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More Info for Adult Children of Borderline Mothers

A discussion with my insightful blog-readers on borderline personality parents.

This post is in response to
When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality
Source: Photography33/fotosearch

I often write in my posts about how to fix marital problems. While the challenges of marriage can be difficult, what if hostilities from one of those adults are dumped onto children? Today my focus is on the impacts on children when one the spouses, in this case the mother, is emotionally unhealthy and takes her emotional distress out on her children.

The following article, like the first article in this series, reprints Comments from readers on the topic of understanding and coping with borderline personality mothers. This set of comments were written in response to my posting entitled New Treatments for Borderline Personality Disorders and Other Anger Syndromes.

Warmest thanks to Crimson and Annie for your permission to share the wisdom each of you has garnered from growing up with a mother with borderline personality disorder. May your articulate descriptions of what you have learned be a blessing to the many others who have faced and continue to face similar challenging home situations.

Desire and Ability to Change

Submitted by Crimson

For a BPD to change they have to want change. Some don't see the problem. The angry outbursts, hurling insults and making loved ones feel bad sometimes get BPDs what they need. Even if they don't get what they need the methodology may have proved successful enough in the past that a BPD will find themselves in a Skinner Box, using proven old behaviors on new people assuming they will be effective.

Sure, BPDs push people away and alienate themselves but that also has a twisted positive reward, it proves what they already assume, that life is unfair and that they will be treated badly others.

I had an interesting experience last week. I had contracted a job that had a series of 16 hour days in an extremely stressful environment with a bunch of coworkers that were not up to the task and a set of bossy managers. In order to perform well I had to maintain an even keel, keep my feelings to myself and be extremely careful. At the end of the job I decided to keep to myself for the day inside my house and I found myself wanting to be alone, think about how much I disliked the situation and feel sorry for myself. My blue mood only lasted for a few hours but I got some insight into the world of the BPD: Sometimes isolation, melancholy and self-pity can feel pretty good. I snapped out of it quickly but I saw the value of the permanent mindset of my mother.

My mother is 80 years old, she was born in 1932. As soon as she was able to stand and talk her father gave her a name which stuck: Misery. She was miserable at three years of age just as she is now. You'd figure she'd be happier because her life is pretty darned sweet. But she's quite satisfied with the BPD lifestyle of anger, blame and outbursts toward her dwindling family members.

The Attraction of Misery

Reply by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Yes. Misery has its benefits, as you say, "a twisted positive reward." Your description both of your own experience and of your mom clarified beautifully the phenomenon of "psychological reversal." You might want to read my posting on that topic: Bad Luck or Psychological Reversal.

When people are psychologically reversed, they self sabotage because at a subconscious level their experiences have taught them, for whatever reason, that it's better to feel misrable than to feel happy. The corollary may be attraction to making others feel misery instead of desiring to help them feel happiness.

Warmest thanks to you Crimson for sharing so insightfuly your personal life experiences and the wisdom about bpd you have derived from them.

Hormones: Are they a factor?

Submitted by Annie

I'd be interested in your opinion about borderline pd being hormone-based or hormone-related?

I've been following scientific research studies/papers into the causes of the Cluster B pds, borderline pd in particular, because my mother (now deceased) had been diagnosed twice as having borderline pd, but I personally felt she showed many traits of narcissistic pd, some antisocial pd traits, and some traits of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder thrown in there too.

I came across a study of borderline pd and hormone fluctuations:

Discovering the causes of personality disorders deserves much more intense and focused research, in my opinion. If the causes of pds can be pinned down on an organic, mechanical, molecular or neurochemical level then to me that means greater hope for prevention, better treatments, and possibly cures.

In any case, other studies have shown that the children of borderline pd and other personality disordered mothers are at high risk for receiving repeated emotional trauma, psychological injuries and developing personality disorders also (due to both genetic predisposition and the invalidating, even dangerously abusive or negligent environment.)

I wish that our society/culture could make the prevention of cruelty to children a top priority:

Possible Causes of Borderline Personality Disorder

Reply by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Here’s a starter list of some of the hypothesized causes. One, several or all could pertain in any given case.

  1. Hormones or other biological factors.
  2. Parental modeling.
  3. Early trauma, such as sexual assault or abusive parenting.
  4. Genetic predisposition. (see the book Evil Genes).
  5. Congenital factors (lost sibling in utero, birth trauma).

Another totally unclear phenomeon is what is narcissism and what is borderline personality disturbance. They often co-occur. Usually the main difference is that men get labeled narcissists and women get labeled borderline.

Gender and diagnosis, and diagnostic sub-types

Submitted by Annie

I agree. I think that if it had been my father who had been engaging in the behaviors that my mother exhibited, particularly her hair-trigger temper, her inappropriate and extreme rage, her physical violence, her breaks with reality under stress (she had long-term fixed delusions and paranoid beliefs about Dad, Sister, me, and her family of origin), her controlling, demanding behaviors, her perfectionism, her lack of affective empathy and lack of compassion, her sense of entitlement... I think my father would have been diagnosed with narcissistic pd or even antisocial pd.

If you have read "Understanding The Borderline Mother" by Christine Lawson, you are familiar with the sub-types of bpd that she designated. My mother was mostly a Queen (bpd+narcissistic pd) and a Witch (npd+antisocial pd.) It was just jaw-droppingly uncanny to read that book and read those descriptions and examples, and feel that my own life had been observed and recorded.

Your three-part treatment approach sounds viable to me, but as you pointed out any therapy only has a chance of working if a person actually *wants* to change.

For those who are as severely affected by personality disorder as my mother was, therapy was sadly rather pointless. My mother was living in a very ego-syntonic state; her own feelings, thoughts and behaviors seemed perfectly reasonable and justified to her. She felt entitled to say or do whatever she wished, and she firmly believed that all, and I mean ALL her problems originated outside her own self. She was never to blame for anything; she was perfection in her own mind. Dad, Sister and I were trained to defer to her and "walk on eggshells" around her to keep her from exploding like a land-mine.

The only reason my mother went to see a therapist the first time was because she wanted the therapist to "fix" dad, to "straighten him out about a few things." After the first and only session, the therapist (couple's/marriage therapy) suggested that my mother would benefit from individual therapy for borderline pd, and mom went apeshit (according to my Sister, who witnessed the aftermath of the session.) The second time mother went into therapy was because Sister and I gave her an ultimatum to do so. We were desperate and had gone No Contact with her. Our mother complied (!!) but after a few months of weekly therapy mother had a total melt-down rage-tantrum at Sister; mother screamed that there was nothing wrong with her (with mother), that Sister and I had been lying about her and were being hateful to her, she had always been the perfect mother to us, that we were the ones who need therapy and she only went to learn how to "deal with" us.

Her own regular doctor had put her on mood-stabilizing meds at one point a few years before she died, but after taking them for a few weeks she stopped, because she said they made her feel "weird." How sad that just normal, more stable moods felt "weird" to her; she was used to her extreme, rapid mood swings, I guess.

Borderline pd and the other Cluster B pds are serious mental illnesses, and although they do occur in a range of severity, there are way too many who can "skim under the radar" and appear normal and healthy outside the home but do truly devastating, tragic damage to their closest family members behind the privacy of closed doors. At the support groups I belong to, the hundreds (if not thousands) of adult child survivors of pd parents report that their bpd parent (95% have bpd mothers) was or still is dominant and in control of the family of origin, and that their non-pd parent is enmeshed with and subservient to his bpd spouse, and enabling of her abusive behaviors. The children in such relationships are basically screwed.

I’m Still Terrified of Her

Submitted by Crimson

I have had almost the same experience as you but my mother would never go to therapy. Three years ago I suggested to my mother that she take up some volunteer work outside the home since she was so talented with her teaching ability. I did this politely, but I didn't mention getting outside the home a few hours a week might get her to meet new people, help with her anger, dark moods and her obsession with spending her time finding new ways to blame family members for all her imaginary problems. The volunteering suggestion caused her to go into a rage with a violent outburst and she still hasn't forgiven me for it. I'd never in a million years suggest therapy, that might be deadly.

But what Annie talks about is exactly my experience. My father was a rock that rarely showed emotion. I believe he married my mother because my mother had emotions enough for a billion people. My father enabled my mother for 60 years and now she is lost, terrified and confused without him. But since the BP is still ever present and I am quite terrified of her, I really don't care. I've tried my best but I've given up, I'm just so tired of scathing insults hurled at me and listening to how all my well-meaning family members are so evil.

If I could turn back time I certainly wish BPD was defined and discussed 50 years ago. For my formative years my BPD mother had me convinced that I was a terrible horrible person. I really wished that had never happened and I wish that never happened to anyone else. These BPD mothers need to be outed early on, if anything somebody needs to put a defining label on these women so their kids won't internalize the daily insults.

Severity of the syndrome

Submitted by Annie

I think Dr. Heller's descriptions and examples of borderline pd describe moderate to severe borderline pd very well. My mother was severely borderline pd (she was formally diagnosed by two different therapists) but she was also very high-functioning and could appear rational and even charming in public.

There are people who are only very mildly affected by borderline pd, who perhaps only exhibit 3 or 4 of the possible 9 diagnostic criteria, any 5 of which need to be present for a formal diagnosis. Or, possibly you have 5 or more of the criteria but only display them in an infrequent or not-very-intense manner.

Those who are mildly affected by bpd appear to have a good rate of success with treatments like dialectical behavioral therapy and other therapies, and I agree that is very hopeful and encouraging.

I was raised by a mother who was severely affected. It was a devastating, emotionally shattering experience for both me and my younger Sister. The behaviors described in the article and even the photos used to demonstrate the behaviors are valid, in my opinion.

Borderlines at home versus outside of the home

Reply by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Thanks Annie for your comment. I agree with you that there is a significant range of mild to severe borderline features, and that one of the most mystifying features is that diagnosable bpd individuals may well function very normally in public situations in spite of quite hurtful behavior at home.

Abusiveness and psychopathic tendencies (hurtfulness and lying)

Submitted by Annie

My speculation on this behavior of my mother's: her ability to control her behaviors in public, at work, with friends, etc, but unleash horrific verbal and physical abuse at home against her own children and her husband, in private, is perhaps due to her having a co-morbidity with either antisocial pd (psychopathy) or narcissistic pd, or both.

Those with bpd who are "high-functioning" seem to have that ability to self-regulate/control their abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors in public (for example, my mother NEVER raised her voice or hit Sister or me in public, and NEVER acted out at an authority figure like a police officer when stopped for speeding, etc.) but mother apparently gave herself permission to "let loose" when and where there were no witnesses.

Its just my own personal, non-scientific opinion, but I agree with a research paper I read that proposed that borderline pd could be the female phenotypic expression of psychopathy.

Makes sense to me, at least in my own mother's case.

Seems to me that "high functioning" bpd and "low functioning" bpd are so different from each other that they ought to be considered separate disorders.

Hyper-reactivity and creation of chaos

Reply by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

I have some clients who look borderline with regard to anger outbursts who probably would be better diagnosed with a term no longer in fashion, "hysteric personality." They seem to have a hyper-reactive amgdala that leads to overly-intense emotional reactons. They misinterpret lots of situations, guessing wrongly what others mean. They may also use their anger to cudgle loved ones into dong what they want, and have a high degree of narcissistic self-cneteredness.

By contrast, some who present all of the above also have the lack of willingness to follow societal rules and lack of conscience that could be labeled psychopathic. These folks also rarely stay in therapy. Or they go but the changes don't hold.

Have you read the book Evil Genes? I found it enlightening reading with regard to this second category, which would probably include your mother Annie and also Crimson's.

Evil Genes and Dr. Hare's book I, Psychopath

Submitted by Annie

Thank you for reminding me about that Evil Genes book, I'd heard about it and wanted to read it. Yes, who knows: my mother could have been misdiagnosed, and was actually more narcissistic as the main course, with a side-order of bpd traits. And a dash of psychopathy.

I think I read in an excerpt from something Dr. Hare wrote, where he mentioned that those with psychopathy not only do not recover from their psychopathy in therapy, that going into psychotherapy/talk therapy actually teaches the psychopath how to be a more skillful, efficient and successful predator. It’s damned creepy.

And Dr. Hare said (I think it was in the documentary, "I, Psychopath") that he himself has been fooled more than once by psychopaths. If the most renowned expert on psychopathy can be intellectually/emotionally seduced and manipulated by psychopaths, what chance do the rest of us have!?

Telling lies: That’s not what happened!

Reply by Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

Yes, manipulation by liars is a real danger, and one currently at issue in the 2012 Presidential election. Both political parties are accusing their opposing candidates of being liars. How is the general public to recognize which, or both, really are psychopaths?

It’s often helpful to note that the lies are often projections, i.e., accusing others of traits of the person issuing the lies and accusations. That’s why children receiving parental accusations often question themselves, “Am I crazy?” The parent turns upside down the doer and the receiver of wrongful actions, e.g., accusing the child of being selfish when the selfish individual is the raging parent.

Public awareness of harmful parents

Submitted by Annie

The more material there is out there educating the public about bpd, focusing on the high risk of emotional injury, neglect and abuse that the children of those with bpd mothers face. (particularly if the mother is moderately to severely affected by bpd, is undiagnosed and untreated, and has little if any supervision of her day-to-day parenting decisions.)

Realistically, the nine criteria that currently define borderline pd are *exactly the opposite* traits and behaviors that constitute the general idea of a "good enough" parent. Nobody in their right mind would hire a full-time nanny who exhibited any five of those nine criteria to look after their children, yet my Sister and I and thousands of other children were left alone in the care of a mother who exhibited most or all of those traits in a frequent and intense way. There is just something very, very wrong with that.

Spread the word

Submitted by Crimson

We do need to spread the word about mothers with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPDs are in desperate need of codependents and enablers. When everyone else abandons them because of their psychosis, BPD women have children.

Children can't run away, they don't know enough to call for help and they have no choice but to tolerate and become the victims of BPD mothers. As long as the doors and windows of a home can shut tight, then a BPD mother has the freedom to abuse and terrorize her children as much as she wants.

If nothing else, at least we can help by putting a label on these destructive mothers.


Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is a private practice psychologist in Denver and author of the book for therapists, From Conflict to Resolution, and the book on skills for marriage success, The Power of Two. Her website at teaches communication and conflict resolution skills for calm and collaborative relationships.

Other articles I've written on the topic of Borderline personality disorder have included:

BPD: The Sufferer's Experience

Are BPD Drama Queens Manipulative and Sadistic?

When Your Mother Has a Borderline Personality (Part I)

Verbal Abuse of Children: What Can You Do About It?

Help For Little Girls Who Do Too Much Anger

From Cute Little Girl to Borderline Personality

Borderline Personality: Does a BPD Diagnosis Necessitate Raging?

New Treatments for Borderline Personality Disorder and Other Anger Syndromes

Evil Genes: An Unconventional Perspective on BPD