Throws fits when packing

My daughter-in-law has scary outbursts and temper tantrums, especially at the end of a visit

By Cary Tennis
Published April 17, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

Believe it or not, I'm getting low on letters. So talk to me! What's going on in your life? What are you thinking about? Let's write to each other. You write to me, I write back here, for all the world to see. No problem too small! No problem too strange! No ideas too outlandish to contemplate here together! Write to me!

Good Morning Mr. Tennis,

My daughter-in-law is a wonderful mother -- smart, fun and loves my son and their two children -- a very competent person in almost all respects.

She and my son live about 1,100 miles away and we have family gatherings two or three times a year. She is prone to throw screaming, crying tantrums based on minor events and always blaming someone for her distress.

She is not alcoholic or addicted to any drugs but I've seen this type of behavior in alcoholics I've known. These tantrums occur at the very end of our family gatherings and occur with her family as well as with our family. She can't be talked down or reasoned with and if ignored will escalate, often physically leaving the group (walking away).

We recognize that there is some anxiety going on, which usually begins with packing. I have tried several approaches to warding off these outbursts but she will thwart all efforts. Her own family gets very upset by this behavior also. No one fights back; we all just endure until she's done. She is usually contrite and sad afterward but doesn't engage in any meaningful discussion. My son gets anxious and I know he is distressed.

I doubt they will last very long as a couple. My other children and their families and I are getting more and more disinclined to forgive and forget but are still hanging in there. The children are well-behaved and awesome and seem to enjoy our family gatherings. We usually have a very good time until the end is approaching.

We are at a loss. Do you have any insight into anything we could do to change things?

Thank you so much,

Loving but Getting Impatient

Dear Loving,

What you describe sounds like what psychologists call "emotional dysregulation," a symptom associated with several conditions, including borderline personality disorder. The interesting thing about BPD is that fear of abandonment is prominent. According to this Psychology Today article, a person with BPD will make "frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. This is probably the hallmark of BPD."

So think about what triggers her outbursts: packing a suitcase. I find that so interesting! Don't you?

I get anxious when I pack. Do you? I'll bet a lot of people do. But until this moment I never connected it with the fear of abandonment. Right now I am making a connection. Sometimes while writing this column I will make a connection in my own life that I have never made before. I am doing that right now. Isn't that amazing? OK, so let's not get all into my life. This is about your daughter-in-law. I'm just trying to suggest, by example, how thinking about these things can trigger memories and help us understand not just other people but ourselves.

So, back to your daughter-in-law! It's possible that she has borderline personality disorder. If she does have BPD, she is probably in a lot of emotional pain. That's no fun. She should get checked out by somebody who can.

What are your son's beliefs about getting psychological help? Is he psychologically minded? Or is he averse to getting psychological help? What about your daughter-in-law? What about you? There is much help to be gained by using the vast resources of knowledge that psychiatrists and therapists have amassed over the last few hundred years. To me, it is amazing that we citizens can actually go and get help from these people. Just identifying what's bothering you can be a tremendous boon.

There is treatment for this. I sure hope she reads this and gets some help. Because it's no fun living with that awful, empty feeling common to folks with borderline personality disorder. Take a look at these videos by Tami Green, who has BPD, and see if anything in what she says sounds familiar.

Maybe it's not BPD. Maybe it's something else. We can't know. But the kind of inner pain that such outbursts hint at is a sad thing. And it can be helped. And if we can help the ones we love then I think we ought to try.  Psychological treatment is not foolproof. A lot depends on how the therapist and the patient get along. And the patient must be willing to do some work. But she can improve, and if she does it will improve the lives of everyone in the family, because obviously everybody is concerned and their patience is growing thin.

Sometimes people with personality disorders resist admitting that there is anything wrong with them, and sometimes it can take several tries before they find a therapist they will trust and cooperate with. But there are many psychologists who will try to be helpful to her if she will let them. I hope she will let them. Maybe you will want to show her this letter. Or maybe you know a better approach. All I know is, it's no fun walking around with a troubling state of mind, and with so much help available in the modern world: Why suffer like that?

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Borderline Personality Disorder Bpd Family Personality Disorders Since You Asked