By Dakota Fidram, MS, NCC, APC
Parents with Borderline Personality Disorder
We often know, or at least have heard of, someone with an emotionally draining parent. That person is sometimes us. The parent who never fails to criticize every success, every accomplishment we make. The parent who frequently gets intoxicated and expects us to bail them out of every situation. The parent who ruins the family holiday get-together and demands to know why we won’t invite them over anymore. The parent who showers us with love one minute but then, seemingly out-of-nowhere, frigidly vilifies us the next minute. This roller-coaster ride of feelings is intense, but it is not necessarily uncommon. Parents, after all, are people too; they can be susceptible to the same turmoil and traumas that plague anyone else. Yet, the idea often perplexes us. Aren’t parents supposed to always love their children, no matter what, unconditionally?
When Parents Are Unstable
Our society is founded on rules such as “family members always take care of each other” as well as “parents protect and teach their children.” But what happens when our parental guide, our caretaker, is compromised? What happens when the emotional rock that keeps us grounded and steady during shaky times is in fact the one who makes the ground beneath us quake? Unsurprisingly, this type of situation has major psychological and social ramifications for a child. Often, the effects of a chaotic relationship with parents can last long into adulthood. Adults who experience an emotionally unstable parent may find that the world around them is difficult to manage and cope with. A good number of these adult children may go on to develop their own maladaptive coping mechanisms, perhaps even the ones that afflicted their parents. And that is, perhaps, one of the scariest questions children of dysfunctional parents seem to all face: am I turning into Mom/Dad?
Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD
Where could this all come from? What could make our parents warps such a close bond? Much of this makes more sense when we’re aware of a series of mental conditions known as Personality Disorders. These disorders are a set of enduring, long lasting patterns of behavior that stand out from what others might consider appropriate. The behaviors are often constant, unchanging and bring a great deal of social and emotional distress to the individual as well as those around them. There are many varieties of Personality Disorders. Borderline Personality Disorder exists in a group marked by traits like dramatic, emotional, or erratic. BPD is characterized most often by the tendency to suddenly shift how others are viewed. As described above, parents like this will often idealize their children one second, going on about how wonderful or successful they are, and then the next second completely devalue and denounce them. The parent with BPD will view their relationships with children on borderlines, as the name of the disorder reflects. On these narrow, tense borderlines, parents set their impossible expectations.
Walking on a Tightrope over Eggshells
For children of BPD parents, walking on the borderline can feel like walking over eggshells: at any moment the whole thing is going to crack. On one side of the line, skies are clear. On the other side of the line, a volcano erupts. Children often walk across this tightrope of uncertainty every day. It can feel like at any minute mom or dad is going to turn from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and seemingly for the most irrelevant or strangest reasons. This pattern of flipping back and forth underscores the impulsivity that typifies BPD. The parent’s concept of who they are and what they believe is utterly unsteady. Their goals and values change with the weather, their opinions mutate rapidly. One day mom loves the way you wear your hair, the next day you are ridiculous for leaving the house looking like that. Dad is friendly and hangs out with all the neighbors one week, the next week it seems like the entire neighborhood is evil in his eyes. The whiplash others experience going through these shifts can be exhausting. And this chaotic impulsivity will often reach dangerous levels. It’s not uncommon for parents with BPD to also struggle with substance use, gambling, reckless spending, or other risky behaviors. For those children who have tumbled with the realities of BPD parents, just trying to understand and continue moving forward can be daunting. Living with a BPD parent can lead to complications for children too. They may develop a strong sensitivity to criticism while also being highly critical of themselves. They can feel easily overstimulated and overwhelmed. They typically feel exasperated from dealing with the tornado of symptoms their parents go through while at the same time handling all the other stressors of life.
Setting Boundaries and Other Ways of Coping
This double jeopardy of complications pins children between a rock and a hard place. But even in this precarious position, there are ways of managing it all slowly and patiently. One of the vital first steps is to be mindful of how you interact with your parent. BPD thrives on reactivity; sometimes depriving the air of combustible oxygen can help diffuse explosive situations before they blow. Of course, this can feel impossible when your parent is screaming at you for picking up the wrong item at the grocery store or when refusing to speak to you because you didn’t send them a birthday card. This is where working with a counselor can really come in handy, allowing you an opportunity to practice how you react. Another key is setting clear boundaries. The wildfire of BPD has a harder time spreading when you build a moat around it. When parents yell or even act violently, refuse to interact or go somewhere else. Make it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated in the future. Naturally, this can feel incredibly harsh! And your parent, in all likelihood, will freak out. But, consider this: the relationship can’t improve if everyone loses. Do your best to convey reasonable and appropriate expectations. In the end, you can only control what you say and do; it’s your parents’ choice how they react.
Let Us Help
Borderline Personality Disorder can be one of the most challenging and disruptive conditions families deal with. If you and your family experience the tumultuous effects of BPD, just know that speaking with another individual about your situation can be a major relief. Therapists at True You Southeast are prepared to help you navigate the uncertainty. Don’t hesitate to contact us at 404-800-7586 or email us at email@example.com.