Borderline: Walking the Line
Can you live with, and move beyond, a relationship with a borderline parent?
By Matthew Hutson published July 9, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Your childhood was full of tantrums—impulsivity, mood swings, neediness, fear of abandonment, and extreme sensitivity to rejection. And this isn't you we're talking about; it's your mom.
If you grew up the constant target of finicky and derisive comments, or the emotional caretaker for one of your parents, you know all too well the pain of having a father or (usually) mother with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD doesn't just affect the one who receives the diagnosis; it often leaves a wake of turmoil through entire families as the emotional and relational disturbances ripple outward.
When a role model treats you as an extension of herself—there to meet her needs—the trauma can be long lasting. It takes a very strong person to overcome the effects, let alone maintain a constructive relationship with the parent. But there's hope. Here are several guidelines for dealing with a borderline parent, and for moving on with your own life.
Know the Type
Mothers with BPD outnumber fathers, and Christine Lawson, author of Understanding the Borderline Mother, has a taxonomy of the troubled parent: "The Queen is controlling, the Witch is sadistic, the Hermit is fearful, and the Waif is helpless," she says. And each requires a different approach. Don't let the Queen get the upper hand; be wary even of accepting gifts because it engenders expectations. Don't internalize the Hermit's fears or become limited by them. Don't allow yourself to be alone with the Witch; maintain distance for your own emotional and physical safety. And with the Waif, don't get pulled into her crises and sense of victimization; "pay attention to your own tendencies to want to rescue her, which just feeds the dynamic," Lawson says.
Borderline parents often can't separate their own needs from the needs of others. And sometimes they can't meet their own emotional needs, so they look to their children to fill it. When the child doesn't do the job, the parent can get angry, making resistance difficult. "Adult children need to define for themselves their limits and boundaries," says Kimberlee Roth, author of Surviving a Borderline Parent. "Let's say a parent regularly calls late at night to vent. Whatever your needs, communicate them in a calm, non-accusatory way: 'Mom, I'd like to listen but I can't do it late at night. How about if we talk in the morning instead?'" As a last resort, use Caller ID or voicemail.
Be Firm But Sensitive
Personal validation, which is important in any situation, is essential with a borderline parent. Express your awareness of her emotions even as you set boundaries. "You might feel like a broken record," Roth says, "but it's important to keep repeating your acknowledgment of the parent's needs without diminishing your own."
In writing her book, Roth encountered many children of borderline parents who said they felt crazy growing up. "They experienced a lot of inconsistencies—an action or statement that earned praise one day would touch off a three-day, stony silent treatment the next—as well as sudden outbursts and overreactions." So they never learn to trust their own judgment or feelings. The most important element to recovery, she says, is to accept that you're not crazy and that "it wasn't me."
People who've survived a borderline parent most frequently suffer from "feelings of worthlessness, fear of abandonment, and fear of people in general," according to Randi Kreger, co-author of the bestselling Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder. Because these adult children received "such mixed messages—you're a great person one day and you're horrible the next—there's a certain mistrust of people because you're always afraid they're going to hurt you." Kreger advises that they find friends and partners unlike the parent: consistent people who can provide unconditional love. And stop looking for sleights; hair-trigger defense systems that developed in the presence of abusive parents often lead people to see ill intentions where they don't exist and end up preemptively sabotaging relationships.
Defend Your Boundaries
Children of borderline parents are often forced to act as the parent themselves—"it's like a child raising a child," Kreger says—and this role can play itself out in other relationships. They grow up very quickly in many ways and act as caretaker for everyone, sometimes at the expense of taking care of themselves. "Having that undue sense of responsibility can leave them feeling very alone in the world," Lawson says. And they allow others to tread their boundaries just as the parent did. So once you learn to set limits for your parent, set them for other people and learn to put yourself first.
None of these steps will come easy. An abusive or inconsistent parent can leave a deep wound. "Trying to manage it can be a lifelong process," Kreger says. But she insists that with a good therapist, and support from a community of other people who have gone through the same thing, "there is real possibility to get better, and I know many people who have."