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Borderline Personality Disorder is not the parent’s “fault”

Corrine Stoewsand

I recently remembered being in a psychology class several years ago. It was a course on psychopathology, the psychology course that I had been looking forward to more than any other. A few weeks into the semester, the professor made a comment about how, “of course we all know that homosexuality is a perversion that is caused by psychotic mothering.”


The class was half 19-year-olds and half middle-aged women going back to school after raising kids. One woman timidly raised her hand and quietly said, “my son is gay and I am not psychotic.” This professor pointed at her and wagged her finger saying, “you just don’t realize how psychotic your mothering has been!”


I looked at this student’s shocked face and the shocked faces of the boys in the back of the room and heard the murmurs throughout the room. The air was tense. The professor sensed that she had gone too far and she said a little less stridently, “well maybe we can all agree that homosexuals should not be schoolteachers.”


That comment just got everyone in the class to object even more forcefully. I was outraged at the ignorance of this professor and the potential damage she was doing to those students. I never returned to her class and I dropped out of that university because of it.


Unfortunately ignorant psychologists are still out there. Even today, some are still writing and speaking about Borderline Personality Disorder being caused by bad parenting. While severe child abuse or neglect may be a factor, in reality the current scientific evidence for most mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder, increasingly supports the case for genetics and brain abnormalities. Babies can be born with a predisposition to develop the disorder.


Genetics. Research of BPD of twins and families suggest that personality disorders may be inherited or strongly associated with other mental health disorders among family members. Longitudinal studies have found that a majority of "difficult" babies have behavioral problems as adults. The science to date shows that almost 50% of BPD can be explained by genetics. Also, epigenetic alterations (the study of genes being "switched on and off") associated with BPD have been found in genes associated with estrogen regulation, neurogenesis, and cell differentiation. Childhood trauma may modulate the magnitude of epigenetic changes.


Brain abnormalities. Research among persons with BPD has also shown changes in certain areas of the brain involved in emotion regulation, impulsivity and aggression. In addition, certain brain chemicals that help regulate mood, such as serotonin, may not function properly, or may be less available. (This does not mean that it is possible to diagnose BPD from a brain scan. These are broad trends seen among large groups of people.)


To blame the loving parents of an adolescent or young adult with borderline personality disorder is irresponsible and ignores the overwhelming scientific research. It flies in the face of clinical experience among professionals dedicated to this illness.


I have personally met hundreds of parents of persons with BPD. Many of them are the “cream of the crop” in parenting. They include parents who have raised healthy, happy, and successful children who go on to live meaningful lives. These parents had only one of their children diagnosed with bpd—a child who may have been different since birth, or who developed emotional dysregulation and impulsive behaviors during adolescence that worsened as they became an adult, or a child who was not able to launch themself into independence during their twenties due to emotional and behavioral problems.


Such a child may have experienced the same environment as their peers that was healthy and conducive for the growth. But for this child it felt “invalidating, unfair, or traumatic” because of their emotional sensitivity and/or the physiological intensity of their emotions. The inability to regulate emotions can be explained by brain activity, including electrochemical communication between various regions of the brain and development of particular regions that are critical in self-regulation. Except for a parent who abuses or neglects a child, it is unlikely to be the parent’s "fault" that a person develops BPD.


However, that does not mean that parents cannot help guide their child (including an adult child) toward more effective self-regulation and behavioral self-control as well as toward engaging in effective, professional treatment for BPD. We can change our own brain activity, develop new neuronal connections and change the neurochemical balance in our brains throughout our entire life. This can be accomplished, for example, through learning, practice, and new habit formation. There is great hope for remission and recovery of BPD, especially if the person has at least one stable and supportive relationship and consistently participates in some kind of vocational activity. Parents and family members can learn about BPD. They can also learn important social and emotional skills (skills that are useful in all areas of life) to model and practice with a loved one who may have great difficulty in these areas.

 

* Reminder: Our next 12-week DBT workshop for FAMILY MEMBERS of persons who have symptoms of borderline personality disorder starts May 5. The 2.5-hour classes are scheduled at 8 p.m. Eastern Time | 7 p.m. Central Time | 6 p.m. Mountain Time | 5 p.m. Pacific Time.


Through lectures, experiential practice, and seminars you will understand human behavior better and learn a new skills, including:

  • Bio-Social Theory of BPD

  • Understanding Emotional Dysregulation and Impulsive Behavior

  • The Power of Presence and Acceptance

  • The Function and Construction of Emotions

  • Validation, Validation, and More Validation

  • Understanding Behavioral Change

  • Interpersonal Effectiveness

  • Self-Care and Personal Limits

  • Tolerating Distress and Surviving the Crises

  • Ending Black and White Thinking



 

Corrine Stoewsand, Ph.D. is trained in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which has a wealth of research showing its effectiveness in treating borderline personality disorder and other mental health conditions. Corrine has taught DBT skills to families and therapists throughout Latin America for 15 years. Her book, Genuine Validation, was published in 2019.





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Thank you for this affirming post. My adult child's father exhibited narcissistic traits and we divorced when she was 7, which is when I started to see some concerning, out-of-norm thoughts and behaviors develop as she struggled to adjust to the divorce and to moving to a new home since I could no longer afford mortgage payments. I supported her in every way, trying to give her an enriching, safe home environment, and she still had (and has) a high-conflict personality, directing her frustrations and anger frequently and liberally at those who love her (including, of course, me). I connected with your statement that, despite my efforts to create a safe, healthy home environment, "for this child it felt 'invalidating,…

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