After breezing through several counselors, frequent problems at school, repeated difficulties maintaining relationships, exaggerated rages over small issues, irrational behavior, and now even a suicide attempt, Megan realized that there may be something more serious than she originally assumed threatening the health of her 15-year-old daughter. Finally, after consulting a therapist who specializes in personality disorders, she learned that this behavior could be an early indicator of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Because an official diagnosis cannot be made for any Personality Disorder until 18 years of age, the therapist could only explain what the disorder looked like and possible ways Megan could help her daughter cope with it without being able to actually diagnose. According to Megan, her daughter displayed all of the signs and symptoms of BPD and she was desperate to learn as much as she could to improve her daughter’s health. These are the parenting suggestions the counselor gave her.
- Parenting books don’t work. The typical parenting book focuses on behavior modification utilizing a reward/consequence system. While this is highly effective in schools and home environments for the majority of kids, it is not useful for budding borderline behavior. This method will cause further isolation of the child, increase their fear of abandonment, and incite even more problematic behaviors.
- Focus on emotion, not logic. Instead of trying to logically explain the consequences of poor decisions, focus on the emotional aspect. Kids with budding borderline behavior need a lot of emotional support. They can hear the logic better after knowing that a parent understands and empathizes with their emotional needs.
- Passive is better than direct. Traditionally, direct parenting which encompasses short, sweet statements, is effective. But with budding borderline behavior, being more passive is better. When a child acts up or has a problem say, “That sounds frustrating. How are you going to handle it?” Avoid providing solutions to the problem, instead draw it out of the child.
- Memory problems are dissociation. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that a person uses to mentally step outside of their body in an effort to avoid feeling intense pain. When a budding borderline kid does this, they often lose track of time and place. This explains their inability to accurately recall details of an event. Understanding this and avoiding situations where the child is pressured or punished for their dissociation, is key.
- It’s not about control. Budding borderlines children are not trying to be controlling when they act up, instead they are reflecting just how out of control they feel. These kids don’t want to be in charge and don’t even think that way. Instead, they desperately want someone to feel as deeply as they do about the same matter. This helps them to feel more normal. Don’t let disagreements turn into power struggles, instead take it as an opportunity to learn more about your child, how they feel, and how best to communicate with them.
- Lying is a consequence of dissociation. When a kid dissociates, they are not fully present and therefore do not have an accurate memory of the event. This often means that they are unable to recall just what they said and may even claim that they weren’t yelling when they were. This is not an intentional lie – they really don’t remember. Punishing for this generates feelings of mistrust and intensifies abandonment fears.
- Can’t logic self-harming behaviors. A budding borderline kid will do self-harming behaviors such as cutting, picking, bruising, hitting, brushing, and restrictive dieting. Using logic to explain why not to do these behaviors doesn’t work. The key is to understand their emotional trauma which has led to these behaviors and help them to work past that trauma to prevent them from expressing through the harmful behavior.
- Attracts trouble around them. The propensity to engage in high-risk behavior usually results in friendships with other kids who are troublesome. The combination of these friendships and a lack of awareness of potential harm frequently put the budding borderline kid in danger.
- Absorbs the emotions of others. One of the unknown characteristics of budding borderline behavior is the ability to absorb the emotions of others as if it was their own. When a frustrated parent claims that they are not angry, the budding borderline child senses their frustration and then becomes even angrier because the parent is denying their feelings. Try to create an environment of honesty and be aware of the effect your own feeling will have on your child.
- Intense fear of abandonment. The fear of abandonment is even more intense when there has been a parent that did abandon the child. This is not just physical such as leaving; it can be an emotional abandonment as well. A parent emotionally abandons when they ignore, don’t spend one-on-one time, overworks, lacks empathy, or is emotionally unintelligent. Avoiding such situations can lessen the child’s fear and make them feel more secure.
- Push-pull relationships. A budding borderline kid will have a history of friendships in which they are extremely close, then suddenly distant, followed by close again, and then absent. This push-pull style of friendships reinforces a fear of abandonment every time the relationship is apart. It is typical for these kids to struggle with friendships within their own peer group. Be as supportive as possible of your child despite their current status with their peers and provide them with a safe space to work things out as they need to.
- Be aware of early addictions. Any addictive behavior that begins before age 14 tends to be problematic for a lifetime. Addictions can be their phone, video games, alcohol, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, food, sexting, and sex. Allow professionals to confront and deal with any of these behaviors as soon as you notice them.
- Temper tantrums are typical. Generally speaking, most kids outgrow temper tantrums around age 5, but those with borderline tendencies do not. Instead, the rages intensify for no apparent reason. But for them, there is a good reason. They do not feel heard, understood, and/or sympathized with. Try not to encourage this behavior, but instead help them find more functional ways to communicate their frustration. And if progress is slow and the fits persist, focus on the cause of them and addressing those directly instead of further antagonizing your child through reprimand or punishment.
- Take suicidal behavior seriously. In order to meet the criteria of borderline personality disorder, there are multiple suicidal idealization and/or attempts. Most of these begin as early as 12 years old, escalating during the teen years. Each idealization or attempt should be treated seriously by a professional regardless of the reality of success.
- Show unconditional love and attachment daily. What budding borderline kids want most is unconditional love from their parents along with a deep attachment. This is a secure foundation in which their fears of abandonment can subside, and they can always feel safe. The key is to ask the kids if they feel this way, not assume as a parent that you are already achieving it. Remember, it is the perspective of the budding borderline kid that matters the most.
It took a while for Megan to change her parenting methods, but when she did things got so much better. The underlying behaviors or feelings of a child with Borderline Personality Disorder may never fully go away, but now that Megan had made the effort to understand and evolve, her daughter felt safer and more secure, lessening the intensity of her reactivity and creating a much healthier environment for everyone involved.
Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC
Hammond, C. (2020). How to Parent a Child Displaying Borderline Behaviors. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 28, 2020, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2020/06/how-to-parent-a-child-displaying-borderline-behaviors/