- Being raised by a BPD parent is a risk factor for pathologizing intimacy or love.
- Parents with BPD have significant fears of abandonment that they typically pass down to their children.
- Children who grow up with a BPD parent often feel confused, ashamed, and lack a sense of who they are.
Being raised by parent or primary caregiver with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can have devastating effects that span a lifetime. BPD is said to occur about equally among men and women, although it is formally diagnosed 75% more frequently in women. In the general population, BPD has about a 3-5% overall prevalence. However, it is diagnosed more often in clinical settings including 10% in outpatient services and upwards of nearly 30% in inpatient settings.
Signs and symptoms of BPD are often evident by adolescence, yet most clinicians will not diagnose BPD before young adulthood due to developmental factors. While there is no definitive cause of BPD, there are several risk factors, and theories support a combination of environment, biology, parental mental illness, and attachment style as influencing the development of BPD.
For example, parental attachment style is correlated with parenting style. If a parent has an insecure attachment, it will be reflected in how they engage with their child, including the level of protection, consistency, patience, love, safety, and nurturance they provide. A family history of mental illness places a child at an increased risk for later development of mental illness, including the risk for BPD.
Other factors such as growing up in poverty. experiencing stressful life events, or exposure to abuse or neglect have also been correlated with an increased risk of later developing BPD. It is said that up to 90% of people who meet diagnostic criteria for BPD have histories of profound early trauma including poverty, neglect, and physical abuse. Thus, while BPD is categorized as a personality disorder, its origin and onset are positively correlated with developmental trauma.
Symptoms of a parent or caregiver with BPD can include:
- Role reversals and parentified children
- Extreme feelings of emptiness or loneliness
- Instilling deep fears of abandonment and rejection in their children
- Conditional love and unrealistic expectations
- Control and manipulation
- Addictive behaviors including sex, drugs, alcohol, or other behavioral addictions
- A need for constant validation and approval from their children or others in the family
- Emotional immaturity and an inability to care for themselves
- Limited understanding of life skills
- Impulsivity and poor choices associated with erratic behavior
- Emotional dysregulation including bouts of rage or tears
- “Walking on eggshells” in the home or around the parent/caregiver
- Lack of trust with family or friends
- Cycles of idealization and devaluation with those in their life.
While these situations can be extremely challenging for a child to live with, other effects of being raised by a person with BPD can be even more damaging and may not show up until years later, often in late adolescence or adulthood.
Misunderstanding of Intimacy and Love
Those raised by a person with BPD typically struggle with trust issues and vulnerability, predisposing them to pathologizing emotional intimacy and love. They may become sexually promiscuous, may confuse attention from someone as interest in them, or they may have histories of “chasing” the “perfect” partner who will “fix” them.
Many may additionally struggle with an inability to be alone or may settle for a toxic relationship to numb their own emotional pain or shame. On the flip side, some may become adults who avoid love altogether as too painful or too shameful to experience.
Other risk factors for pathologizing intimacy or love include having a family history of substance or behavioral addictions, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or impulsivity. For example, BPD behavior includes impulsivity, a pattern that may extend to novelty-seeking regarding relationships, obsessive or intrusive thoughts pertaining to love or fears of abandonment, or cycles of idealization and devaluation with those in their lives.
Children who grow up with a borderline parent are often not allowed to express their needs, their feelings, or their passions in life without being punished or shamed. The outcome is that they go through their childhood confused, ashamed, and not knowing who they are.
Fast-forward into their adult lives, and many who grew up with a parent with BPD now suffer the aftermath with identity confusion. They may not know their place in the world, having lived their life through their caregiver’s eyes, or may abruptly change friends, career paths, hobbies, or romantic relationships without a second thought. Healing from this pattern requires acceptance; a person must come to terms that the life they were living was often not their choice but reflected the choices of their parents/caregivers.
Parents with BPD have severe abandonment issues in their own lives which they typically pass down to their children. Fears of abandonment show up as dependency. For example, a caregiver with BPD may threaten their child that if they leave home to go to college, they are not welcome back. Such manipulation negatively reinforces the potential for identity confusion in the child, who may be struggling with knowing and understanding themselves, and it strengthens a dependent relationship between parent and child through the use of manipulation.
Healing From a Borderline Parent
Healing from having grown up with a parent with BPD can be challenging. It can be exhausting, and such people may feel overwhelmed, angry, resentful, or fearful.
First, know that how you may have grown up is not your fault. Among the several steps a person can take to heal include: limiting contact with their caregiver, establishing firm and consistent boundaries, practicing self-care such as healthy eating, getting in touch with emotions, getting enough sleep, and exploring therapy with a trained clinician who understand the underlying dynamics.
Other important steps for healing can include daily journaling about feelings, exploring needs and self-identity, and taking time to be alone to process experiences. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which includes group therapy, has been shown to offer additional support.
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