Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality

If your mother's love was, and still is, toxic, what are your options?

what is borderline personality disorder, borderline mothers, borderline momsWhat is borderline personality disorder?  It's a pattern of intensely hyper-emotional responses, especially to situations that trigger abandonment fears.  It's a pattern of demanding, critical and chaotic relationships instead of cooperative communicating.  It's a pattern also of misinterpreting situations as hurtful that are in fact benign, with the misinterpretations ocuring either while the situation is happening, or in retelling the events later.  It also may be a pattern of attractive and highly competent-appearing social functioning at times alternating with periods of intense and inappropriate anger, narcissism, and explicitly hurtful behavior (to themselves or to others).

What would you expect to see in a mother (or a dad) with borderline personality features?  Alas, you would see widespread domestic violence of the verbal variety.  That's because one hallmark of a borderline personality is unpredictable raging. 

In addition, you would see narcissism, that is, inability to attune to others' needs, including her child's.  Instead of attunement to the child's needs, whatever happens would be experienced as 'all about her.' 

You might alas also see abusive behavior. In fact if it's the man with borderline tendencies, that is, if it's the dad who is difficult, his bpd pattern is likely to be labeled abusive personality.

Here's a classic example of a borderline parent in a situation that most dads or moms would react to with an easy hug.  Mom and child are walking on the sidewalk.  Child falls.  Mom erupts in fury. "How could you fall like that here where everyone can see you?  You are making me look bad!"  The child's concerns would be irrelevant.  The mother's reaction to the incident would be all about Mom.

I've written several articles about how children do and do not develop borderline personality disorder: The Sleepover: How a Cute Little Girl Develops Borderline Personality Disorder and How an Often-Angry Little Girl Does Not Develop a Borderline Personality Disorder.  

In response to the second of these earlier articles, which discusses what parents can do when children start raging, several readers wrote in about their childhood experiences with the opposite situation: growing up with a raging mom.  This posting draws from their profoundly insightful comments. So does this additional blogpost on the same subject. Lastly, the comments from readers in response to this article have been profoundly enlightening to me.  Especially if there is an individual with borderline functioning in your life, be sure to read these insightful contributions.

Thank you so much to all of you: Annie, Linda, Alison, Babs, Naomi, Verdi, Kelly, Jose, Elijah, Crawford's Daughter, and the many others including the various folks named Anonymous who have written in to my prior articles and to the comments to this one.  Thank you for sharing your stories, for supporting each other, and for suggesting readings on the biological elements of borderline functioning. 

Please note: When I use the word Mother in this article I intend it to refer to either parent, Mom or Dad.

COMMENT

The power dynamic you describe in your article [Help for little girls who do too much anger, which is about how parents can best handle children's anger outbursts] is entirely reversed in the case of an abusive, controlling, manipulative parent who uses rage and fear to control their children, of any age.

borderline personality disorder, borderline mother, borderline mothers

(c) Fotosearch.com
People who grow up with raging, screaming, physically and emotionally abusive parents become conditioned early in life to totally obey, placate and cater to their domineering parent, or risk emotional or even physical injury to their own self. So it’s like confronting a huge, feral, enraged wild animal to change the power dynamic in such cases.

It takes a great deal of sheer courage for a person who has been domineered his or her whole life by a parent who tantrums and rages, blames, and lashes out when angry, to even attempt to leave their presence when they begin raging at you. It took me until my mid-forties to even think about trying it. The first time that I just left the room when my bpd/npd mother started in having a rage-and-criticism fit at me, I felt scared but very empowered.

And it does work! I really does. Sometimes it takes a long time and many repetitions, and sometimes the behavior gets worse, even, before it gets better, but it does work. Its the same technique you've described for handling a toddler who is having a tantrum, its just exponentially more difficult to actually have the guts to DO it when the person having the rage-tantrum is one's parent.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree, both with the applicability of exits to interactions with adults of all types, and to how extremely difficult for a child, even an adult child, to feel internally strong enough to implement the strategy.

One person in her 40's that I worked with recently said she still couldn't envision herself using the technique of exiting, of removing herself from the situation, in response to her mother's rages.  Even as a grown adult, her fear of her mother's reprisals was still too potent.  She still felt tiny and still eperienced her mother as all-powerful. Reprisals in her case were now via manipulation by guilt rather than physical or verbal abuse as they'd been in her childhood, but the impact was the same.

COMMENT

I Have used your “exit strategy” intervention in my own life as well as in my work!

I have discovered that the bathroom plays a very important role in a home [with a borderline mother] as children are taught early on  that it is a “no disturb zone”, They are also experienced in knowing that it is a place visited numerous times a day by all people so there is no sense of abandonment when that door closes, unlike he front door of a home.

So, if during an interaction that is heating up, when a child [young or adult] or a teen who is suffering from a raging or domineering parent, needs “time out” and does not have the ability to “Exit”, a visit to the bathroom can work wonders.

The exit-tothe-bathroom can be repeated as often as necessary. 

In one case [in my clinical practice] the Mom actually got the message!!  She said in her tirade “and now you are going to go into the bathroom, RIGHT?” And her daughter didn’t respond. Later in the day when mom was calmer, the daughter, age 11, said simply “I go there when I am scared!” Mom was actually surprised when she thought back just how often her daughter had been going to the bathroom. It was a signal to her to get help.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

I usually recommend "Excuse me, I need a drink of water" as a routine exit comment for adult-to-adult exits.  I very much like your bathroom exit excuse however, particularly for situations in which both parties are not in prior agreement on exit routines.  It sounds also particularly apt for situations with a power differential like for a child with a raging mother.

Thanks so much for this idea!

COMMENT

You wrote, "If parents want their child to stop screaming, they’d best stop interacting with screaming as if it were a legitimate mode of communication."

what is borderline personality disorder, borderline mothers, borderline moms,
(c) Fotosearch.com
So true. Could say the same for many politicians :)

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

Amen.  I write about the problem of excessively intense emotions in political discourse in two articles:

The Problem With Over-Emotional Political Rhetoric and 8 Ways to Lose Friends ByTalking Politics.

COMMENT

Wonderful article, and great technique!

Actually, a really similar technique is often recommended at a support group I belong to for the adult children of personality-disordered, (mostly borderline pd and narcissistic pd) parents.

New members of these groups tend to arrive in a state of anxiety, stress, guilt and fear because their bpd mother will call them on the phone and verbally abuse them, rage at them or cry hysterically, for long stretches of time and the adult non-pd child just takes it, having been trained to just endure being abused, from birth.

The recommended response at the support group is to gently interrupt/talk over the out-of-control pd parent early on, saying calmly something like, "Mom, I can hear that you are upset but I'm not going to listen to you when you are screaming at me/calling me names/crying/etc. I'm going to hang up the phone now. We can try talking about this again tomorrow when you are calmer."

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

It can be important therefore to keep in mind that the adult-child’s job is not to teach the parent but rather to protect herself.  For that reason, any exit method, provided it is kindly rather than mean, can work. 

“Sorry Mom.  Gotta go now.”

“Woops Mom.  The kids need me.”

In other words, the abusive parent may or may not be willing or able to learn.  The key is that in any case your job is exit at the first sign of verbal abuse ahead.

COMMENT

In my own personal opinion, the sad reality is that as long as the child is dependent on the parent in any way: either the minor child who is dependent in all ways, or the adult child who is still emotionally dependent (or financially dependent, perhaps): in such cases the technique [of exits] cannot be utilized [by the child] because of the power imbalance.

A person can only safely implement this technique (or any power play, really) if he or she has the same power level/ status, or greater power/status than the one who is raging.

adult child of borderline mother, borderline personality disorder, borderlines

(c) ChristiK www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography
f I as a small child or teen had dared to walk out of the room while my mother was raging at me, well, she possibly could have been triggered into beating me to death. A small, dependent child has to rely on the "sane" parent to manage a mentally ill spouse, it would be practically suicidal for a small child to attempt a confrontation with a raging, violent, mentally ill parent.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

You make a very important point. Power differentials definitely do inhibit and can make totally impossible the walk-away option.

When the anger comes from the parent, the child may well have no recourse except to hope for potential intervention from third parties, which alas, did not seem to have come to your aid.

Interestingly, when a child rages, parents may feel like the power is in the little one's hands. Particularly if they themselves were raised by a raging parent, they may transfer the sense of a powerful other to their child. Then when the child rages the parent flips into feeling small and powerless like the way they had felt as children.

As to your having in your 40's begun to be able to experience power in the relationship with your mother, bravo to you. I have seen significantly older people who still are terrified of Mom's capacity to rage.

COMMENT

When my mother was in a violent rage she didn't seem to actually "be there". My own mother “didn't know me” when she was raging at me. Her pupils would dilate to the maximum so her eyes looked like shark eyes and it was like she wasn't seeing me but she just had to scream at me and hit me until she wore herself out. Sometimes she'd use the belt on me and my younger sister and we'd have welts and bruises and sometimes broken skin, but always only under our clothes where it didn't show.

Afterwards, momster sometimes would act like nothing at all unusual had happened and would be all perky and cheerful.  At other times she'd sob and beg for forgiveness and demand that we hug her, comfort her and tell her we loved her. Honestly, that had to be really crazy, psychotic behavior, right? And it was traumatizing as hell for both us kids.

At least she never put us in the hospital, but then we'd learned to adapt: we'd freeze in place and not antagonize her when she was raging, because it seemed that possibly she could go to a place that was even more dangerous and kill us accidentally, perhaps.

It was only well into my 40's and having reached a place where I was fairly emotionally detached from my mother that I was able to implement the "just walk away" tactic. She couldn't physically harm me any longer, and I had basically stopped caring whether she was happy with me or not, so I had nothing to lose.

Its just damned sad that when one has a moderately to severely personality-disordered parent who is into raging and physical violence, particularly a Cluster B parent, that the child has no option but to become more or less detached from and indifferent to the parent's feelings out of self-preservation. Really sad.

COMMENT

Thank you Dr. Susan for the resolution of handling an angry child. Communication! Got the point on that. After all, both my children, my daughter and my son, were also considered to be easily angry to get me and my wife attentions.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

Yes, children rage to get something, to get attention for what they want.  At the same time, giving attention in response to GOOD behavior is key.

The underlying message in responding to anger with exits MUST be that "I'm glad to talk with you, to give you my full attention. And at the same time I will give you my attention only in response to quiet talking, not to whining, yelling, or anger explosions."

Thanks for highlighting this point!

COMMENT

borderline personality disorder, borderline mothers, borderlines

c) Fancy Images www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography
I was diagnosed with BPD and never showed any signs of it growing up. i had no anger issues whatsoever, in fact..i was quite calm and quiet. i had loving parents, no abandonment issues...so why is it angry children are always associated with BPD? while i realize that frequent/unstable mood swings is one of the diagnostic criteria of BPD i still wonder, what it is that turned me into this angry, overemotional ball of rage that i am today.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

A very important question: What does bring on adult-onset raging? 

Here’s several possibilities.  One, several or all may pertain to your situation.

  • You are partnering with people who only listen to you when you rage.
  • You are partnering with people who act as if your raging is acceptable behavior.
  • Something upsetting happened at some point that continues to boil within you, so any small thing in the present can tip your energies into boiling over. i.e., the trauma reset your amygdala to hyperactive responsivity.
  • You had a parent or other caretaker who modeled bpd behavior. 
  • An allergic or other physical reaction keeps your emotions on easy-overload (allergies can impact any part of our bodies, not just skin or runny noses)
  • You are misdiagnosed. Maybe your raging is from a bipolar rather than a bpd phenomenon.

COMMENT

I have a spouse with BPD. When we first met, she would rage frequently. Fortunately, and after many years of therapy, her rages have calmed down considerably and now rarely even occur.

But I don't believe that "walking away" is always the right approach in these situations, especially with my spouse. When I did that, it would just serve to infuriate her further and often led to suicidal ideation or other reckless behavior.

Instead, using the PUVAS skill provided much better results: Pay attention, Understand what is being said, Validate the feelings (right or wrong), Assert your position, Shift responsibility where it belongs. The validation is key. Her rages were often a result of not feeling like she'd been heard or understood (and validated). Maybe this approach should be different for a child, but I can say for sure that it works well with adults.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

You highlight another key point.  For walking away to work between two adults, the adults need to discuss it ahead of time and mutually agree on choreography that feels good to them both. You are so right that if one partner "walks out on" the other, that is going to worsen the situation. By contrast, when spouses agree that if either of them begins heating up, they both will turn in opposite directions, separate, cool down, and then re-engage more constructively...that is a strategy that both partners can participate in together.

COMMENT  

I think that the most crucial and relevant factor in dealing effectively with someone who has a problem with emotional regulation is the power dynamic: the way to manage the situation and have it turn out well is highly dependent on the status/power of the two specific individuals involved relative to each other.

I think Dr. Heitler's [exit] techniques would work well when the out-of-control raging person is a child, (no power, no status) and the person managing the situation is the parent or other care-giver (who has all the status and all the power in the relationship and is calm, sane, compassionate and empathetic.)

I think the PUVAS techniques (and other techniques like DEARMAN) sometimes work well when the out-of-control raging person and the recipient of the rage are both adults who have equal status or power in the relationship: two adults who are friends, lovers, co-workers, spouses.

But when the out-of-control person has higher status and/or greater power (physical power, legal power, etc.) than the recipient of the rage, such as when the out-of-control rager is the parent and the recipient of the rage is their child, or when the rager is a much older child who is a bully and the recipient is a smaller, younger child, or the rager is the boss and you are their employee, or the enraged person happens to be someone with a gun who has targeted you for their rage... then you have virtually no options to deal with the situation successfully.

When there is an extreme power imbalance and the lower-status individual is the one being raged at, the recipient or target is basically screwed unless they can physically escape or unless someone with equal or greater status to the rager appears and intervenes.

That's the only point I want to make; dealing with emotionally charged situations has everything to do with the power or status of the individuals involved in relation to each other. A technique that works within a relationship of equals does not necessarily work in a relationship of unequal power.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

My fellow PT blogger Loretta Breuning's book I, Mammal reminds us that once we become emotional our mammalian brain takes over.  Rage leaves just the mammalian part of our brain working,

The underlying mammalian issue when we feel threatened is dominance, ie, who has more power and who will give up and become submissive.

That’s why I agree 100% with the idea that for handling someone else's rage the relative power differentials are a vital factor to consider.

As to the PUVAS technique, while it may work, to me enables bad behavior. In my rulebook, grownups talk with each other. A spouse should not have to listen to rants. That’s encouraging bad behavior.  Angry folks need to learn to calms themselves, think about the concerns that their feelings are alerting them to, and talk with their partner in an adult-to-adult manner about their concerns.

By the way, you might want to check my recent posting on Anger is a Stop Sign .  It’s also listed on my blog at http://psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict.

COMMENT

I sympathize. My mother is BPD, and I grew up in similar circumstances. My father was as intimidated as I was, unfortunately and did not help me with her so when I became big enough to confront her, I did, we fought until I left home at 17 to escape her. I went 3,000 miles away.

As a child I tried to hide from her as much as possible, or just shrink into a silent ball of fear. After I left I had nothing to do with her for many years. Then I tried having a relationship, this did not work out well of course, sought therapy and my therapist gave me the insight and courage to tell her to buzz off.

She's 93 now in a home, writes to me, sometimes I write back, but that's it. She whines about everything, including wanting to see me, but there is no way I am doing that. Every time we make contact I sink into a prolonged depression. Being around her is like drinking poison. My relatives blame me for not having more to do with her, so she has destroyed my family relationships, although that happened long ago when she blamed me for evil things she was doing, as well as my father.

Only my grandmother knew what was really happening. She was my friend and ally.

RESPONSE FROM DR. HEITLER

Thanks for sharing your story, and especially for your last sentence.

"Only my grandmother knew what was really happening. She was my friend and ally."

Research suggests that if a child has at least one person who validates that the bpd parent is out of line, validating that the raging is not the child's fault, the child's odds of growing into a normal and emotionally healthy adulthood zoom up.

The moral of the story: grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and teachers--your role is vitally important. If you see a child with a borderline parent, your friendship to that child is hugely leveraged, a potentially great blessing. 

The following Comment addresses the impacts of family members beyond parents on kids. In this writer's case, alas, the interventions were primarily negative rather than helpful.

COMMENT

So first, I'll caveat my comments by mentioning that I am not a parent. My husband and I enjoy the company of our friends' children, and like being aunt and uncle to my brother's step-daughter, but I have little direct experience raising children. Bear that in mind when you read my comment, because it is aimed primarily at teens and adults who are being emotionally and verbally abused by people with BPD. That said, I will touch on my experiences as a child being surrounded by BPD people by the end, which may be helpful to some of the parents posting on here who have young children.

Growing up, my extended family flew into rages and were unstable and unpredictable from one moment to the next. Their tongue-lashings could be cruel, and apparently haven't stopped. My uncle called our youngest brother "lazy" several years ago for having the audacity to dual-major in STEM and GIS IT, minor in German, do a bunch of internships and jobs in his difficult field, and graduate later than he should have, in the "screwed" Class of '09, which left him strictly with offers from employers in the food-service sector.

Whether on the phone, or in-person, I told them that if they insisted on raging at me, I would not speak to them until they could calm down. I would sometimes phrase this as "I understand you are upset, but I have a right not to be yelled at. I'm going to leave [hang up] until we can have a conversation in a calm and productive manner." 9 times out of 10, this worked. While I am no longer close with my extended family, on the rare occasions when I do have to interact with them and one or the other of them flies into their fits, I use this technique, typically to excellent results.

Anyway, I grew up emotionally abused by certain non-primary family members, was sexually assaulted my senior year of college as "payback" for not wanting to date an older male friend whose life consisted of sitting in his mother's basement and crying about how his life was unfair, have been knocked around by an older male bully at nearly every job I've had (at least one, maybe two, had BPD, and another two had NPD), and, since I had no idea what a healthy relationship looked like, between my parents' recent divorce and my relatives' constant bickering and abuse, I dated a revolving door of abusive losers, both male and female, between the ages of 15 and 23, until I met my husband and broke the cycle. This is a lot of abuse and violence for one person to process and deal with, and I have panic attacks secondary to PTSD as a result.

While the symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person, one symptom that can dominate for some patients, especially women who've been sexually assaulted or abused, is sudden outbursts of crying, or other losses of emotional control that appear to come out of nowhere. This has happened to me at work, and what I've done is either cry quietly in my private office, cry in the bathroom, or hold in the tears until I was able to get at least a quarter-mile away from the office/office park, at which point, I cried it out until I could cry no more.

However, I usually reserve my crying for home, and when I first moved in with my husband,just under 2 months after my 24th birthday, he was confused and bewildered by my sudden emotional outbursts. Some women have been misdiagnosed as BPD, when they're actually abuse victims with PTSD, while other abuse victims are diagnosed as bipolar, and the outbursts of anger/crying are characterized as "mixed-mood states." There is still a stigma against women showing anger in psychiatry, which remains a heavily male-dominated profession and continues to feature very gender-delineated DSM-IV/DSM-V diagnoses. So if your little girl is crying or acting out a lot, but BPD or bipolar doesn't seem to fit, look closer, or "abres los ojos," ("open your eyes") as we say in Spanish. It may be she's a victim of abuse.

IN SUM, what are the options for children of raging borderline mothers, dads or other adults?

When the parent is the raging one, what are the child’s options? The child usually feels helpless vis a vis the power of parents. They quickly learn to do whatever they need to do to stay safe. 

children of borderline mothers, borderline presonality disorder

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These conciliatory habits may continue into adult life.  Even when the child has grown into physical adulthood, the childhood terror of others’, and especially of mother’s, anger may persist.

Adult children of bpd moms do have options.  If s/he can summon up the courage, the adult child can take a role of parent to their bpd mom.  As adults they can learn to respond to Mom’s anger with exits.  I.e., "I'm glad to talk with you. And at the same time I will give you my attention only in response to quiet talking, not to whining, yelling, or anger explosions." 

Still, if mom traumatized her children when they were growing up, laying down the law like this may feel close to impossible for the adult child of a bpd. 

At the same time, nothing succeeds like success.  If the now-adult child of the still-raging mom decides to try exits once or twice, with each success the new regime is likely to get easier.

Lastly, I would like to re-emphasize the vital role of 3rd person on-lookers. 

If you see a mom who is raging with a child, do something.  Speak up to the mother with borderline personality patterns of parenting.  Intervene.  Talk to her.  Say something, anything, about how the raging is bad both for her and for her her child.  Explain that professional help could ease the situation.  Call authorities.  Talk with the child and explain that Mom rages because of her problems; her anger is not the child’s fault.  Do something.  ------------

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Articles on this blog on the subject of borderline personality disorder:

BPD: The Sufferer's Experience

Are BPD Drama Queens Manipulative and Sadistic?

When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality (Part I)

More Info the Adult Children of Borderline Mothers (Part II)

Verbal Abuse of Children: What Can You Do About It?

Help For Little Girls Who Do Too Much Anger

From Cute Little Girl to Borderline Personality

Borderline Personality: Does a BPD Diagnosis Necessitate Raging?

New Treatments for Borderline Personality Disorder and Other Anger Syndromes

Evil Genes: An Unconventional Perspective on BPD

Psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the collaborative communication habits for relationship and marriage success. 

To assess how your marriage is doing, try Dr. Heitler's free relationship quiz.

 

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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