Having a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

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The legacy of having a BPD parent - Mark Ettensohn, Psy. Sacramento therapistTreatments such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) have brought renewed interest in Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and, indeed, personality disorders in general. There is greater public awareness of these complex mental health issues and considerably less stigma surrounding a diagnosis of BPD than in decades past.

However, less attention has been given to understanding and treating adult children of BPD parents, many of whom struggle with depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress.

Key Features of BPD:

People with Borderline Personality Disorder experience significant emotional disturbance that revolves around an unstable self-image and deeply held fears of abandonment. They struggle with emotional regulation and may have unpredictable outbursts that can cause distress for those around them. They may also engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting/burning themselves or threatening to commit suicide. BPD is a chronic issue that is often associated with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and complex trauma. To learn more about BPD, see this article: Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder.

Children of BPD Parents:

People with BPD often rely on those around them to help maintain a stable sense of self. This places considerable demands on loved ones, who come to dread being blamed for the person’s bad mood, recent work disappointment, or fluctuating body image. While such relational demands can be difficult for adults, they are frequently overwhelming for children, who require caregiving that is both stable and consistent. Perhaps most importantly, children need to internalize a sense of self that is basically good and deserving of love, care, and attention. This sense comes directly from caregivers, and it becomes the bedrock on which a child’s future emotional and mental well-being are built. When caregivers are preoccupied with maintaining their own internal equilibrium, they are unable to provide the emotional sustenance that their children require.

Dr. Cynthia Neuman (2012) writes more on the developmental and relational dilemmas faced by children of BPD parents:

…mothers with BPD struggle to stay afloat. They cling to whoever is near, and they pull their children into their blackness. Mothers with several children may perceive one child as all-good and another as no-good, as they project the contradictory feelings that they have about themselves onto different children. The mother’s differing presentations cause the child to become anxious, confused, fearful, and untrusting, as she is never sure what to expect. Thus, she grows up believing other people are inconsistent and not to be trusted. Trapped in a world that others cannot see or understand, the child of a severely disturbed borderline mother comes to feel hopelessly lost….The borderline mother’s fear of abandonment and her tendency to experience separation as rejection lock her and her children in a struggle for survival. Children must separate to survive, but separation threatens the mother’s survival. Regardless of how outrageous the mother’s perspective may be, she may punish or vilify her children for disagreeing…. Shame extinguishes the child’s sense of entitlement and can trigger self-destructive fantasies…. Without structure and predictability. children have no reality base upon which to build self-esteem and security.

For many children growing up with a BPD parent, necessities like care and positive regard are commodities that appear on an unpredictable schedule – based not on the child’s behavior but on the parent’s internal state of being. As a result, children of BPD parents tend to grow up feeling mistrustful of others. They have trouble with intimacy because they are constantly fearful that the other person will unpredictably turn on them. They may become very good at reading other people’s feelings and attempting to predict what they want. Simultaneously, they are often clueless as to their own wants and feelings.

Children of BPD parents tend to struggle with feelings of shame, because their normal and developmentally appropriate needs for attention and positive mirroring may have been abused by the caregiver’s jealousy or the caregiver’s own shame. Such children learn early that their main job is to reflect the caregiver positively in order to avoid unbearably painful abandonment and retaliation. When the BPD caregiver lashes out, he or she may later rewrite history and deny any wrong-doing in the first place. This is due to a psychological defense called “splitting,” which causes people with BPD to see themselves and the world as either all good or all bad. Children must learn to adapt to their caregiver’s use of splitting and may find it difficult to trust their own sense of past events. They may come to feel that they are not entitled to feelings of anger and may be very fearful of attempting to hold others accountable for their actions.

Children of BPD parents often develop very strong feelings of guilt and of personal responsibility for the actions and feelings of others. This is due to the BPD caregiver’s continual need to blame others for his/her feelings and actions. BPD individuals often have something called an external locus of control, which means that they tend to see their lives as out of control and their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as depending on external factors. When a person with untreated BPD flies into a rage or threatens self-harm, he or she will often place blame on others for those actions. This becomes very confusing for children, who require caregivers to model personal responsibility and to teach healthy interpersonal and emotional boundaries.

Mason and Kreger (2010, as cited in Neuman 2012) list six issues frequently associated with BPD parenting:

  1. Difficulty separating relationships with their children from problems with others – BPD parents may not be able to allow their children to have positive relationships with people that the BPD parents dislikes (such as between separated parents).
  2. Inconsistent parenting – BPD parents may treat their children in inconsistent ways (i.e. over-involvement vs. neglect)
  3. Unpredictable love – BPD parents may have difficulty providing children with a consistent feeling of being loved.
  4. Feeling threatened by a child’s normal behavior – BPD parents may have difficulty allowing children to be angry with them without retaliating, or allowing their children to indivuate without feeling abandoned.
  5. Inability to love unconditionally – BPD parents may withdraw love when their children do not obey, or when their children express anger or disappointment with them.
  6. Feeling threatened by a child’s feelings and opinions – BPD parents may defend their fragile sense of self by punishing their children for expressing thoughts, feelings, and opinions that they do not like.

If you feel that you were raised by a parent with BPD, then talking to a therapist can be very helpful in the process of recovery. Adult children of BPD parents must learn to trust others, to develop a more stable positive sense of self, and to learn appropriate interpersonal boundaries. These lessons are best learned within the context of a healing relationship with a trained professional.

If you have been diagnosed with BPD and worry about the effects your illness may have on your children, the best course of action is to seek therapy. Untreated BPD can be very destructive to all parties involved. But with treatment, it is possible to learn new ways of coping and new ways of relating to loved ones.

Works Cited –

Neuman, C.T. (2012). Impact of Borderline Personality Disorder on parenting: Implications for child custody and visitation recommendations. Journal of Child Custody, 9, 233-249.


The role of the therapist is to reflect the being/accepting self that was never allowed to be in the borderline.”

― Michael Adzema


  1. Karen Dever
    July 11, 2016

    I am curious about how to deal with my niece who has bpd. She has a 3 year old son who is currently living with his grandmother. Every time my niece gets upset ahe threatens to get her rights back. My nephew already has huge tantrums and will pinch, hit, and kick when he is mad. Would it be a good idea to get him in therapy now. I worry that he will end up with bpd as well. What can we do to help him deal with his mom and her issues so they don’t effect him too much. Thanks so much.

    • raindrop
      November 24, 2017

      Play therapy might help. However tantrums are normal for that age, though not ones of that severity. Good parenting strategies should help, and a high level of consistency, stability and unconditional love should at least help a little in the healing of his early attachment issues. It’s good they got him away so early.

  2. Bianca
    September 20, 2016

    I’m a parent of an adult child who suffers from BPD, she’s a cutter, post partum depression dx and possibly bipolar. Alcohol and drugs are a problem but I do not know the severity of it. She’s attempted suicide atleast once. I’v been raising her daughter for the past 7 Months (9 months old) but do not have any legal means to keep my daughter from taking her daughter.

    I’m concerned about what will happen to her daughter of she removes her from my home. I fear if I take legal actions for custody of my granddaughter and that i would cause my daughter to commit suicide.

  3. Jill
    September 23, 2016

    Dr. Etterson, The lightbulb went off for me in my late 40’s when my lack of boundary-setting was getting me over-involved and over-responsible in my personal, spiritual, and work spheres of life. There were patterns that I finally saw and realized that I could keep blaming, as I was taught by my BPD parent, or take my part of the personal responsibility for the wreckage and set goals for wholeness and integrity. Five years later, with the help of counseling, reading, and forging healthier relationships – my life is now mine. With my BPD parent, I learned that the “locus of control” wasn’t mine to possess. Initially taking full responsibility for my decisions was frightening because I didn’t trust myself to make thoughtful, loving and firm decisions. All of those self doubts, mistrust of my feelings was a hard won battle because my childhood ingrained those beliefs in my heart and mind. By God’s grace, I’m on the other side. Articles like yours help me to continue the process of recovery. Thank you for helping me regain what I believe to be lost.

    • sarah
      December 8, 2017

      Thanks..a hope giving comment for me to read.im 36 and struggling big time on the journey of recovery from emotional abuse during childhood and in marriage. My mother and ex husband i believe are bpd. Now divorced and iv had help like u with reading and counselling. Problem is, i dont want to spend time with them right now and they say they do. They also say im unfair for not letting them see my 5yr old precious daughter whom i dont want exposed to their dysfunction and potential harmful impact on her I do feel guilty but at the end of the day it must be false guilt.
      So im wandering how u manage to either not have or to have contact with ur family?? Im finding it hard to move forward whilst im dealing with them wanting to see my daughter and claiming rights to doing so.

  4. Borderline vs Narcissistic Parents | What happens to their children?
    December 30, 2016

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  5. Kyla Ardoin
    January 21, 2017

    This explanation is exactly what I needed today. At 36 years old, with a child myself now, I am letting go and separating myself from my BPD mother. 36 years is a long time to have self-hatred brought on by never being allowed to be happy and never being continuously loved. For years, I have thought I was crazy. Nope. Just a whipping post for my mother. Luckily, my extended family validates that my mom is emotionally abusive. She has “punished” me for the last time for being myself. It’s still heartbreaking because I love her. She is my mother. And there were good times, but the mental anguish is not worth it anymore. I have a son who deserves all the magic and happiness in the world. I am thankful that she has carried a cross of misery so that I know what true happiness is like.

    • Sarah Thompson
      March 8, 2017

      Thank you for your post. It describes my situation exactly. I’m 37 and I have a son. I only just now discovered the reason for everything my mother does. All the time I spent trying to find what was wrong with me, why am I not normal? Well I am normal and simply responding to the dysfunctional parenting I received. I always thought my nontraditional upbringing was cute and quirky. No it was a lie. A play we all acted out to keep things calm. I love her but she is not capable of giving real love to anyone. I feel lucky for the times she just left. I can’t imagine if she was forced to stay… the kind of hell fire it would have unleashed.

      • Mehran Nia
        March 27, 2017

        I am a father two daughters who have a mother with MPD.

        I have left my cooperate world just so that I can take care of my kids half the time and I am still worried to death for them. They are 12 and 15 old girls and I have through reading and understanding trying to make my girls aware that their mother is not well and they have choices. Their choice is to live a life free of drama and negetivity. But my younger daughter is not doing well and I am so worried. She protects her mom regradsless of all the harm she does. Any thoughts for someone who has gone through this?

  6. Aatam
    March 12, 2017

    Omg wow at 29 throught therapy and i learned of this and like
    The two commentetors above omg wowowowowowowowow?!

    Its like i found the missing lines but i always knew the dots and now i feel complete i grew up with a single mother with bpd and all i have left to say is wow im so glad i learned this at 29 through therapy.

  7. Ella Linwood
    April 1, 2017

    My sister’s and I found this article very helpful and insightful. Ages 26, 23, 19. I am the middle and the (Good child) My little sister’s words were “We’re not alone.” Thankfully we have grown up assuring each other that we are not crazy, but this article made it perfectly clear. We have a mother who is undiagnosed, and just functioning enough to be perceived as normal to the outside world. I myself moved states away to gain some clarity and I am doing better now. I have been successful in establishing some boundaries, but I would like further possible tools in dealing with a mother who would never admit to having a problem let alone a diagnosis of any kind. My sister’s and I are pretty well versed in behavioral therapy.(I would discuss that further over email) Is there a way to coexist? Is there a way to react to her outbursts that has proven effective? Please email me whenever you have time. I think you would find our particular case interesting. 3 Girls who reacted differently to the situation. Also, if you have anyone to recommend to us who is well versed in this in MN I would be very interested in contacting them.

    Thank you

  8. Marta Deangelis
    April 14, 2017

    I was raised by a beautiful, but I am sure borderline mother. I am 65 now and I felt guilty that I felt relief when she died. She favored my brother, who now at age 60 is schizophrenic and lives on the streets. I copied my dad, throughout my life,became an RN. I married a borderline man at age 19 to get away from her. When I grew up, there was no borderline diagnosis. My father had his doctorate in microbiology and I modeled myself after him, not her. He, I feel, knew something was wrong with her, but just coped, like me. But she was harming me. There are no baby pics of my mother holding me, only my dad seemed to take care of me. Her words were devastating to me, as I grew, and I didn’t know why she was like she was. She seemed not to like anything about me and I never felt loved .When I met my future husband, he blurted out to me that he had been molested by his 17 yr. Old brother at age 7. Little did myself or anyone know how this would affect him. It was an abusive marriage( on his part) for 23 yrs., When I finally understood what was wrong with him. He would not stay in treatment at age 30, our marriage was a , his hurricane of him suddenly hating me and leaving me, abusing me instead of confronting his abuser., and crying to me,,about his abuse when he would return home after his affairs, his continuous use of drugs. , His quitting, or getting fired numerous jobs, etc. Finally, I left after being called fat, ugly and stupid every other day. I believed him for a while even when I was away from him, but with therapy I realized that I was NONE of the the things he said. But now I see how my children were damaged. Oldest son has been in trouble since about age 20, has 4 children that their mothers have raised. I at age, 55, with a new, loving husband, adopted my son’s son at birth. At least, he is being raised in a good environment. My daughter , is also a RN, has a 2 unstable relationships with men like her dad, but began to understand what was wrong with her dad and her boyfriends, she is married to a very stable man. My youngest son married a borderline personality, at age 19because she was pregnant. He finally divorced her, bot he allows her to still be entwined with his life and I can see how it is affecting his young daughter’s, but he refuses to believe what is wrong with her,still loves her., Even though he knows he was raised by a God himself and can set boundaries with his father now, but not her. I finally realized what caused my mother to be like she was, when at age 80, she blurted out that ‘ my uncle molested me and they sent ME away.’ Living and coping with BPD is awful, so tiring, and they cannot get well without long periods of intense therapy which they don’t think they need or even want to do. They destroy and upset so many people with their words and actions!

  9. Diane
    August 22, 2017

    My partner’s ex is diagnosed with BPD although she refuses to admit it and blames everyone else in the world for being crazy. He has twins with her and I sometimes struggle to understand why they behave the way they do. Could someone please shed some light on this?

    Yes they have the characteristic lack of trust, lack of self worth, failing in school, lack of hygiene and feelings of guilt associated with BPD. When they are with us, they see how a normal relationship functions and I can see them reflecting on why it is so turbulent at home. The last time they saw their mother in a violent rage with us, they said they couldn’t believe it because she is always so lovely! They go home and within days it is back to mother is queen. They know what she says and does is wrong, I can see it in their eyes but they do not believe it and always defend her. They make excuses for her behaviour and lie to us openly about events that we know have happened. What I do not understand is, if there life is so rotten with her and things are as a bad as they are made out, then why do they constantly defend and protect her making us be the bad people constantly?

    • StephanieS
      December 2, 2017

      Because she’s their mother. That’s why. It is VERY SCARY to stand up to a BPD as an ADULT. It’s not something a child can even fathom doing. Their mother has made herself The Big Kahuna. She made the rules and they better agree with her or face consequences. You don’t know what that mother is doing to them when you are not around. It is an EXTREME form of emotional abuse. I am 46 and was only able to cut off contact from my mother two years ago. It took me SO long just to understand what was going on. I knew our family was not normal, but I didn’t have a “reason” or a name for it. It seemed like my mother enjoyed the constant chaos, the drama, the yelling, screaming, hair-pulling, face-slapping, shoving, punching, beatings. It is VERY FUCKING SCARY having a parent like that. I recommend your partner does the right thing and tries to get full custody. If he cares about his children’s well-being, he should. The mother will fight this tooth and nail, of course, but if you want to prevent these girls from becoming BPD themselves, it is extremely important.

      I hope this helps with understanding. An email from my mother can still send me into a shame spiral. Abusers don’t stop abusing. They simply change tactics. This woman will manipulate and control her children as long as she is alive.

  10. Sarah
    September 30, 2017

    Like so many of these posts, I, too, have a BPD mother–never diagnosed, but meets all the criteria–and now at age 96 still displays BPD! As her adult child/daughter, now 60, I’ve had to engage in very limited contact with her for the past few years. I don’t live around her for a good reason, but phone calls from her can still be very distressing. While I do long for a ‘mother,’ I know it is not her, and will never be her. While I’ve tried many times over the years, to ‘be nice,’ and communicate, and visit her, it always results in an episode of criticism, against me, and/or my husband (who she called ‘he’ for many years). Nothing is ever good enough. It’s always about her—her needs, and her aches and pains. But looking back, it’s been like this my whole life. I know what loving mothering looks, and feels like, and it’s not her. So, I meditate, work on self-compassion, compassion for others-that includes her. But at the same time, I am in an ongoing state of recovery so I have to protect myself. If this is any indication of who she is–she just sent me a birthday card. She did not write my name in it. She signed it “Love, your Mother” with a note on the side about how she called me several times and left messages, I have not returned her calls, and that she doesn’t feel well. Anyways, like all of you, I’ve experienced lifelong, and ongoing grief, as well as the loss of never having a loving, unconditional parent. Most importantly, I’ve had to teach myself how to love myself unconditionally…work in progress. Peace to all.


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