Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Borderline Personality Family Dynamics: The Parents, Part II

In my post of 2/6/11, Dysfunctional Family Roles, Part I: The Spoiler, I opined that the basic problem in the "borderline" family (one that produces offspring with borderline personality disorder [BPD]) is that the parents in such families see the role of being parents as the end all and be all of human existence, but all the while, deep down, they either frequently hate being a parent or see their parental role as being an impediment to their personal fulfillment.

In Part I of this post, I described the one most common major issue - gender role conficts - and the resultant behavior patterns, that I have discovered leads individuals within a family to develop a severe conflict over the parenting role. In Part II, I will describe the other ones.

To repeat a caveat from the previous post: All of these issues may seem very common everywhere, and indeed they are. Most families that face them do not produce emotional conflicts significant enough to create BPD pathology. Rather, the issues in families that do have been magnified significantly by an interacting tableau of historical events impacting the family and the individual proclivities of each and every family member and descendent.

Common issue #2 causing parental ambivalence over being parents: Untimely deaths. The loss of children, in particular, may make someone fearful over losing the others while, at the same time, may lead to parental resentment over the fears and insecurities created by the presence of the remaining ones.

For example, one grandparent of a patient in our clinic had lost 10 out of 11 children to disease; the 11th was the parent of the therapist's BPD patient. The grandmother was overprotective of the mother but at the same time avoided closeness for fear of the pain of losing yet another child. When the mother grew up and left home, the grandmother became depressed. The patient was then given up as a child to the care of the grandmother to help feel the void, and became the new focus of the grandmother's hyperconcern and insecurity. This is also an example of a parent giving up a child as a gift to a grandparent - the subject of my 10/15/2010 post.

Issues #3 and #4: Financial reverses and chronic illnesses - including severe mental illnesses. Because of the financial strains and general chaos caused by these considerations, the joy of raising children may be suddenly turned into a frightful burden, both emotionally and financially, and thereby generate parental ambivalence.

Interestingly, the presence of bipolar disorder - with which BPD is often confused these day by both incompetent psychiatrists and the public despite the fact that they do not look anything alike - in a parent may lead to the very chaos in families that generates BPD behavior in children. Children in such a family are at risk both biologically and genetically for bipolar disorder and environmentally for BPD.

Issue #5: Ambivalence over religious or cultural values concerning childbearing, child rearing and filial responsibilities may lead to parental ambivalence. Examples include:

    • 1.  The Roman Catholic emphasis on large families in a day and age when children cost a small fortune to raise. This may lead parents to follow the church rules but be extremely unhappy about the results.
    • 2. Children, often the eldest female in a traditional family, may be called upon to take care of younger siblings in large families. In doing so they are often forced to give up exciting adolescent activities in which their peers at school freely indulge. The result may be that they become identified with the caretaker role yet resentful of it. When they leave home and have families of their own, this history may lead them to resent their own children. 
I     I used to practice in Los Angeles where I saw many Chicano (Mexican American) patients.  I saw several females who had functioned as "mother's assistants" when they were growing up. They were the eldest sister in large families. They had to stay home and take care of their younger siblings, and frequently had to miss important social events in school such as their senior Proms. Their younger sisters, however, got to go to and do everything the olders sisters had missed. When these older sisters grew up and had their own children, this recreated the family of origin issues for them and induced ambivalence in them about their brood.

    •  The eldest male in a traditional family, such as seen in some Asian cultures, may be called upon to take over the family business in a career that he may just happen to hate. The costs incurred in raising children may lead to continuing family pressure to keep the business going when he wants out. The anger of Son #1 in such a situation may be displaced onto his children.
Issue #6: Parent-child role reversals. If adults in the family become incapacitated for whatever reason, and the children are therefore called upon to take over heavy adult responsibilities prematurely, the children may become resentful in a manner analogous to the situation of the eldest female in a traditional family described above.

Such individuals often describe this state of affairs with statements such as “I never got to be a kid.” [This is not the reason, however, that Michael Jackson said that]. A similar situation occurs when parents who were infantalized by their own families of origin appear to be unable to take care of themselves. Their children then try to fill the power vacuum and take care of them before they are really equipped to do so.

Issue #7: A couple has a child to “save the marriage.” The child then becomes the reason that the parents must continue in their miserable relationship. The resentment within the marital dyad becomes symbolized by the child whose presence was supposed to make the relationship better, but instead has led to the continuation of the same old marital misery.

The child then begins to believe that the family problems are all his or her fault, and the parents do not seem to try very hard to counter this belief. Children in such a bind usually come to the conclusion that their very existence is the reason their parents seem to hate each other. They may also feel that it is their reponsibility to provide a distraction to the parents' anger at one another by drawing anger on to themselves. This is one of the functions of the spoiler role.

Two or even several of these issues can present themselves simultaneously to a family, thus increasing parental ambivalence over the presence of children almost exponentially. The whole family becomes embroiled in quite a stew, and the abuse and neglect of children that sometimes results from these conflicts becomes more understandable, although still not excusable.

Expressing empathic understanding of the family's behavior, without condoning it, is far more productive in helping a family to stop troublesome behavior patterns than raking them over the coals for their misbehavior.


  1. As a person with borderline tendencies, I'm having a difficult time making sense of this post as reflective of my own experience.

    My father, because of his own history, ended up being self centered and wasn't interested in being a father. My mother, had kids to anchor my father but has the emotional maturity of a 9 year old.

    Because I was in an environment that was hostile and invalidating, I was in a constant state of fear as a child.

    You start by saying the parents of such children are ambivalent about being parents; which could be the result of any number of events or that they had a kid to save their marriage (which makes the kid feel responsible).

    It seems to me the common denominator among people with bdp is that their parents were abusive in one form or another and your explanations as to why they were abusive reads like a list of plausible scenarios or historical narratives that doesn't even include their relationship with their own parents as an influence.

    If I look at issue 7, I ask myself. Why on earth do you think that parents planned to have the kids to save their relationship rather than the kids being the result of poor planning on behalf of one or both of the parents ?

    Issue number 6, what has taking on responsibility have to do with developing emotional dysregulation ?

    Issue 5, what could be the connection between level of religiosity and how you bond with your children or interact with them ?...Traditional roles of society seem to be relevant but in doesn't, in my view, determine how in fact parents will raise their kids.

    Either I am failing to appreciate this issue, or this is too simple.

    1. Hi Mr. Salzano,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Sorry if what I wrote was not clear, but I am faced with a paradox in writing a blog: there are a lot of factors to be considered and the blog posts just focus on part of the issue. People really cannot fully appreciate any element without understanding the whole picture, but the whole picture is hard to understand without understanding ALL of the individual elements.

      You are absolutely right - ALL of the issues described that lead to the parents' conflicts over having children derive from the parents' relationship with their own parents and family of origin. Often the conflicts develop over several generations, but 3 at the minimum.

      They are passed on from one generation through the next through mixed messages about which behaviors are expected by the family and which are forbidden. In a sense, all the family members share what the analysts call intrapsychic conflicts.

      The conflicts,in turn, are present because of something called cultural lag: the rules that the family follows and by which it operates do not keep up with major changes the ambient culture demands. For instance, when most people lived on a farm, the more children you had, the wealthier you tended to become, because the kids were your farm hands. Nowadays, the more kids you have, the poorer you tend to be.

      Having children thinking it will save the marriage is often a "family myth" that the parents act as if they must believe in order to stabilized their own parents.

      Religiosity: if you follow the teachings of certain churches that say you should have as many kids as possible, and never have sex just for fun, and you really would rather do something else but can't because, if you do, you are attacked by the rest of your family - you are likely to resent taking care of all the kids you feel forced to have.

      Emotional dysregulation in the kids results from the chronic invalidation and traumatic effects of children constantly being put in damned if you do, damned if you don't situations. This causes the brain's fight or flight mechanism to kick into chronic overdrive.