©2017 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
I have been asked to give some suggestions for dealing with a parent who constantly interrogates the children and the spouse like this: “Where are you going (the partner/child is just getting up from chair)? What did you choose that color for (could be the color of a napkin)? Why did you make that for dinner? Why did you use that pan, pencil etc.? Why didn’t you do your homework an hour ago? Why did you go to that food store? Did you take a shower or a bath? Why did you order carrots instead of peas for dinner?”
What category of personality disorder, if any, has this type of behavior?
If this behavior is repeated a lot, then it is likely to be associated with a personality disorder – it’s part of their personality; their automatic way of being without even thinking about it. It’s most likely associated with Narcissistic or Antisocial Personality Disorder. Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to be preoccupied with showing that they are superior to those around them – especially children and spouses/partners who may tolerate them. People with Antisocial Personality Disorder are generally preoccupied with dominating others – especially those they perceive are weaker than them or those who fear them. It is a form of bullying at least, and more likely a form of “power and control” which especially shows up in abusive family relationships.
By interrogating those around them, they can control them. It is often a wearing down process, which their “targets” slowly learn to accept. For the target, it becomes easier to answer these questions than to resist. In some cases, the HCP may punish them for not cooperating, such as through violence or destruction of prized possessions or denying them normal freedoms and independence of thought in the relationship – whether as a child or as an intimate partner. The theme is superiority (narcissist) and/or dominance (antisocial). “My choices are better than yours.” “You have to rely on my judgment and deny your own.” Remember, when it comes to these types of patterns of interpersonal dysfunction: “The issue’s not the issue – the personality is the issue!” There’s nothing that the target does to cause this happening to them. It’s about the dysfunctional person’s behavior. And if you’re in a new relationship and this type of interrogation starts to occur – get out as quickly as you can. It’s not “normal” behavior and it’s not a sign of love.
What causes this type of behavior?
People with personality disorders have many different types of behavior, but generally a more narrow range of behavior. Their dysfunctional patterns of behavior repeat and repeat, despite negative feedback and they are generally not aware that they are doing anything unusual. Some have genetic tendencies toward aggressive and/or self-defeating behavior, while others may have learned these behaviors growing up in their families of origin, and some feel so out-of-control inside that they are driven to control everyone around them to feel better.
How should a child or a spouse/partner respond?
One has to be careful here. Since this is a form of power and control by someone who likely has a personality disorder, you can’t just challenge them without risk – either of violence, control of other aspects of their lives (finances, social isolation, etc.) and/or emotional abuse. The first thing I would suggest is getting education and support from outside of the family, such as with a therapist, a doctor, a lawyer, clergy or other helping professional. A parent who sees this happening to herself or himself or to their children should not try to aggressively intervene alone. They need a well-thought-out plan of intervention, which could include moving out with the children until things change, or having a family intervention with professional help. Remember, this type of behavior is often the tip of the iceberg, so people need to be prepared for the angry reaction the person may have when challenged on this behavior.
If there is no history of physical abuse or other dynamics of power and control, and no concern about these, then the other parent and the children could learn to ignore the questions. For example, they could start out learning to tell themselves “This is not about me – this is inappropriate behavior and my other parent has given me permission not to answer these questions.” They could start with just telling themselves that and then, after they have sufficient support, simply ignoring the questions or say “I’m not going to answer that. Let’s talk about something else.” These are common tactics you can use with a bully, but you need support to use them in a family – especially for children of a young age.
This is not legal advice nor therapeutic advice. Get consultation! Each situation is unique and this is one of the warning signs of a larger problem that usually needs professional advice and assistance.
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.