One of the hardest things about being a parent with BPD, is dealing with the toddler. Not just the cute three-foot high one wreaking havoc in your house, but the inner toddler who appears to be so often in control of the adult body he or she inhabits. In ‘Trigger troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 1’, I wrote about the fact that some of the very things that make children, children, are also the things that due to the nature of BPD, I find most triggering. This difficulty is then compounded by the ways in which I react to triggering situations, and the internal resources (or lack thereof) that I have for dealing with them.
Whenever I’ve been on ‘Assertiveness’ courses, it’s always been emphasized that it only needs one party in a two-person interaction to behave assertively, and the chances of a constructive and positive outcome are high. What is needed in the presence of a child temper tantrum, other outburst of emotion, or a struggle for control, is the influence and perspective of an adult who can both contain the situation (emotionally) and has the skills and experience to diffuse it. And yet I struggle, so often, to be an adult in these situations, and they end up escalating as a toddler-to-toddler interaction might, without appropriate intervention.
In ‘Separation anxiety – BPD and emotional development’, I spoke about the theory that BPD is at least partly due to ‘developmental arrest’, where key developmental stages are interrupted and never properly negotiated. Toddler characteristics, defence mechanisms and ways of seeing the world – such as splitting, projection, lack of object constancy and lack of boundaries – may then carry on into adulthood and can manifest as some of the symptoms of BPD. Comparisons between some ‘BPD behaviours’ and those of toddlers are therefore not uncommon, and I know that my husband often feels as though he is having to manage a house full of toddlers, of which I am one.
I’m ashamed to admit that I have cuddled my youngest for comfort, much as a child might hold a soft toy, while my eldest has been in another room with my husband, crying and screaming over one of those seemingly small (to an adult) issues that can become the be-all and end-all of a child’s focus. Far from being able to contain my child’s overwhelming emotions, I find it hard to be in the same room with them. Perhaps because I don’t have much of a sense of my own boundaries, other people’s strong emotions always feel as though they are going to railroad me and ‘get inside me’, and so being around them feels like being under attack. My own distress at these times, is locked away – the only thing I can deal with is trying to defend myself against the ‘external’ distress.
I feel very guilty at the false messages that that may send to my children – that I need ‘protecting’ by the one, and ‘protecting from’ the other, neither of which is true. I also feel guilty at the fact that it’s not just their intense emotions that I find difficult to handle, but their intense clinginess as well. There are times when I am the one who clings to them – but sometimes, when they do the same to me, their neediness triggers something in me, and I almost have to push them away. That, at least, I understand and hope I can explain to them one day, if they remember it. I want to reassure them that I love them, that it has nothing at all to do with them, and it’s not their fault. What I’m reacting to is my mother’s neediness, and when I lift them off me as they’re trying to cling, it’s her I’m trying to keep at arms’ length, and not them.
As well as difficulty handling strong emotions, another key toddler characteristic is low frustration tolerance. Whether it’s losing control over the fact that you have cut their toast into triangles and not squares, or having a tantrum because the blue socks are in the wash and the red ones will never do, any kind of change or deviation from a plan or from the way ‘things are supposed to be’, can be very hard for a small child to deal with. Luckily, most of us do not remember quite what that feels like, and often, as adults, we struggle to suppress a smile and to take our children seriously when the number of peas on their plate (even if they can’t count) seems to be sufficient cause for a massive meltdown.
However, I suspect that if you have BPD, trying to remember what that feels like is not as difficult as it might seem. You have probably felt it repeatedly, even as an adult, and particularly if you are a parent. I frequently feel that my frustration tolerance is at zero (and sometimes in the negative numbers!). It may not be over the shape of my toast or the colour of my socks, but the feelings I experience at those times make me think about my children, and make me wonder if they feel exactly the same way.
For me, having low frustration tolerance means both that I experience frustration more easily, but also that the frustration experienced, feels magnified and very difficult to tolerate. I feel simultaneously completely squeezed and knotted up inside, but also as if I need to explode out of my body through the sheer force and volume of emotion. I feel like screaming with frustration – and I suppose that if I were a toddler, I would do just that. I am able to physically contain the frustration, but the feelings remain, most often coming out either as raising my voice (okay, shouting), or, if alone, crying. It is difficult to explain just how intense, maddening and hard to ‘sit with’, immense frustration can be. I’m not surprised children ‘lose it’ if they feel that way.
I find that I experience low frustration tolerance much more as a parent, than I ever did before. Any situation in which I don’t feel in control, or don’t feel listened to, or where things are not going as planned, or ‘not going my way’, can leave me with that knotted and explosive feeling inside. I have the sense of being on a knife-edge, with no internal resources to deal with being triggered and falling off that edge.
When I have low frustration tolerance I am also much less likely to be able to control my inner toddler, and power struggles are common. If my child moves his chair a centimetre to the left after I told him not to move his chair, I have to move it a centimetre to the right. Sometimes I catch myself insisting on compliance with something I have asked, even though I begin to realise it’s not that important and I probably didn’t need to ask for it to be done in the first place. I know that as a parent, I need to choose my battles, but sometimes it’s almost as if I’m choosing a battle for the sake of it, and for the sake of trying to regain a sense of control.
Do I know that I’m behaving like a child, in those situations? Often, yes. Do I hate it? Yes, always. Can I stop it – or rather, do I feel as though I can stop it, in that moment? Usually, no. Can I change it – which is a different question – I have to hope so. I do hope so. With therapy, with hard work, and even more self-awareness, I hope that I will manage it, at least more of the time. I owe it to my children because I believe that love is fundamental but that it doesn’t ‘cover a multitude of sins’. We can all, only ever, do our best in a situation, including when it comes to parenting. But the goal post changes, and so does ‘our best’, the more self-aware we are, and the better we understand a situation and our response to it. We can use our insight into BPD and the toddler parts of ourselves, to gain greater insight into and empathy with our children. And we can also use it to try and ‘tame our toddlers’ – starting with the one inside.
And let’s not forget one other helpful aspect of BPD when it comes to parenting. Childlike-ness may be a draw-back when it comes to discipline, but when it comes to playing and laughing and having fun with your children, it can be a real joy, both for you and for them. Uninhibited joining in and relating to your children ‘at their level’ can be a very bonding experience, and brings new meaning to the phrase ‘being young at heart’! Make the most of it – while your children still find it acceptable for you to act as ‘silly’ as they do. The memory of such joyful experiences is very powerful, as is their ability to repair the day’s raised voices, and its tears and tantrums – on both sides.