Treatments 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:
- 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).
- Inconsistent parenting – BPD parents may treat their children in inconsistent ways (i.e. over-involvement vs. neglect)
- Unpredictable love – BPD parents may have difficulty providing children with a consistent feeling of being loved.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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