Borderline (BPD) Mothers

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Living with a mother or parental figure with a mental illness like borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be complicated. If your mother seems to be exhibiting behaviors and symptoms correlated with certain mental illnesses, you're not alone, and there are ways to find support, whether you're a teen or an adult. 

To start understanding this condition, it may be helpful to learn what it means to have a diagnosis of BPD and what tools are available for supporting you, your mother, and your family. Note that it isn't your responsibility as a child of someone with borderline personality disorder – regardless of your age – to care for them, especially at the expense of your own needs and mental health. Your feelings are as valid as anyone else's, and if being in a situation with a mother with BPD harms you, it's okay to reach out for support from a professional or safe loved one.

Getty
A BPD diagnosis is not your fault

A note on BPD misconceptions

People may form assumptions about BPD based on its depiction in the media, which often portrays self-centered behaviors and self-destructive patterns. Although these can be symptoms of BPD, stereotypes do not define this condition. In addition, bipolar disorder is not the same as borderline personality disorder. However, the two may co-occur. The difference is that borderline personality disorder is a personality disorder, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, and BPD does not involve symptoms of mania or hypomania, which are clinically unique to bipolar disorder. 

What does a borderline personality disorder diagnosis mean for my mother?

Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition that causes emotional instability and behavioral challenges and affects approximately 1.6% of US adults. BPD can skew one's self-image and sense of authentic self, which can cause disproportionate emotions and impulsive behavioral patterns. 

If you have a mother with a personality disorder, knowing the many aspects of life BPD can impact may be helpful. You may perceive that your mother takes her emotions out on you or that minor conflicts turns into your mother losing control of her own emotions. As a child, you could take this behavior personally, incorrectly thinking that you are a bad child, or you could form beliefs about your self-worth due to how your mother treats you. Child outcomes for individuals living with a parent with BPD may include having a poor relationship with the parent, harm avoidance, and a higher risk of developing mental health conditions later in life.

Your mother's borderline personality disorder diagnosis is not your fault. However, whatever your age, there are ways to manage the challenging environment of growing up with these challenges. If you believe your mother has borderline personality disorder, their symptoms do not reflect who you are. They may instead originate from negative emotions or your mother’s trauma in the past. While having a BPD mother can be challenging, it doesn't mean you will also develop this condition. 

Because borderline personality disorder can be isolating, seeking professional treatment is often critical. Despite the disorder's complexity and the fact that there is no cure, it is highly treatable, and individuals can learn to manage the symptoms.

Borderline personality disorder progression

Mental health professionals are wary of diagnosing individuals with personality disorders like borderline personality disorder whilst they are a dependent child, often choosing to wait until they are young adults before making a formal diagnosis. BPD traits often manifest in adolescent children in the late teen years, and it is believed that a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors causes the condition's onset. The most common risk factors for BPD include a family history of mental illness, chaotic or dysfunctional parent-child relationships, and inadequate parenting due to under-resourced parents.

People with other family members with a history of borderline personality disorder may have a higher risk of developing the disorder, as well as individuals who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other extreme threats and childhood trauma. People with BPD may also be believed to have been born with higher emotional sensitivity, as they often experience profound emotional responses. 

BPD symptoms often ebb and flow throughout an individual's lifetime. Changes in life circumstances, such as the end of adult relationships, relocation, pregnancy, or childbirth, may worsen symptoms. Contrarily, positive life events, such as making a friend or finding meaningful work, may decrease symptoms.

What are the common symptoms of borderline personality disorder?

Award-winning psychologist and author Marsha Linehan metaphorically compares individuals with a BPD struggle to "people with third-degree burns … Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement." In addition to being overly sensitive, individuals with BPD may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Fear of abandonment and the perception that others reject or separate from them, whether real or imagined
  • Unstable relationships wherein the person on the other end of the relationship is idealized at one moment and perceived as malicious, cruel, and uncaring the next
  • Low self-esteem and distorted perceptions of self, which are commonly manifested as feeling flawed, invisible, or like a horrible person
  • Paranoia, which may last from a few hours to a few days, often exacerbated by high levels of stress
  • Risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, compulsive spending, and substance use
  • Mood swings, which can last for a few days or shift in a matter of hours, often creating crises
  • A sense of numbness or emptiness
  • Intense anger or rage, as well as a loss of temper, sometimes accompanied by verbal or physical aggression
  • Chronic depression, feeling perpetually helpless, suicidal threats and/or engaging in self-harm

If an individual with BPD anticipates rejection or unwanted separation from a loved one, they may engage in self-harming behavior or threaten to commit suicide. Because the emotional pain the individual is experiencing can seem unbearable, they may attempt to manage it through physical pain. The threat of suicide from a mother can confuse a child or adolescent, as can witnessing self-harming behavior and the wounds or scars that result. For this reason, children of a mother with BPD may seek support for their emotional needs from a psychologist.

Getty/MoMo Productions

What can a mother with BPD do?

A diagnosis of BPD can be enlightening and scary. After being diagnosed with BPD, it may be vital to practice self-compassion and remind yourself that the diagnosis of BPD does not define you as a mother or person, nor does it mean you are "abnormal."

It can also be beneficial to realize that a BPD diagnosis is not your fault, and it's not too late to seek treatment. Mothers diagnosed with BPD may carry guilt on their shoulders despite being a good mother, and a BPD diagnosis may exacerbate guilt or shame about their actions, feelings, and relationships with their children, family, and friends.

As a mother with this personality disorder, you may strive to create a healthy life for your children. While mother’s mistakes can have lasting psychological consequences, they do not necessarily define you as a person or mother. Choosing to get better and choose appropriate boundaries and healthier behaviors around your child is possible, and you're not alone in the process. Some mothers with BPD benefit significantly from therapy to treat their condition.

How adult children can cope with a borderline mother 

If your mother has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, it may stress your parent-child relationship and family system. You may have noticed that your mother finds it difficult to be alone, and you might feel guilt about leaving or living an adult life without them. Being alone can provoke severe anxiety in mothers and individuals with BPD, as they often want to depend on others, including the children they raised, to soothe their intense emotions. These difficulties with boundaries are all symptoms of being a psuedo dependant persona. 

Some mothers with BPD may lash out at their children. Although they crave close, meaningful relationships, mothers with borderline personality disorder often keep loved ones at arm's length and may struggle with space or discussing intimate details in their life. The mother-adolescent relationship can become strained and create a shameful and incongruent sense of self for the child. Throughout your childhood or life, you may have felt that your mother used you to vent their frustrations, which may have left you without much emotional support. 

Having a mother with borderline personality disorder can affect your healthy development, leaving an unstable self-image and difficulty trusting the emotions and needs of future partners or children in your life. Taking care of yourself can be essential to healing and lets you put your mental health first.

A child raised by a mother or parent with borderline personality disorder may also have experienced significant impacts on their mental health. How a child was raised and their experiences can affect their relationships, compassion, and parenting style as adults. It could also affect children's early development and healthy relationships with friends. For example, a child raised by a mother with BPD may experience difficulty controlling their emotions, setting boundaries, or working through challenging memories. 

Even if you believe you can support your mother’s emotional well-being, taking care of yourself and safeguarding your needs, including your mental health, can be as crucial as supporting your mother. Setting clear and healthy boundaries in your mother-child relationship, taking space when needed, making time for self-care, and seeking therapy may help you maintain a balanced relationship with your mother with BPD and learn more about the condition from a professional.  

Setting healthy boundaries can be challenging for children who want to help their mother. It can be challenging to see someone you love in emotional pain. However, resources are available to help children support their mothers without jeopardizing their mental health. For example, family therapy with a knowledgeable therapist can help adult children develop boundary-setting skills and assist their mothers in respecting those boundaries. 

BPD: A choice or a mental illness?  

Although it can be challenging to live with BPD, your mother did not choose to live with a mental illness. BPD is a complex condition she may not fully understand, and your mother might not note its impact on you. Despite this, your mother's diagnosis doesn't give her a right to take out emotional pain on you, pry too much delicate information from you before you're ready, or abuse you. 

Emotional abuse, or any other type of abuse, is not an acceptable way for a mother or parent with borderline personality disorder to cope with their condition. Borderline personality disorder may not be your parent's fault, but they are responsible for learning how to control it. There are many resources and effective treatment options for people living with BPD, and some people may experience periods of symptom remission when caring for themselves proactively. 

Resources for individuals with borderline personality disorder

Whether you are a mother with borderline personality disorder or a child of one, the following resources may help you better understand this mental illness. 

I hate you, don't leave me

I Hate You, Don't Leave Me is a bestselling book that demystifies borderline personality disorder as a mental health condition. In addition to offering hope and support to those with BPD and their loved ones, this resource includes up-to-date research. It discusses the link between borderline personality disorder and other conditions and the pattern of "splitting" common in BPD, which involves behaviors like idolizing someone one moment and hating them the next. 

Stop walking on eggshells

Stop Walking on Eggshells may be a beneficial read for anyone affected by the chaotic nature of BPD. This resource is often recommended to adult children of a mother with BPD or partners of someone with BPD. 

The BPD survival guide

The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide answers questions you may be asking about BPD and its effects, either as a parent with BPD or a child raised by a parent with BPD. This award-winning resource can be valuable for anyone who experiences BPD symptoms, including parents. It includes a list of coping skills to help you move forward with your condition. 

Self-care techniques

Reading is one self-care strategy for people with BPD and their loved ones. However, other self-care resources are available for parents diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and their children. For example, mindfulness exercises may be effective for developing a sense of gratitude for the positive aspects of your family life rather than fostering a sense of shame or guilt about a BPD diagnosis.

Other self-care strategies include breathing exercises, journaling, and staying active. Grounding exercises are a self-care technique that you can use when stressed or severely upset. Paying attention to your senses is one way to do so. For instance, you can list five colors in your environment. Afterward, pay attention to your sense of taste. What do you taste? Continue this exercise for all five senses until you feel your emotions controlling and your breath returning to normal. 

What treatment options are available for mothers with BPD?

Professional help is often recommended to cope and move forward from borderline personality disorder. Below are three standard practices for BPD.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) focuses on teaching skills for emotion control, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness practice. Traditional DBT includes group skill-building sessions along with individual therapy. This modality was developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., an author and individual living with BPD herself. For that reason, the treatment is often the first choice for BPD.  

Some therapists treat clients with borderline personality disorder solely through individualized DBT sessions, but the treatment is most effective when combined with a group component. Note that mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Schema-focused therapy

Schema-focused therapy can be conducted for mothers diagnosed with borderline personality disorder individually or in a group setting. This type of therapy aims to support clients in recognizing their unmet needs. A woman neglected by her family in childhood may engage in unhealthy patterns to cope with their emotional pain. Upon entering schema therapy, they can learn how to properly care for themselves and cope with childhood trauma and emotional abuse without having the sense that they must be saved or supported by others. 

The therapist can work with the mom to identify her schema and how it affects her life. Through understanding these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, moms can better understand their authentic needs, moving away from adverse patterns developed in response to an emotionally absent parent or family member. 

Mentalization-based therapy (MBT)

Mentalization-based therapy (MBT) is a form of talk therapy that allows clients to voice their true thoughts and feelings about their lives. During MBT, negative thought patterns are reframed, and the client learns to reflect, pause, and react after analyzing the situation. This form of therapy is effective for treating the impulsivity associated with BPD.

A teen girl in a tan hoodie sits next to her female therapist as the therapist leans over to comfort her.
A BPD diagnosis is not your fault
Support options 

If you are a mother living with BPD or a child of a mother with this condition, therapy may help you untangle the complex emotions that can arise, live a more fulfilling life, and gain better insight into how you or your parent thinks. Even the desire to see a therapist is a first step. However, some people may struggle to seek professional support due to shame or stigmas. In these cases, it may be beneficial to reach out for support through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp for adults or TeenCounseling for those aged 13 to 19. 

Online therapy offers a solution to shame, stigma, and difficulty planning appointments, enabling clients to schedule appointments at times convenient for their schedules or moods. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy in some cases, which can be more affordable for low-income families. 

New research continues to affirm online therapy's effectiveness in treating BPD. In one randomized trial of internet-based psychotherapy for 80 women who met the DSM-IV criteria for BPD, the experimental group experienced a significant decline in their scores in impulsivity, cognitive difficulties, affective symptoms, interpersonal struggles, and overall BPD symptoms.

Counselor reviews

“Kris [Fant] has been helping me for over a year and a half now. Whether it’s dealing with the day-to-day stresses of work or deep-seated issues from my childhood, she brings sensitivity, insight, and gentle humor… She’s pretty awesome, and I’m happy to be able to connect with her via this platform.”

A picture containing logo

Description automatically generated

“Dr. [Christina] McGrath Fair is such a great listener and can synthesize my thoughts in a way that makes everything feel less insurmountable. I’m bipolar, and I have a chronic illness, so that I can be a lot. But she is so kind, and patient, and caring. And she’s encouraged me to use the messenger part more (we do phone sessions; I’m an elder millennial, lol), which has been surprisingly helpful. It’s like texting a friend when you’re in panic mode. Except you don’t have to worry about freaking out your friend or overwhelming them, and she replies so quickly. Not immediately, because people have lives. And always in a way that makes me feel validated and less alone with my problems… Talking to her makes things reasonable again. Not fixed, or gone. She reminds me of my skills and power and struggles I’ve gotten through, so I’m confident I’ll get through this difficult time too.”

Logo

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Takeaway
When a family member is diagnosed with BPD, it may present challenges for parents and children alike. However, seeking treatment can often provide an opportunity to learn healthy boundaries and control emotions using appropriate coping strategies. Whether you are diagnosed with a personality disorder or have a mother with BPD, trained professionals can assist you in accomplishing your specific goals and finding a more authentic sense of self. Consider contacting a therapist online or in your area to get started.

Learn to cope with the challenges of adolescence
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started