Having one or more parents with borderline personality disorder can result in a chaotic, confusing, and even abusive childhood. Many children grow up having mixed feelings towards their parents, and may also struggle with relationships and self-esteem in their adult lives. Despite a challenging upbringing, it’s possible to heal with the right tools and support.
What Is BPD?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a chronic psychiatric condition associated with emotional dysregulation, poor self-image, and impulsive behavior.1 Those living with BPD often live with persistent feelings of emptiness, fear of abandonment, and suicidal thoughts. As a result, people with BPD will typically experience impairment in their overall functioning, affecting relationships, work, and other social settings.2
What to Expect From a Borderline Parent
Children who grow up with a borderline mother or father often face immense emotional turbulence during their younger years. Many people describe it as “walking on eggshells,” in the sense that they never really know what mood their parents will be in. As a result, they often fear conflict, try to placate their family, and struggle with a core sense of identity.
Parents with BPD may oscillate between being overly attached or involved with their children and being hostile or dismissive. Sometimes, they might present as extraordinarily loving and attentive. Other times, they may be harsh, punitive, and abusive.3 These oscillating extremes often persist throughout one’s childhood and may become more extreme as the child gets older.
Common traits of a parent with BPD include:
- Seeking constant approval from their children and other family members
- Presenting as overly moody or depressed if things don’t go their way
- Making their children feel like they can never do “good enough” for their parent
- Lashing out with anger or borderline rage (even without a specific reason)
- Abusing drugs, alcohol, or other compulsive vices
- Self-harm and/or repeated suicide attempts
- A chronic pattern of unstable adult friendships or romantic relationships
- Rotating between extremes of “hating” and “loving” certain people
- Making kids feel like they need to “parent” their parent
- Ongoing fears of abandonment
- Paranoia and distrust towards many other people
Common Effects of Being Raised by Borderlines
Growing up with borderline parents can result in several emotional challenges for children. They often can’t trust their parents, and they tend to find it hard to trust others as well. Furthermore, because their parents may not have cultivated a strong sense of self, they often grow up feeling uncertain and ashamed of themselves.
In their adult lives, those raised by parents with BPD may struggle with:
- Poor relationship skills: they may be so used to caregiving or people-pleasing that they fall into other relationships that mimic those patterns. Or, they may be afraid of being vulnerable with others, especially if they fear someone will use it against them.
- Emotional distress: since these individuals lacked healthy modeling for emotional expression, they may feel stunted with their own feelings. As a result, they might deny, suppress, or intellectualize various emotions.
- Codependency: BPD and codependency are interconnected. Children often feel overly responsible for their parents’ emotions, and they may exhibit similar patterns in other relationships.
- Psychological instability: they may struggle with conditions like depression, anxiety, or substance use disorders. While a parent with BPD does not cause mental illness, trauma and neglect represent risk factors for psychological issues later in life.
- Shame: they often grow up feeling embarrassed and ashamed of their family dynamics. This shame can persist long into adulthood.
- Low self-esteem: children need a sense of unconditional love and acceptance from their caregivers. If this need is not met, they may struggle with self-worth and self-esteem.
- Poor impulse control: people with BPD often struggle with poor impulse control, and children may learn these habits from their parents. They might experience related problems with substances, food, gambling, or money management in their adult lives.
- Identity confusion: BPD parents often have shifting perceptions towards their children which confuses them how they “should” behave. Consequently, as adults, they’ll struggle finding their true identity outside of their parents’ views.4
Effects In Early Childhood
Research shows that caregivers must emotionally attune to their children to foster a sense of secure attachment. These caregivers should intuit their children’s needs and tend to those needs appropriately and promptly. Therefore, secure attachment results in children feeling safe and secure in the world; they can generally trust themselves and others.
However, parents with BPD can miss emotional and physical signals in their children. They may be too preoccupied with their own needs, and they might feel overwhelmed by their child’s emotions. As a result, they may not be able to attune to their children appropriately. These children may grow up with an insecure attachment, resulting in them feeling unsafe, needy, or guarded in interpersonal relationships.3, 4
Unmet Psychosocial Needs
One’s psychosocial health refers to an individual’s history and their thoughts about themselves and others. Psychosocially healthy people tend to be emotionally flexible, resilient, and optimistic about life. They feel supported by others and strive to be healthy and productive.5
A parent with BPD may not cultivate this need in their children. Instead, they often present as depressed, anxious, and pessimistic. Moreover, they might repeatedly pass along negative messages about the world being a bad place or others being untrustworthy.
Lack of Sense of Safety or Security
Children need consistency and structure to thrive. At home, they benefit from boundaries and reinforcement of those boundaries. These rules keep life relatively predictable, fostering a sense of safety.
However, BPD homes often feel chaotic and scattered. A parent might enforce a boundary one day but forget about it entirely the next. These children may feel like they need to fend for themselves when surviving childhood.
Effects In Adolescents & Young Adults
Lack of Self-Identity
Identity formation is an essential part of adolescent development. Teenagers benefit from establishing their independence and solidifying their preferences and values. This need often explains the rebellious phase associated with this life stage.
Parents with BPD may stunt this process by becoming overly controlling or involved in their child’s life. For example, they may harshly punish the child for any form of self-expression they don’t like. As a result, the child may consider it unsafe to explore their identity, or they may take greater lengths to rebel against their family, which could result in even more problems.
Lack of Confidence
Parents play a crucial role in instilling confidence in their children. They can achieve this by modeling self-confidence, encouraging self-expression, allowing for mistakes, and validating strengths and efforts.6
Parents with BPD have diminished confidence themselves. They also tend to be overly critical of themselves and others. Mistakes may be considered downright unacceptable, and any perception of failure might be punished. These unhealthy patterns can undoubtedly impact a child’s confidence.
Prone to Self-Destructive Behavior
Children with BPD parents may grow up watching their parents hurt themselves or others. They may witness drug use, violence, or self-harm from a young age. Yet, over time, these habits may be deemed normal.
Subsequently, children may grow up assuming these behaviors are OK. If they didn’t learn alternative coping skills, they might resort to the same habits they observed growing up.
Poor Emotional Regulation
Poor emotional regulation is a hallmark sign and symptom of BPD. People with BPD tend to react in intense and volatile ways when faced with challenging emotions. Moreover, they often struggle to accept and move on from these states.
If children do not learn how to identify and cope with their emotions, they may lack regulation skills. As a result, they may become hostile, impulsive, or defensive in various situations.
Effects In Relationships
Trouble With Intimacy
Intimacy requires a sense of trust and vulnerability. But because children with BPD parents often do not have those basic needs met in childhood, they may be skeptical or guarded with them in adulthood. They may look for intimacy in the wrong places, or they might avoid it altogether.
People dating someone with BPD may find that the relationship can feel unpredictable, chaotic, and alarming. One moment, things may seem completely fine. Next, it can feel like everything is wrong.
Unclear Understanding of Healthy Relationships
Initial family relationships create a template for subsequent relationships later in life. For example, borderline parents may set the stage for codependent and abusive relationships. Children may grow up believing they deserved that dynamic, or that the dynamic is completely normal.
Therefore, healthy relationships may seem confusing. Even if they value love and stability, fragmented self-esteem, poor trust issues, and lack of boundaries can dissuade other people and reinforce toxic relationship patterns.
Difficulty With Interpersonal Functioning & Conflict Resolution
Parents with BPD can be hot-tempered and explosive around their children. Some children will fight back similarly; others become more submissive and people-pleasing in an attempt to get on their parents’ good side.
Conflict can become challenging in adult life. These children may not see any examples of healthy arguing or conflict resolution. They may fall into extreme mindsets where either everything becomes an argument or conflict must be avoided at all costs.
Your Own Parenting & Parent/Child Relationships
Unresolved Trauma, PTSD, or Complex PTSD
Parents with BPD may physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse their children. Neglect is also highly pervasive, and children often feel unsafe in their own homes. Complex trauma, or repeated and compounded childhood trauma, is a key risk factor for complex PTSD.
Similarly, trauma bonding can keep adult children feeling insecure and even responsible for their parents and their well-being. These dynamics can create generational patterns that may appear if you have your own children.
Guilt & Blame
Unfortunately, many children grow up believing they caused or aggravated their parents’ behavior. Even if they don’t blame themselves directly for BPD, they might assume that they were “bad” or “difficult” children who made things worse.
This guilt or blame can reinforce codependent dynamics. It can also cause adult children to protect or enable their parents’ toxic behavior. Unfortunately, this can persist when your parents become grandparents to your children.
It’s important to note that a difficult upbringing does not define your current identity. Despite these common effects of being raised by parents with BPD, many children grow up to be compassionate, competent, and accomplished adults.
How to Deal With a Parent With Borderline Personality Disorder
Dealing with parents with BPD can feel like a losing battle. You may quickly find yourself feeling frustrated, resentful, or completely apathetic. These emotions are typical for someone in your situation.
When dealing with a parent with borderline personality disorder, it can help to:
- Continue educating yourself on BPD and how it impacts family dynamics
- Avoid engaging in arguments or conflicts as often as possible
- Set consistent limits with your parents
- Pause (and take a few deep breaths) before you respond
- Remind yourself that you are not responsible for their well-being
How to Heal From a BPD Parent
Healing from BPD dynamics often feels complex and challenging. Indeed, it can take time to untangle all the old behavioral patterns originating from childhood. That said, it is possible to cope and heal.
Beneficial tips to help heal from a childhood with a BPD parent include:
- Be mindful of your triggers with your parents and taking action to avoid or minimize your exposure to them
- Identify and set healthy boundaries with them
- Recognize your own relational struggles and make efforts to improve
- Practice self-compassion for your past and current self
- Journal about your feelings
- Practice self-care regularly
- Lean on healthy, peer support
- Attend individual, trauma-informed therapy
Find a Therapist
Use a therapist directory to choose for a therapist with experience in borderline personality disorder and complex trauma. Most professionals advise against family therapy in this case – It’s better to have a private, confidential space where you can process your feelings without your parents being involved.
Final Thoughts on Being Raised by a Borderline Parent
Borderline personality disorder can have lasting imprints on the entire family system. But, despite how your parents treated you, there are ways to move forward and heal. Taking care of yourself and reaching out for support is often the first step in the right direction.
For Further Reading
- Books on BPD
- Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason: This book overviews how to take care of yourself when someone you love has borderline personality disorder.
- Surviving a Borderline Parent Resources: This site offers a hub of resources, articles, and support for people who have parents with BPD.
- Raised by Borderlines Subreddit: This forum is geared for anyone who identifies as having a parent with BPD. Users can post and comment about shared experiences related to their upbringing.