Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is Your Mother a Borderline?

The sting of a borderline mother, and what can be done.

Photo: iStock

A borderline mother can hurt a child in a heartbeat, and these wounds often continue into adulthood. In this piece, Dr. Daniel Lobel shows us how this abuse occurs and what one can do about it.

Conversations with people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (IBPDs) can deteriorate quickly.

It's like stepping on a bee's nest.

One moment you’re talking normally, and the next, the room shakes with rage, shaming, or hurt. And, for the children of such people, the results are ongoing trauma.

A borderline parent can transform into a brutal parent in the blink of an eye.

Given this inherent instability, children—even, adult children—often find themselves unable to respond effectively to a triggered IBPD parent. This blog describes some common patterns of IBPD thinking, and what one can do about it. After all, forewarned is forearmed.

Two important notes:

  • Borderline parents suffer as well. People don't hurt their children naturally; these suffering souls often have their own past traumas. That being said, parents are not off the hook for abusing their children.
  • We are focusing here on the borderline mother, but IBPD occurs in fathers as well. In future blogs, I hope to explore what it’s like to be the son or daughter of such men.

Predictable Toxicity

Regarding the borderline mother, being prepared for some predictable toxic patterns can help mitigate some of her disorienting pain. If you don’t understand what you are dealing with, the likelihood is that she'll cause damage for years to come.

The thinking of a person with IBPD is distorted at many levels of processing but there are nonetheless patterns of thinking that can be identified. An understanding of these patterns can help to minimize conflict and damage to the self when relating to individuals so afflicted.

The Danger of Distorted Thinking

Healthy thought processes must be based on an accurate perception of the communication and feelings of others. This is where the problems begin for IBPDs. Persons afflicted with this disorder don’t listen to; they listen for:

  • They listen for confirmation that they are the victim.
  • They listen for slights.
  • They listen for hidden meanings.
  • They listen for any withholding of self or resources.

There is a pattern to this listening bias.

The Brutal Search Engine

Like Google, the Brutal Search Engine is activated by questions. Whereas Google works best with direct and focused questions, the Brutal Search Engine is often driven by hidden agendas.

In the example below, the normal font represents what is verbalized, while the italics reveal the hidden agenda.

IBPD: “So what are your in-laws doing for Christmas?”
Are you planning to spend the holiday with me?

Child: “They are visiting with us.”

IBPD: “What about your brother and his wife?”
Am I the only one left out?

Child: “I don’t know.”

IBPD: “So you asked him?”
Are you keeping something from me?

Child: “I don’t know what he is doing.”

IBPD: “I wish I never had children.”
I will punish you for victimizing me by leaving me out.

In this example, the Brutal Search Engine was searching for evidence of exclusion and hence belittlement and victimization.

IBPD: “Can we go out to dinner tonight?”
My friend Phyllis called her son before to have dinner and he said yes. I was wondering if you are as good a child as he is?

Child: “This is kinda short notice. How about next Saturday?”

IBPD: “Why, what are you doing now?”
Can I convince him to give in?

Child: “We have company coming over.”

IBPD: “What company is more important than me?”
Will you give in if I make you feel guilty?

Child: “Mom, these plans were made weeks ago.”

IBPD: “Never mind. I have other plans too. I just wanted to see if you had any interest in being with your mother. The answer is obviously no.”
Here is your well-deserved punishment.

The final effort to pressure the child to give up his plans is abuse. If this does not succeed in breaking the child’s will, it sets up a sense of victimization. This entitles them to commit more abuse as punishment while also entitling them to be more entitled in the future because they are now wounded.

The Brutal Filter

The IBPD hears only what they are interested in and only what they want to hear. This leaves them with only partial memories of what is said to them and even these parts may be distorted.

Child: “Mom, Jacob’s third birthday party is on Saturday at our house, and we would like for you to come.”

IBPD: “I would love to come. What time?”

Child: “It starts at noon.”

IBPD: “Can you make it a little later?’

Child: “This is when everyone else is coming.”

IBPD: “Do I have to come when everybody else is coming?”

Child: “Well, not exactly.”

IBPD: “OK then I will be there around 1:30.”

Child: “But the party will be winding down around then. Jacob naps around that time.”

IBPD: “Then I won’t come at all.”

In this dialogue, the Brutal Filter filters out the following information:

  • The party has already been planned.
  • The time has already been set at noon.
  • Other people are invited.
  • This is a party for a 3-year-old—the child is the focus.

IBPD: “Remember when you were a kid and you liked to go to antique shows?"

Child:“I used to prefer going to antique shows than going to Sunday school.”

IBPD: “Why don’t we go to a show this weekend?”

Child: “I am traveling for work this weekend.”

IBPD: “That’s not what you told me yesterday.”

Child: “What did I tell you yesterday?”

IBPD: “Weren’t you even listening?”

Child: “You mean that we were going to Betsy’s soccer game? … I am going away for the weekend but returning early to see her play on Sunday.”

IBPD: “But you have no time to go to be with me.”

Child: “The show is on Saturday. I will be out of town.”

IBPD: “And you have no time for me on Sunday either, right?"

Child: “Mom, I told you that I am traveling on Sunday and returning just in time to get to the game.”

IBPD: “There is always a reason.”

Child: “Why don’t you come to the game?”

IBPD: “With the bugs. Are you crazy?”

This exchange illustrates how the Brutal Filter distorts communication only enough to adjust to the meaning that suits them. These distortions can be the basis for abuse without regard to their validity or departure from objective reality.

The Brutal Disaster Machine

IBPDs tend to favor the worst possible interpretations of events as this supports their sense of being a victim. Though others may see the proverbial glass half full, they see it as more than half empty.

IBPD: “Have you seen the movie, The Way We Were?

Child: “Yes. I saw it a few weeks ago. It was wonderful.”

IBPD: “I guess it never occurred to you that I might like to see it with you.”

Child: “We never talked about going to a movie together.”

IBPD: “I just don’t exist for you.”

Child: “That’s not true.”

IBPD: “Then why don’t you ever ask me to do anything with you? You must hate me.”

Child: “Mom, I don’t hate you.”

IBPD: "Then why do you treat me this way? What was I thinking when I decided to have children?”

In this example, the IBPD is not looking at the situation and history objectively but rather looking to confirm that she is a victim. Neutral statements and events are thus turned into attacks and justification for abuse.

Child: “Mom, we are going to celebrate our anniversary in Hawaii this year.”

IBPD: “When?”

Child: “The second week in April.”

IBPD: “What if I need something from you while you are gone?”

Child: “Call 911.”

IBPD: "What if both of you die in a plane crash? What will happen to me? You don’t care about me. Some daughter!”

Here, the IBPD is expressing feeling like a victim of something that has not happened yet. The IBPD is blaming the child for putting herself in the position of not being available in case something might happen and then using it to justify abuse.

Child: “Hi Mom, how are you today?’

IBPD: “I am not doing well.”

Child: “What is bothering you?”

IBPD: “I have to tell you again?”

Child: “You mean your arthritis?”

IBPD: “I could be dropping dead and you wouldn’t even know there was something wrong.”

Child: “Is it your hammertoe?”

IBPD: “Forget it. When I am lying on the floor dying, I won’t call you.”

In this example, the Brutal Disaster Machine has created a fantasy where she has an acute medical crisis and she is left to suffer and possibly die due to the child’s negligence. The negligence is abandonment in the form of not keeping the mother’s physical condition a source of constant focus.

The descriptions above are just a few of the patterns of thinking that are characteristic of some IBPDs. These particular patterns concern mostly perception, or the way that they look at the world. Profound suspiciousness can yield to frank paranoia under stressful circumstances.

Protecting Oneself From Abuse

Without question, being the target of relentless abusive accusations is hurtful and damaging to the self. This is particularly true when it comes from a mother, toward whom children are naturally seeking nurturance and approval.

Absorbing these allegations, condemnations, and criticisms can cause self-doubt, loss of confidence, self-hatred, and, at the extreme, disintegration of the self. IBPDs often make those closest to them feel bad about themselves. And, often the children of these people either distance themselves or anxiously try to make things right.

Understanding some of the patterns of brutal thought may help to anticipate caustic reactions. This allows for strategic planning to minimize the damaging effects of the abuse. This does not stop the abuse. But, it does give son or daughter of the borderline mother the tools to brace and or to duck.

Take Back Your Life

To the adult child of the borderline mother, it’s your life and she’s your mother.

Armed with insight, and perhaps psychotherapy, you can choose how you want to respond to her. You can distance, placate, or confront, or some combination of the three. But, let it be your choice. Differentiating successfully from such mothers may be the toughest thing you will ever have to do.

Sadly, she won’t make it easy for you.

This piece is by guest blogger Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D., who is in private practice in Katonah, New York.