Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Spoiling Behavior is All an Act, But a Deadly Serious One

Relationships between people are formed through interactions that are two-way and simultaneous. People learn and become different over time as this occurs, and can push one another away.

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 did not know then 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 DBT therapists believe they come from an “invalidating environment,” even though they seem to scrupulously avoid identifying that specific environment as the family of origin.

I would like to suggest that the reader take a look at what the letter writer said in a different way than would be a typical interpretation. (Of course, I can’t know for sure even if her child has even been correctly diagnosed or exactly how positive the family environment is). 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.
Likewise, if a parent is constantly invalidating a child, the child will begin to act in ways that practically invite invalidation. One leader of a parents of BPD kids' support group 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.

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