Helping an Adult Child with Borderline Personality Disorder: Recovering Together Through Treatment
Parents of an adult child with borderline personality disorder face unique struggles as they navigate the extremes of their child’s illness. Developing understanding and practicing validation will help you develop a healthier relationship with your child. By seeking and staying involved in treatment, you can give your child and your family the chance to find lasting recovery.
Having a child with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be heartbreaking. The instability, emotional volatility, self-injury, and suicide attempts that so often accompany the illness devastate you emotionally and leave you feeling lost, helpless, and alone. You find yourself walking on eggshells, hoping to avoid the next blow up, never knowing what the next trigger will be. In your darkest moments, you fear losing them altogether.
Borderline personality disorder is an illness of extremes that fractures your loved one’s sense of self and their ability to cope with the world around them. They walk through life with every nerve exposed, lacking the armor needed to weather emotional storms. And while it is profoundly painful for those living with the illness, parents of an adult child with borderline personality disorder experience a unique distress of their own, as they are both witness to and secondary victim of this enigmatic condition.
However, contrary to popular mythology and outdated thinking, BPD does not have to be an immutable state. With the right approach and treatment, you can nurture a healthier relationship with your child while giving them invaluable support as they learn to navigate their illness and find true recovery.
Understanding people with BPD is essential to engaging with them in healthy, productive, and loving ways. Unfortunately, those with BPD are often imagined to be manipulative, cruel, immature, or simply dramatic, leaving them without the understanding they so deeply crave and that is so essential to their wellbeing. However, people with BPD are not being malicious; instead, they are experiencing intense, authentic emotions that arise from profound inner pain.
“The best way I have heard borderline personality disorder described is having been born without an emotional barrier,” writes one woman struggling with the illness.
What might have been a trivial slight to others was for me an emotional catastrophe, and what would be a headache in emotional terms was a brain tumor to me. This reaction was spontaneous and not something I chose. In the same way, the rage that is often one of the hallmarks of borderline personality disorder, and that seems out of proportion to what is going on, is not just a ‘temper tantrum’ or a demand for attention.’ For me, it was a reaction to being overwhelmed by present pain that reminded me of the past.
Those living with borderline personality disorder do not want to have the emotional experiences they are having; if their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are painful to you, they are even more so for the person with the disorder.
The exact causes of BPD are largely unknown. For some, it arises with no identifiable trigger. For others, it appears to develop following trauma, particularly sexual trauma. In fact, researchers estimate that 50-75% of people with BPD have experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse. This indicates that BPD may develop in response to extreme distress that comes to guide your loved one’s experiences of themselves and the world around them. Rather than reacting with a healthy coping mechanism, they enter into a state of perpetual traumatic reaction, unable to regulate their emotions, experience trust, and feel a sense of security. Acknowledging the roots of this pain can not only help clarify the underpinnings of BPD for you, it can also help you develop the empathy and understanding your child needs from you.
Validation can seem like a counterintuitive concept when dealing with someone you perceive as irrational. However, validation is essential for effectively communicating with and supporting people who have borderline personality disorder.
Validation does not mean that you always agree with or can see things the same way as your child. It does, however, mean that you behave with sympathy, compassion, and empathy while acknowledging that their reality is different than your own. Invalidating responses to these emotional experiences only confirms their fear of rejection, shaming, silencing, and abandonment that stand at the center of their disorder, fueling it further.
“Validation involves unconditional acceptance,” says psychologist Sheryl Bruce. This can be a difficult task; while your love for your child may never waver, unconditional acceptance of their thoughts and emotions typically comes less naturally when you see them as contrary to reason or your own experience. In order to foster validation, it is imperative to put yourself in your child’s shoes.
In practice, validation means that you listen to your child without judgment and show them that you are hearing them. One validation technique that helps many families is Accurate Reflection, a strategy in which you mirror back what your loved one is saying in order to help them feel heard and understood. Rather than telling them why they should not be upset, you can say, “I can see that you are very hurt. I can only imagine how sad that must make you.” Instead of explaining why they are wrong, you can say, “It must be terrible to feel that way.” Of course, these cannot simply be lines you recite; you must truly feel the empathy you are trying to convey and approach your loved one with warmth.
While understanding and validation are vital to supporting your child, they do not cure them of borderline personality disorder. Rather, you must encourage your child to seek effective treatment in order for true healing to begin.
Decades ago, borderline personality disorder was considered largely untreatable. While unfortunately this myth persists in some circles even in today’s world, in the past 30 years there have been significant developments in borderline personality disorder treatment.
- One 10-year study on BPD remission and recovery at McLean Hospital found that 93% of BPD sufferers experienced remission for at least two years following treatment, and 86% experienced remission for four years or more.
- Another study found that 78% of experienced remission for eight years or more after BPD treatment.
“Symptomatically, this is a good prognosis,” says Mary Zanarini, Ed.D. “The idea that people with BPD never get better isn’t true.”
Unfortunately, while high rates of remission are indeed promising, recovery rates that include restored social and vocational function remain lower; according to the McLean study, only 50% met the definition of recovery. The relatively low rate of recovery speaks to a lack of emphasis on holistic rehabilitation. It is not that borderline personality disorder treatment has failed; in fact, symptom-focused BPD treatment has shown itself to be very effective. Rather, it is that most treatment fails to focus on the full scope of needs.
When seeking treatment for your adult child with borderline personality disorder, it imperative to connect with resources that will address both symptomatology and functionality. Long-term treatment programs offer comprehensive, intensive treatment in the context of a therapeutic community. They can help your son or daughter with BPD develop the insight and strategies they need to:
- Enhance self-regulation;
- Find validation;
- Develop a stable sense of self;
- Enhance social and vocational functioning; and,
- Increase independence.
These elements are essential to creating truly effective treatment experiences that unlock your child’s true potential and relieve them of their pain.
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Recovery has been described as “a process by which people recover their self-esteem, dreams, self-worth, empowerment, pride, dignity, and meaning.” This process is invaluable not just to the person struggling with the illness, but for the entire family. In fact, it is necessary for the entire family.
By selecting a BPD treatment program that invites family participation, you can get the guidance you need to heal your relationship and learn how to move forward together to recover as a family. Through specialized family programming, you can more deeply connect with your child while learning how to overcome damaging dynamics, mend old wounds, set boundaries, and communicate in a way that makes each person feel understood. At the same time, you will receive the support you need to heal and develop strategies for caring for yourself.
Recovery from BPD is possible, not only for your child but for your family as a whole. By engaging in the right treatment in the right setting, you can nourish yourselves both individually and collectively, strengthening your bonds and bringing you ever closer to healing. It can also do something else, something that too often goes unsaid: restore hope. As Caroline P. O’Grady and W.J. Wayne Skinner poignantly say, “The overarching message of ‘recovery’ is that hope and meaningful life are possible. Hope is recognized as one of the most important determinants of recovery.”
Hanbleceya offers comprehensive, long-term treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative San Diego-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.
Image Source: Unsplash user Brooke Cagle