Borderline Spoiling: A Deadly Serious Act

If parents tell kids how messed up they are, kids will then act as if it's true.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

Image by David Allen M.D.
Relationships between people are formed through interactions that are two-way and simultaneous.
Source: Image by David Allen M.D.

I recently received an angry letter from a mother whose child apparently has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). She told me that I must have no idea what it is like to raise a child with the disorder, or I would never say what I do about it. She added that kids with the disorder do not respond to the most positive of upbringings, so don’t blame parents.

Having been the direct recipient of the spoiling behavior of adult patients with the disorder when I started out as a therapist, and not then knowing how to deal with their in-session behavior effectively, I can say that I have a really good idea about what that is like. And it ain't no picnic. And I agree that unrestrained positivity does not change it. It can even make it worse.

It is also true that not all families that produce kids with the disorder are overtly abusive either physically, sexually, or verbally, although a large and significant majority of them are in fact abusive in those ways, according to every study ever done. Even Dialectical Behavior Therapy therapists believe they all come from an “invalidating environment,” even though they seem to scrupulously avoid identifying that specific environment as that of the family of origin.

The reader might take into account something else that the letter writer also said, but look at it in a different way than would be the typical interpretation. (Of course, I can’t know for sure even if her child had even been correctly diagnosed or exactly how positive her family environment was or was not). In just a couple of sentences, she could be understood to be saying that her parenting has nothing to do with how her child turned out. In a phrase, it is only the child who is (completely) screwed up.

If I’m hearing this in a short letter, you can bet that the child has heard it. And guess what? If children hear this point of view a lot, they will begin to act in ways that give the parent an easy justification for making the statement so the parents don’t have to feel bad about blaming everything on the kid. But doing this is all an act to placate and stabilize the parents. 

I can predict relatively confidently that if the mother continues to exhibit this same attitude much of the time, the child will continue to give her grief, and will not get better.

If parents constantly invalidate a child, whether they mean to or not, the child will begin to act in ways that invite invalidation. A member of a support group for parents of children with BPD once told me that her daughter said bizarre things, such as that she had grown up poor. The family was in fact quite well off financially. The daughter was not psychotic. Her mother is quite bright, so I would have to assume that the daughter is not actually stupid enough to somehow not know that the family was affluent. If she were my patient, I would ask her specifically what she thought the family was poor in. Validating responses, perhaps? Warmth?

When I speak of this stuff being an act, I always have to clarify that it is specifically the spoiling behavior which is the act. The way they generally feel, their sense of a poor identity, the impulsiveness, and such are all real – but all adaptive or reactive to the family dynamics that produce BPD.