Being the Child of a Parent with Borderline Personality Disorder
By: Beth McHugh 2014
In previous articles on borderline personality disorder (BPD) we looked at the symptoms of this disorder and also case studies of people suffering from BPD.
In today’s article, we will be addressing the experience of being a child brought up by an adult with BPD, and the emotional damage that may result from growing up in such an environment.
Tony, Chad and Brendan are now in their forties, but grew up in a middle class home where money was not a problem. Their parents, Jack and June, were both employed and had their three sons quickly, being only five years difference in their ages.
Tony sought counseling in his 30s because he suffered from low self-esteem together with uncontrolled anger bursts. The problem for Tony really surfaced when he witnessed his mother, June, treated his own daughters Kim and Riley in much the same way that he himself had been treated as a child. June blew hot and cold with her grandchildren according to her mood and state of mind. June was naturally a loving and caring person, but her borderline personality disorder meant that she couldn’t always maintain her equilibrium when under stress and she would occasionally erupt and say and do quite hurtful things.
The three boys grew up in a household that was characterized by high achievement, high expectations, good physical support but a characteristic rollercoaster situation in terms of emotional support. This lack of stability came from June’s unpredictable behaviors. One minute she could be the typical loving mother, but if she felt threatened by the demands of her job, or her parental role or if outside forces beyond her control intruded into her world, she would revert to the emotional age of quite a young child.
Tantrums were not uncommon if June perceived that things weren’t being done the “proper way”. She did not cope well with the stresses and strains of life and her temper could quickly flare if the children should happen to be in the vicinity and left a toy in the way, or other perceived “wrong”.
As her three sons grew, the problems increased, as the natural questioning and boundary testing of puberty took hold and served as a challenge to June’s power. Unable to see this as a normal process, June overreacted each time her sons did not comply with her wishes, or questioned her authority. If they did something she had forbidden, the result would be a screaming match usually with June ending up in tears and retreating to her room.
When June’s mother died she grieved badly but attacked her own children for “not grieving enough”. She didn’t take into account that her mother had lived in another city and her sons had not really had a chance to form a strong bond with their grandmother. All she saw was that she was sad and so her sons should be sad too and be looking after her.
Her husband Jack was the official peacemaker in the home, with an ability to calm June down. Unfortunately he often asked his sons to “just go along with her” instead of actually confronting his wife’s, at times, unreasonable behavior.
June was also a highly successful and competitive person. She had to win and she had to be the best, otherwise her world would come temporarily crashing down. As her children grew, she even competed against them, refusing to let them win at board games when they were only children, and openly challenging them in their own endeavors as they became adults.
Again tantrums would erupt if June was not the winner or the best, she would burst into tears and again retreat to her room. She responded well to cajoling and praise and therefore the incident would be over in a relatively short time. June showed no evidence of mood swings of the type associated with bipolar. For her, it was an intrinsic part of her personality.
Like many personality disorders, trauma in the formative years can be a trigger for its development and June certainly fell in that category. She had been raped as a young teenager by her brother and although her parents were aware of the incident, they did not acknowledge it to June nor support her. It was then that June first started showing the signs that would ultimately end in her diagnosis in adulthood of BPD.
June was also famous for playing one son off the other as they became adults and she would have periods of normal functioning that would be interrupted by sudden changes in mood and allegiances. The latter would last usually less than an hour but the result was that, for the sons, they lived on tenterhooks for most of their formative years.
The entire family was unaware that June was suffering from BPD but just put down her behaviors of binge eating, reckless driving, uncontrolled anger episodes, competitiveness and childlike crying to “that’s just Mother”. Not even the husband understood that these recurring symptoms were just part of a constellation of symptoms that made up borderline personality disorder. When questioned later as an adult in therapy, Tony thought that BPD was all about “wrist slashing”. This is a common myth in the community. Self harm comes in many forms, and not all BPD sufferers indulge in cutting.
As the children became adults, they all married and had children of their own. But their relationship with their mother and her undiagnosed illness had taken its toll. Yet all the children, Tony, Chad and Brendan, were affected in different ways. The eldest, Tony, had a sensitive nature and was often hurt by his mother’s comments. Although he would argue his case when older, basically Tony separated himself from both his parents as soon as he was old enough to leave home. While still maintaining phone contact, the distance separating them led to less turmoil between mother and son. That is, until Tony’s own children were born. June started to ridicule Tony’s adolescent daughter, criticizing her hair and her developing body. Tony and his mother had a fight, but June brushed it off as “all jokes”. Tony felt angry and recognized that the psychological damage that his mother was doing to his daughter was similar to that which he experienced as a growing boy, where he was less successful at sport than his two younger brothers. As the conflict rose, Tony sought therapy and learned firstly that his mother had BPD and was able to link its development to the trauma she has suffered in her formative years. Having an new understanding of the illness, Tony was able to put effective boundaries in place with his mother that gave him a sense of power for the first time in his life. He also learned to successfully teach his daughter how to deflect his mother’s unsavory comments without insulting her, which would have led to more tears and tantrums. He understood, as did his daughter, that these comments from his mother came out of a deep sense of insecurity and was also able to treat his mother differently, in a way that would minimize her tantrum outbreaks but allow him to interact better with her.
Chad, the second son, had always had a tumultuous relationship with his mother. Also unaware both in childhood and adulthood that his mother suffered from a real illness, not just a “bad temper” and “moods”, Chad argued and argued with his mother. She argued back. Neither would give the proverbial inch. Chad tried to make his mother see “reason” and June tried to make her son see her way of thinking. Neither would budge or try to see the other’s point of view.
June was less capable of doing this than Chad, but what capabilities she had were obscured by her need to have her son understand her hurt and her pain. She has little time to see his perspective because her lack of sense of self blinds her to the needs of others when she feels threatened. These encounters between Chad and his mother usually ended with June bursting into tears, as Chad is a consummate debater and he usually wins the battle. But in reality he loses the war as he becomes further and further estranged from his mother. That estrangement lead to increasing anger at his mother for “not being there for him” and he also ridiculed her behavior as being childish. His feeling of being let down by his mother had even more serious effects – he had a problem with women and remaining faithful to them.
Because Chad could not trust his mother to be there for him, that belief system bled into his own life. He cheated on his girlfriends and, after he married, he cheated on his wife. His first wife divorced him, but he remarried. He cheated on her as well until she left him. When he found a girlfriend, he cheated on her. Frustrated with his birth family, angry at his mother, father and siblings, he couldn’t even walk away from them and start a new life with a woman for any length of time because he could not remain faithful.
However, Chad was convinced by his older brother Tony to have counseling and this proved to be enormously successful for Chad. Out came all his pain about his mother not caring for him. But when he too discovered that his mother had been suffering from BPD, Chad softened. He was a diligent person and did a lot of research on the disorder and with the help of his therapist was able to see that many of his mother’s poor behaviors were a result of her illness, not that she didn’t love him or care about him. Chad learned that at times in her life, his mother was incapable of giving him the attention he needed because she needed all her energies to keep herself going. In fact, she needed attention off others to supplement her own inability to deal with life difficulties when they arise. So although June was able to hold down a job and looked “good” to outsiders, inside her life was almost a permanent struggle of feeling unloved and unworthy herself, so she little to offer her children when she needed to be built up herself. Today Chad’s relationship is much improved with his mother. He too has learned to set boundaries with his mother when she does act in unrealistic ways and make unreasonable demands. However he has learned that to keep in contact, give her attention, and small tokens of love keeps their relationship more balanced and happy. He is no longer permanently angry. His problem with fidelity is a work in progress but he can see that it is related to his early relationship to his mother.
Brendan, the youngest of the three brothers, had the opportunity to watch the differing ways his brothers related to their mother. As an adult, he stated that he saw that neither Tony nor Chad interacted with their mothers in ways that were useful. So he decided to fly under the radar. Brendan deliberately did not argue with his mother, just tacitly agreed with her to avoid the risk of her flying into a rage. He never questioned her, even as he grew older. He just listened and went ahead and did what he wanted to do anyway. Hence when he was involved in family therapy, he freely admitted that he did not “engage” with his mother in the way that his two older brothers had. He didn’t argue which would promote further argument. In therapy, he correctly agreed that the way his two elder sibling dealt with their mother was counterproductive, and both had suffered as a result.
However, Brendan had developed a coping mechanism that worked well for him as a child but was not working for him as an adult. In flying under the radar, Brendan did not learn important skills during his formative years. Now, as an adult in his 40s, Brendan does not deal with conflict very well and avoids it as much as possible. He comes across as the most well adjusted of the three siblings, but that is because he does not make waves and he goes along with much of what is said around him, whether that be in his home, with friends or in the workplace. Brendan is a “great guy”.
But inside, Brendan is seething. His anger only comes out when he is placed in a position where he is forced to confront unpleasant relatives in his life, and even then he will deflect correct observations about his behaviors onto others, via a variety of techniques, such as changing the subject, countering with a similar accusation, or going off on a sub-topic to create a diversion that is mildly related to the main topic however marginally. These are the techniques he used growing up to deal with his birth family dynamics and these are the techniques he still uses today to deal with adult issues in his own life.
In fact, so keen is Brendan to project a favorable image that he works on being the “nice guy”. But he also has unconsciously turned everyone who he perceives to be in a position of power to be his mother, and acts accordingly. For example, if challenged by his boss, he will fly under the radar, agree, but not change. Of course, Brendan was not aware he was doing this until he went into therapy. But once it became apparent that Brendan was avoiding unpleasant issues, it became apparent why he, of all the siblings, would not accept that his mother had an illness. He also would not accept his siblings’ admissions that they had suffered as children and teenagers because of the mother’s illness. While both his siblings explained their pain to him, he remained resolute that there was nothing wrong with his birth family and that his brothers should “let go of the past”.
One can only let go of the past if one acknowledges it, observes it and learns from it. His two elder brothers had successfully embraced that and were well on the way to recovery and were on better terms with their mother, now that they understood that their mother’s behavior towards them was not personal, but part of her illness.
Brendan, however, was emotionally stuck because he was still operating under a childhood means of interaction with not only his mother but with significant others in his life. He also had marriage problems but would not face them directly with his wife but chose non-direct methods of letting his wife know that he was not happy in the marriage. So the legacy of his mother’s illness and Brendan’s learned way of dealing with difficult situations had lead him to a point in his late 40s where he was unhappy with his marriage but was unable to communicate this information directly with his wife.
Brendan could not admit in family therapy that he had a problem, but instead repeated that it was his siblings who had a problem because they couldn’t let go of their past in regards to their mother. What Brendan didn’t realize was that his two brothers, by looking at the past and finding out in therapy how to deal with their own problems and seeing the link between how they managed their lives and how their mother’s illness had affected them, were now actually free of the more detrimental effects of their mother’s illness and were able to have a satisfactory relationship with her.
Brendan’s life finally came to a head when his wife confronted him over marriage difficulties, and threatened to leave. Brendan is still pretending there is no marriage problem and tries to lay low, just as he did as a boy in his mother’s home while the fights and crying went on around him. He deflects his wife’s statements about the problems they face back onto her. Brendan can’t seem to move forward from his mother so that he can deal with the problems he faces with his wife today. Refusing to see that he has a problem, he will not seek help.
While having a parent with BPD will make life more complicated for their children, it is possible to heal childhood hurts caused by this illness and, through the use of boundaries, have a happier life. Not only with the affected parent, but with significant others. By removing the beliefs that may have been instilled in the growing child by a BPD parent, knowledge and understanding of the illness can lead to more productive relationships for the birth family, and a more emotionally stable parent. It is not the parent’s fault that they have BPD, but therapy for the sufferer and also the adult children can result in a much better outcome for all parties.