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When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality

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

Key points

  • At its core, borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a pattern of overly intense emotional responses. 
  • Exiting the room is one effective way to respond to a person with borderline personality disorder who is raging.
  • When parents with borderline personality rage at their kids, passive onlookers only perpetuate the problem.
This post is in response to
How Maternal Personality Problems Affect Children
Photography 33/fotosearch
Source: Photography 33/fotosearch

[Please Note: When I use the word mother in this post, I intend it to refer to either parent, Mom or Dad.].

Were you ever afraid of your mother, or of your father? If so, odds are pretty good that at least part of the problem may have been borderline personality disorder, though there could have been other problems as well.

What is borderline personality disorder?

At its core, BPD is a pattern of overly intense emotional responses.

  • One result of overly intense emotional reactions tends to be a pattern of misinterpreting situations as hurtful that are in fact benign. The misinterpretations occur while the situation is happening, or in retelling the events later.
  • There may be functioning in two quite different modes: attractive and highly competent at times alternating with periods of inappropriate anger and even raging, narcissistic, and explicitly hurtful behavior, harmful to themselves and/or to others.
  • Most prominently, and particularly when a parent's anger kicks in, demanding, critical, dominating, judgmental or chaos-making interactions may replace cooperative communicating.

What else might you see in a mother–or a dad—with borderline personality features?

Keep in mind that borderline patterns may be mild or more severe. Likewise, some individuals who suffer from BPD may show just a few of the patterns listed above while some show all and more.

Difficult parents, and especially fathers, with BPD may be diagnosed as abusive. Unfortunately, the label of borderline too often is applied just to abusive women and not often enough to abusive men as well.

Borderline personality patterns often include narcissism—inability to attune to others' concerns, including a child's. A parent with narcissism instead of attunement to the child's needs looks at whatever the child does as being "all about me." When the child does something different from what the parent wants, anger can quickly erupt.

Here's an example. 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 are irrelevant. The mother's reaction to the incident is all about Mom (that's the narcissism) and excessively emotionally intense (that's the BPD).

Some time ago, I wrote several blog posts about how children do and do not develop borderline personality disorder. Several readers responded about their own childhood experiences growing up with a raging mom.

Comment 1:

"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.

Source: k3172898/fotosearch

"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 having a rage-and-criticism fit at me, I felt scared but very empowered.

"And it does work! It 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. It's the same technique you've described for handling a toddler who is having a tantrum; it's just exponentially more difficult to actually have the guts to do it when the person having the rage-tantrum is one's parent."

Comment 2:

"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 the front door of a home.

"So, if during an interaction that is heating up, when a child 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-to-the-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."

My Response:

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.

Comment 3:

"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.'

Photography 33/fotosearch
Source: Photography 33/fotosearch

So true. Could say the same for many politicians!"

Comment 4:

"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 BPD and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) parents.

"New members 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-disordered 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 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.'"

My Response

It can be important 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.”

“Whoops, 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 to exit at the first sign of verbal abuse ahead.

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. Children quickly learn to do whatever they need to do to stay safe.

(c) Fancy Images/fotosearch
Source: (c) Fancy Images/fotosearch

These conciliatory habits may continue into adult life. Even when a 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 the role of parent to their BPD mom. As adults, they can learn to respond to Mom’s anger with exits. For example: "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. 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 third-person onlookers.

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 child. Explain that professional help could ease the situation. Talk with the child and explain that Mom rages because of her problems; her anger is not the child’s fault.

Most importantly, do something. Passive onlookers perpetuate the problem.