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The Borderline Parent—A Survival Guide

The cold, brutal truth of Borderline Personality Disorder.

By Daniel S. Lobel, Ph.D.

The Value of Identity

Identity is a precious thing. It starts with a sense of self and grows over time to a set of values, a belief in what's right and wrong and an ability to stand up for oneself, despite consequences. Good parenting fosters this precious part of being human. A strong identity gives you the right to ask for what you deserve, give graciously without feeling used, and say "no" simply because it feels right.

But, what happens if you were brought up by a mother (or father) who had been truly injured? Let's take a specific look at the borderline mother; how she may behave and what you can do to survive.*

Surviving a Borderline Parent

Individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (IBPD) present a threat to the sense of self of those in sustained relationships with them. This holds particularly for their children, but spouses can suffer as well.

Survival of one’s sense of self while in a relationship with a IBPD requires an understanding of relating patterns that are characteristic of IBPD and some tools for protecting one’s self while trying to be kind, supportive, understanding and perhaps loving. Some specific brutal patterns of relating will be discussed here with some strategies for protecting the self during exposure.

Responses to previous blogs have pointed out that IBPD is a “medical condition” and that those afflicted do not choose to be so affected. While this is certainly true, it does not mitigate the effects of the disorder on family and friends.

Many psychiatric disorders have devastating consequences to family members. Examples include Pedophilia, Alcoholism, Antisocial Personality Disorder and Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Dementia. Coping with affected individuals does not mean blaming them for being ill, but it does mean protecting one’s self.

Allowing an Autistic child to injure a caregiver does not help the child. Allowing an IBPD to destroy one’s sense of self does not benefit the IBPD.

Here are three brutal traps to avoid.

The Brutal Truth:

The “truth” to a IBPD is not fixed in reality but rather a story that can be changed to support their perceptions and motives. Objective standards are neither recognized nor acknowledged. As a result of this, inconsistencies and contradictions often occur.

  • IBPD: “Why do you act guarded around me?”
  • Child: “Because you have hurt me in the past and I don’t want to be hurt again.”
  • IBPD: “I hurt you! I don’t remember that. When?”
  • Child: “You used to hit me with a belt when I was a child.”
  • IBPD: “I don’t remember that. You are making it up. You lousy shit.”

Here, memory is rewritten to serve the IBPD and then used as a bludgeon. This accomplishes a complete, albeit distorted, reversal of the victim role. The IBPD is accused of abuse and ends up being the victim of false accusations thus justifying subsequent abuse.

  • IBPD: “I found a wonderful resort in Palm Springs. Why don’t we all go there for Christmas?”
  • Child: “Mom we already have plans to go to Bermuda this year.”
  • /BPD: “Am I going with you?”
  • Child: “We hadn’t really thought of that.”
  • IBPD: “But you said we are going away together.”
  • Child: “I said maybe we could go away together sometime.”
  • IBPD: “That’s not how I remember it. I understand that this is not something you want to do. I won’t ask again.”

The fluidity of the brutal truth allows it to be manipulated for selfish purposes. In this case, the IBPD wanting to pick a vacation and go with her child and grandchildren. The end result is once again the IBPD becoming the victim and justifying more abuse.

The brutal truth cannot be challenged or debated effectively. Even presentation of hard evidence does not change the dynamic whereby the IBPD is the victim and the child is cast as unloving and worthy of abuse.

  • Child: “When we discussed this before we looked on the computer at several different dates, seasons and locations.”
  • IBPD: “I don’t remember that.”
  • Child: “I have the search history on my computer.”
  • IBPD: “Let me see it.”
  • Child: shows her
  • IBPD: “Clearly you don’t want me to be with you and your family for Christmas and so I won’t. It’s obvious how you feel about me.”

There are many techniques for dealing with the brutal truth. The best are preemptive. Be very careful about making suggestions. They are often recast as offers and then treated as entitlements. Utilize the Internet. Email allows you to refer the IBPD back to written text for reference. Be prepared to end the conversation with “I understand that this is how you see it”.

The Brutal Test

The brutal test involves approval based on the expectation of perfection. The expectation of perfection is a set-up for failure and rejection.

  • IBPD “How can I reach you in an emergency?”
  • Child “Call me.”
  • IBPD “What if you don’t answer?”
  • Child: “Leave a message.”
  • IBPD: “What if it’s an emergency?”
  • Child: “Call 911 first.”
  • IBPD: “I need to be able to reach you any time.”
  • Child: “I will do the best I can.”
  • IBPD: “What do you have in your life that’s more important than me?”

Here the IBPD has set up the situation where she gets to judge the priority of the security object. By asking for a justification as to what was happening when you could have been calling her, she puts herself in both the victim position and in the position to judge you as a human being based on a single criterion: reachability.

The IBPD is also a brutal judge. When there is more than one way to interpret a situation, the IBPD will pick the one that maximizes her role as victim.

  • IBPD: “I called last night and you didn’t return my call until today. Why didn’t you call me back last night?”
  • Child: “I didn’t hear the phone ring.”
  • IBPD: “What were you doing?”
  • Child: “I was asleep.”
  • IBPD: “Nobody in your house can hear a phone ring at night?”
  • Child: “This hasn’t been a problem before.”
  • IBPD: “Oh. So it only happens when I call.”

If one attempts to reassure the IBPD that they are available, there will then be a brutal test: The IBPD will attempt unexpected contact, under some pretense to check on availability. If the child is available, it will then be expected that this standard will be maintained forever. Other tests will occur and eventually lead to failure, which is met with abuse. The brutal test is unforgiving. No matter how many times the test has been passed, a failure cannot be forgiven.

Surviving the brutal test involves validating that it would indeed be nice to have someone who can offer unlimited availability but clearly acknowledging that this is not possible. Protection of the sense of self requires an understanding that not being able to fulfill an unreasonable request does not make one a piece of trash.

The Brutal Clock

IBPDs have their own special clock, which determines the quality of relationships. When they contact somebody or expect somebody to contact them, a clock is set. This clock determines if the response is timely or not. Once the threshold for timely has passed the other party is determined to be an abandoner. This is the worst thing that anyone can be. This means that you are not good enough. A failure. Trash. Nobody knows what time the clock is set to. Calling after the time limit is of limited use.

  • IBPD: “Why didn’t you return my call?”
  • Child: “I was going to."
  • IBPD: “When?”
  • Child: “In a couple of hours.”
  • IBPD: “I wish I never had children.”

The Brutal Clock is a variation of the Brutal Test where the IBPD sets up impossible expectations of others. When others are unable to meet the unreasonable expectations, they are punished with emotional abuse, which is justified by the IBPD’s sense of being the victim because she did not get what she wanted.

Getting off the Brutal Clock involves validating that it would be ideal to have a source of security that could respond all of the time, but that you can only offer what you can offer. Answering the question as to what is more important is a set up to fail, a form of brutal test, because almost no justification will be judged suitable since they are to be first priority. Therefore this question should not be answered. An alternative response might be “something very important, it doesn’t matter what that was”.

Once again, the protection of the self is associated with the realization that the expectation is unreasonable and thus the failure to meet an unreasonable expectation is not grounds for condemnation.

Galvanize your Brutal Galoshes

If you have spent years trying to placate an IBPD and you decide now to get off the merry-go-round, you will almost certainly incur rage. The longer you have allowed the abuse the longer it will take for the rage to begin to dissipate. It will never fully remit but if you make it clear that expression of rage will induce separation while more socialized responses will yield a more positive result, there will be a gradual acceptance.

  • IBPD: “I need you to come over right away. There is a mouse in the closet.”
  • Child: “I am at work. I cannot get there until I am off.”
  • IBPD: “I need you now.”
  • Child: “You can either wait until I get off work or call an exterminator now.”
  • IBPD: “You are a useless piece of shit.”
  • Child: “Those are your choices. Abusing me will only serve to eliminate one of your options.”

Calling “abuse” what it is by name is very important to setting a boundary.

There are two caveats when using this approach. One is don’t bluff. Do not threaten any response that you are not prepared to mete out. The second caveat is that if you threatened you must follow through or you will be labeled as a bluffer and this will quickly lead to total disregard of any boundaries that are set verbally.


The borderline mother is abusive and poses a tough set of challenges. The natural response of a child, even the adult child of such people, is to avoid, challenge or appease. If you stay in a relationship with a borderline mother, then all three of these strategies will be attacked with anger, abandonment or guilt.

In order to survive, you must understand that you are dealing with a brutal set of conditions. Know what's coming, set limits actively and be loving when you feel safe. All this is easier said than done. A good therapist can go a long way.

*While Borderline Personality Disorder is found in men as well as women, gender seems to play a role in how they manifest symptomatically. Borderline men are more anti-social, violent and impulsive. They probably don't manage to stay in a parenting relationship with their children like the Borderline mothers, who tend to be emotionally labile, with anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

This piece is by guest blogger Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D. who is in private practice in Katonah, New York. Lobel can be reached for consultation at 914-232-8434 or by email at