The Relation Between Invalidating Parenting and BPD
Review shows that there is limited research on invalidating parenting.
Posted August 4, 2018
A new review article by Musser and colleagues,1 on the relation between parental invalidation and borderline personality disorder, has concluded that the research published in this area fails to consistently capture all four components of invalidating environments (as hypothesized by Linehan).2
Before we consider the study’s methods, and the four components of invalidating environments, let us briefly discuss borderline personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a psychological disorder characterized by instability in relationship, identity, and affect; BPD is also associated with impulsivity and self-harm. The prevalence of borderline personality disorder is 1.5 to 6 percent in the general population but about 20 percent in psychiatric inpatients.3
A central aspect of of this disorder is emotional dysregulation. Why do people with BPD struggle to manage their (often very intense) emotions? Because BPD typically develops in emotionally vulnerable people who were raised in invalidating environments.
According to Linehan, “An invalidating environment is one in which communication of private experiences is met by erratic, inappropriate, and extreme responses,” an environment in which inner experiences are dismissed or punished, instead of being validated.
In these environments, Linehan adds, “The experience of painful emotions, as well as the factors that to the emotional person seem causally related to the emotional distress, are disregarded. The individual's interpretations of her own behavior...are dismissed.”
But do the studies on parental invalidation and BPD really capture all the different aspects of invalidating environments? That is what the authors of the present study attempted to find out.
Of the initial 663 studies the authors found through a search of peer-reviewed journals in PsycNet, 77 investigations (with sample sizes ranging from 21 to 6050) met the inclusion criteria and were thus included in the systematic review; about 55 percent of studies included clinical populations, while 38 percent included community populations.1
The participants were aged 12 to 53 (average 25). Two studies only included men and eighteen only women, but the majority included both.
BPD was assessed almost as frequently using diagnostic criteria as it was using dimensional approaches; about 12 percent of the investigations reviewed used both.
The measure of invalidation most commonly used in these studies was the Parental Bonding Index, which contains questions about the relation between the child and his parent in the first 15 years of his life.
Having reviewed the 77 studies, the authors coded the four components of invalidating environments according to how closely these components fit the descriptions by Linehan.
One of the difficulties the researchers had encountered was that many of the studies measured not the presence of an invalidating environment but the lack of a validating one. The two are not necessarily the same. For instance, a very depressed parent might not be able to provide the support and empathy a child needs, but she may not necessarily directly invalidate her child’s feelings or misattribute the feelings to ulterior motives either.
Musser et al. had divided Linehan’s characterization of invalidating parenting into four components, and, after analyzing the 77 studies on parenting, discovered that these components had not received equal research attention. The four aspects of invalidating parenting are listed below, ordered from the most to the least frequently represented component (in the studies reviewed):
- The parent misattributes the feelings or behaviors of the child to presumed negative aspects of the child’s personality or thinking. For example, after a daughter expresses (legitimate) anger at her father’s bad behavior, her father accuses her of faking her anger and having a hidden agenda.
- The parent cannot tolerate negative emotions, and therefore, discourages them in the child. For instance, a mother warns her son that discussion of angry or sad feelings will make him feel much worse; thus, instead of pointless talk about feelings, she asserts, he should adopt a positive attitude.
- The parent contradicts the child’s description and interpretation of his own emotions and desires. Consider the mother who tells her son (after he plays a song on the piano) that there is no reason why he should feel so proud.
- The parent oversimplifies the process of problem-solving and downplays the obstacles. This can be shown in the case of a father who tells his daughter (who is learning to tie her shoelaces) that she is taking too long and that even a stupid person would have figured that out by now.
Musser and colleagues conclude:
The dearth of empirical investigation of the invalidating environment construct precludes clinical knowledge of the prevalence of parental invalidation in the childhood histories of individuals with BPD. The biosocial model posits that the presence of an invalidating environment in particular, and not merely poor parenting, is a unique predictor of BPD. If future empirical research supports the role of parental invalidation in the development of BPD, this would indicate the importance of including parental invalidation as a target in early prevention and intervention efforts.1
1. Musser, N., Zalewski, M., Stepp, S., & Lewis, J. (2018). A systematic review of negative parenting practices predicting borderline personality disorder: Are we measuring biosocial theory's ‘invalidating environment’? Clinical Psychology Review, 65, 1-16.
2. Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.