Being Raised by a Mother With Borderline Personality Disorder
The devastating effects of untreated borderline personality disorder (BPD) can severely restrict the functioning of people with the disorder, create extraordinary emotional distress, and lead to chronic psychological instability. But the impact of BPD is not limited to the person with the disorder; symptoms bleed into the lives of those around them and deeply shape the quality of interpersonal relationships. Often, the most seriously affected are the children of a mother with borderline personality disorder, as the disorder interferes with normal, healthy parenting behaviors and parent-child dynamics, while increasing the risk of environmental instability, drug and alcohol exposure, and poor family cohesion. As a result, the very foundation of your formative psychosocial development may be compromised, leaving you vulnerable to ongoing psychological, behavioral, and interpersonal difficulties that interfere with your sense of self, quality of life, and capacity for joy.
The Earliest Influences of a Mother with BPD
The damage of borderline personality disorder on children can begin in the earliest stages of infancy and disrupt the development of secure attachment and engagement. Studies have found that interactions between mothers with BPD and their infant children are characterized by insensitivity, high levels of intrusion, and low levels of positive response to infant distress. These mothers are less likely to engage in healthy infant parenting behaviors, with researchers noting, “Mothers with BPD smiled less, touched and imitated their infants less, and played fewer games with their babies.” Additionally, mothers with BPD often have difficulty identifying and appropriately responding to their children’s emotional state. These unmet psychosocial needs at critical moments of development increase risk of disorganized attachment and rob children of security, comfort, and safety from the very beginning of their lives.
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As children grow older and become verbal, the impact of BPD on their understanding of themselves, their mothers, and the world around them becomes more pronounced. The mother’s unstable identity, mood volatility, fear of abandonment, and black-and-white thinking can coalesce to prevent nurturing parenting behaviors and deeply fracture the child’s psychological, social, and behavioral development. Compassion, empathy, and validation are often withheld as your mother is unable to recognize your emotional needs or formulate appropriate responses. This, combined with the unpredictability, impulsivity, and extremity of those with BPD, is extraordinarily detrimental to the establishment of a secure emotional base from which to grow and flourish. Additionally, it leaves children without a model for healthy interpersonal functioning, conflict resolution, and emotional regulation, increasing vulnerability to maladaptive and self-destructive behaviors. As April, a woman who grew up with a mother who suffered from untreated BPD, says:
[Parents] really are naturally your compass. They are your example. You adopt what they do because you see the world through their eyes. I really struggled to know how to handle my emotions because I wasn’t being taught how. I developed an eating disorder because I didn’t know how to regulate how I felt.
Children of mothers with BPD are also at heightened risk for exhibiting attention difficulties, aggressive behavior, and low self-esteem, in addition to depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder itself.
The dynamics of the parent-child relationship are organized around the mother’s symptomatology; rather than understanding the child as an autonomous person with their own needs, desires, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses, the mother sees the child as a “need-gratifying object”. As a result, her parenting is driven by the desire to meet her own overwhelming need for validation, security, and love, rather than bestowing them upon you. You quickly learn that your role is to satisfy your mother’s demands, however unrealistic, unstable, and conflicting, and she often seeks to exert control and limit your autonomy as a frantic effort to avoid abandonment. Your sense of identity becomes intimately tied to and gained from your mother’s expectations and seemingly arbitrary vacillations between approval and rejection, adoration and disgust, exaltation and despair. Without the freedom and support to engage in the vital work of self-exploration and self-expression, you struggle to establish an authentic sense of self and to trust your own instincts. April describes her own experience of this phenomenon:
Not being allowed to be who I am was huge. Not being able to express yourself creates shame. It creates a sense that you’re never enough. Their goal is to make themselves the center of your world. In my family, she’s the sun and we all revolve around her. It makes you very programmable and insecure. Instead of being taught that I was a normal person going through normal things and had the power and ability to deal with them, I was taught that the things I was thinking or feeling were wrong. I would believe everything that everyone else taught me and wasn’t able to discern my own beliefs. I became a very insecure, needy, shameful, and protective person.
These effects often emerge early. Researchers have found that even young children with mothers suffering from BPD display “a shameful and incongruent sense of self,” heightened fear of abandonment, and difficulties creating stable relationships. As you age and are exposed to increasingly complex emotional, interpersonal, and functional demands, the disturbances caused by your mother’s BPD become even more fully articulated, often leading to a profound psychological crisis.
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Healing From Borderline Personality Disorder
Despite the extraordinary level of distress experienced by children of mothers with BPD, many are reluctant to acknowledge these experiences to others—or even to themselves. Revealing the truth about your mother can seem like a betrayal, particularly if your mother’s illness has conditioned you to feel responsible for her emotional state and behavior. Even Alex, a young woman who uses YouTube to share her experiences of growing up with a mother with BPD, says “I don’t want to make my mom look like a monster.” This protective instinct can keep you silent and isolate you from the help you need. Some even internalize their mother’s criticisms and rejections and blame themselves for her damaging behaviors. Recognizing the impact your mother has had on your life is necessary to understanding your own suffering and relieve feelings of guilt, disorientation, and shame; while her actions may not be malicious in intent, their devastating effect on your development and ability to navigate the world must be examined to allow healing to begin. It is only by exposing the roots of your emotional obstacles that you can remove them and move forward with your life.
At Bridges to Recovery, we offer effective, comprehensive treatment for the adult children of mothers with borderline personality disorder. Whether your formative experiences have led to the development of a mood, anxiety, personality, or trauma disorder, we have the resources to give you the guidance and insight you need to heal. Our compassionate and expertly trained clinicians will create a personalized treatment plan that addresses the full scope of your unique needs and give you the support, validation, and empathy you need to heal. Through a tailored mix of intensive individual psychotherapy, therapy groups, and holistic therapies, you can begin the process of self-discovery critical to recovery and the enhancement of emotional regulation, interpersonal tranquility, and psychological harmony. Within an immersive, non-judgmental therapeutic community, you can find relief from the suffering BPD brought to your life and allow your authentic self to bloom.
Bridges to Recovery offers the highest standard of care for people living with mental health disorders. Our innovative residential treatment program combines clinical excellence with holistic, compassionate care to create extraordinary treatment experiences for our clients. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.