she doesn’t think he can cope and he would accept her help and the implied comment on his capabilities. Now he doesn’t. Such over-involved and unnecessary parental rescuing is rejected and batted back, as it should be.

For example, he is looking for tenure at a university, a process which involves many, many applications for funding and positions most of which are rejected. After such a rejection she delivered a completely over the top reaction. She was so sorry and how dreadful it must be and he was so clever and how hard it was. Were our kids being extra good to make it all easier for him? Then followed up with an email where she had searched and found cheap holiday accommodation in a town near her by the sea as a trip to the seaside would make him feel better and she would love to see us. You would think someone had died. What made it even stranger was that she only did this for that one, not particularly special rejection; he had had a load more that elicited no comment at all. Clearly she needed to play “good mummy” at that point for her own egotistical reasons.

Something my husband works hard at is being assertive with her as he has a tendency to revert to an automatic childlike demeanour when in her presence. He would not hold my hand or show a natural level of physical affection, not even touching my arm, around her.  He would sit slightly hunched over, taking up little space and his voice even took on a higher pitch when talking to her, even on the phone. We half jokingly invented a “man-pose” where he would stand with his feet apart, chest out, arms on his hips when talking to his mother on the phone to counteract that. I can tell whether he is talking to on the phone purely from his manner. He hates the way she makes him feel.

The best and most robust response to infantilization is to continually rebuff all attempts to turn the interaction into parent-to-child and respond over and over again as adult-to-adult. This requires a combination of assertiveness (and you can be trained in that) and an understanding of transactional analysis or TA.

TA is a way of studying the interactions between people. It helps to identify the childhood scripts that are being played out in relationships, family or otherwise, and the recognition that complementary communications are the most effective, that is when people relate in a matched way, adult to adult or an actual child to their actual parent. The narcissistic mother sets up transactions with her children that never move out of parent to child. Break out of the ingrained way of responding to her and you open up a whole world of more assertive and more adult behaviours.

The problem with NPD MIL is that even if you phrase a transaction in an adult way she will respond parent to child. This is an example of what the founder of TA Eric Berne called crossed transactions. He wrote a seminal book called “The Games People Play” all about crossed transactions and messages that have one overt meaning but another covert one. Another good reference on this whole subject is the book “Peoplemaking” by Virginia Satir a renowned family therapist. Understanding the way the NPD MIL communicates with your partner, and in turn with you, goes a long way towards breaking the pattern.

She will protest. No change in your spouse’s interaction with their mother will occur with any willingness on her part. She may ramp up the infantilizing behaviours to see if your spouse will crack, she may get sulky that they won’t play along, she may ridicule it saying things like “ooh, your being very serious darling” with an exaggerated pout, or “if you say so dear” which is just so patronising. Do not respond or let your spouse respond, to do so would be to fall into the child role again.

Insisting that conversation by kept at an appropriate adult-adult level is a boundary worth considering. You can withdraw from any conversation where someone persists in treating you as if you are a child.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, Manipulations, 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

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A personality disorder is what happens when someone is so fucked up as a child, a really small child, that they are unable to develop normally. The stages of personality development that we all pass through from mewling infant to autonomous adult are disrupted in someone with a personality disorder.  This is not due to any innate problem with their brains, with the possible exception of antisocial personality disorder a.k.a. psychopathy, it is almost entirely due to having abusive parents. There is simply no getting around this. Sorry. It’s the parents’ fault.

The fucked up child becomes stuck at an early stage of personality development. Usually this stage is one that would normally passed through before the child is 5 years old or so. Due to the disordered nature of the child’s interactions with their parents they cannot progress beyond a certain stage and this immature mental age stays with them for their entire life causing no end of problems in their interactions with other human beings.

Children frozen at the Little Nero temper tantrum stage of development grow up narcissistic. Those who mature a little further and have learned some more socially acceptable strategies to get their own way develop histrionic personality disorder. Those who get frozen just as they reach out to take some ownership of their environment and the wider world develop anxious disorders. This freezing doesn’t mean the person acts like a child. The problem is far more profound than simply being about behaviour.

The person with a personality disorder is unable to understand other human beings. Just like a two year old truly doesn’t understand notions such as love, justice or sharing so the adult frozen at the emotional age of a two year old grows up fundamentally unable to understand these ideas. They see other people as a child would see them. As objects which move around and interact, providing for their needs or not but without having much clue about the other people’s inner life and motivations.

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states such as intent, knowledge, desire, belief, to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. People with personality disorders never developed a full theory of mind. So they are frozen with emotional needs and a theory of mind at a debilitatingly early stage.

On top of this immaturity is another layer of problems. When your very survival in the form of being adequately fed, cared for and nurtured as a small child depends on some people who themselves are not very mentally healthy you have to develop strategies pretty damn quick to make sure your unhealthy mum and dad don’t either attack you physically or emotionally or neglect you.

The defence strategies of a child in an abusive environment take several forms. There is defence in the form of managing their emotions. For example you may learn very early on not to cry as no one will come to comfort you, you may learn showing anger with the unhealthy parents is seriously disapproved of and so never raise your voice or look irritated. You may learn that showing fear delights the unhealthy parent and so present a completely neutral face even when terrified.

There is defence in the form of people-pleasing. You may learn that doing whatever your unhealthy parents want straight away gets you a quieter, nicer life. There is defence in adopting dysfunctional communication methods like triangulation, proxy recruitment or passive-aggressive ways of conveying messages. The most damaging defence however is to copy the unhealthy adults. That way the child ends up being abusive, not just receiving abuse. These defences against being abandoned and rejected by the unhealthy mum and dad remain frozen in the person with a personality disorder long after they have served their purpose.

So there is a double whammy; being mentally stuck at a really very immature stage in their way of being able to conceptualise other people and having developed and retained some very dysfunctional ways of relating to other people.

This is a pattern of behaviour that is with the personality disordered person their whole life and is evident from adolescence onwards. It is a pattern of behaviour that is sufficiently damaging so that it interferes with the career, relationships, family and daily function of the individual. It is not the result of a short term life event or source of stress such as bereavement or illness and is not, in the main, treatable. Bummer.

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Filed under Describing narcissism, Understanding narcissism