The child may fantasize about leaving, but seldom has an alternative place to go for food, shelter, clothing and basic care. The courts will not remove a child who does not show marks of physical abuse. What options remain for emotional survival?
Occasionally an emotionally abused child has the opportunity to talk with a therapist, relative or adult neighbor who can explain that what the parent says in the rages reflects the parent's emotional malfunctioning, not the reality of who the child is. This explanation, that you are a good child with a mom who has a bad anger problem, can have lifelong saving impacts.
Alas, too few children of raging parents have another adult who can clarify for them what is going on. And even if they do, they need a way to manage during the rage attacks. In the exchange below, Neil, one such child, explains how, looking back, he freed himself psychologically from his damaging mother.
Neil wrote this description as a comment in response to my earlier blog-post on having a parent with borderline personality disorder who rages. I asked his permission to share it with my readers in hopes that his insight will help others who are or used to be in a similarly distressing situation.
Thank you, Neil.
My mum died two years ago, but from reading this it seems clear she had BPD. I think her psychiatrist diagnosed it, because I remember she was furious when he suggested she had a personality disorder!
My experience of her were these constant rages which involved prolonged and regular shouting/screaming at me. It was the viciousness, and the content of what she would say at me during the yelling (starting from when I was about 8 years old) that I found abhorrent. She was also physically violent too. But it was because of what she would say which is why I decided to emotionally cut her off when I was about 16 (although I kept seeing her, out of a sense of duty, until her death). It's easier to have sympathy for people with mental health problems when you're not in the firing line!
From Dr. Heitler:
I'm fascinated by how you were able to "cut off" your mother
at age 16, keeping emotional distance and at the same time an arm's length
What enabled you to take this action? That information could help others in
Thanks for your reply. I'm not sure if I'm able to explain how I was able to
(maybe I was only able to a small extent), but I was quite analytical at that
age, and I decided detachment was necessary as a means of survival. I felt I
was like a loyal dog, one which was regularly abused by the owner, but would
wag its tail and love its owner when it suited the owner, and I consciously
decided one day that I didn't want be like that anymore. I didn't want her to
have control of my emotions, so I didn't respond with any genuine warmth
towards her. I'd smile if necessary, but it wasn't a genuine smile. She
couldn't make me happy, but nor could she make me sad, that was my reasoning.
I also hated her with a passion back then, but I realized that hate was
destructive to myself, and I felt she didn't deserve me hurting myself. I
remember trying to imagine her as a wild vicious animal, as opposed to a
human being. That helped me to feel more detached.
I'm not sure my strategy was the best one, but I got through just about
unscathed (well, I know the way I am now is as a result of my upbringing, but
things could have been a lot worse). For many years I regretted not
confronting her, but I didn't have the courage. I really wanted to confront
her after she boasted to people in front of me how she never hit or raised
her voice to anyone (including to a court when she was convicted of ABH to
the next door neighbor!). However, about 2 months before she died, when she
phoned me (and my partner was sitting beside me) I did confront her for the
first time. I'm very glad I got this opportunity, for my own sake.
As you can see, I'm not very good at explaining myself, but I hope it makes a
bit of sense!
From a subsequent reader: What a way to view your mother!
Wow—something I had not thought of, even though my mother was a drama- and
psycho-therapist in the late1970's through mid 80's and I knew about mapping
and assigning animal form to the people in the dynamic. I think, though, I
imagine my BP/NP mother as a praying mantis. Thank you, Neil.
The praying mantis analogy sounds very apt. Either that or a black mamba!
I do feel a bit mean referring to my mum as an animal, but I only thought that when I was trying to cope! In reality she was like Jekle and Hyde, in that she had a very nice side too. Since she died I've started to remember more of the pleasant memories. It's a bit like climbing up a mountain. At the time it feels like hell, but when you get home, you mostly remember the good bits!
Psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD most recently has authored Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More and the website with free worksheets and videos, prescriptionswithoutpills.com.