Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org under the name Clara Bridges.

Toddler troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 2

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toddler tantrumOne 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.

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24 thoughts on “Toddler troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 2

  1. This post was so wonderful and captures so much of what I was experiencing just over a year ago. I have so much more to say, but it will have to wait until I have a little more time to focus my attention. Again, thank you for posting this and letting us in.

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    • Thank you so much 🙂 It’s good to know (or at least you’ve implied?) that things have moved on for you, and are different now to a year ago. I know things move very quickly with children, and often one finds oneself in a ‘phase’ of some kind, but doesn’t realise it until later. I’m sure some things will get easier, and other things harder, but at the moment, it’s difficult to see the particular difficulties described in these posts, easing off. However, I know that’s the part of me talking that is doubtful of recovery – whereas in fact a part of me knows that recovery is possible and the triggers may never disappear, but they can definitely lessen, and my response to them can become more moderate over time, as long as I persevere with therapy. It would be fantastic to hear your thoughts and the other things you have to say, but only when you have time of course – I know exactly how busy things can be! Take care 🙂

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  2. Excellant article. Well written.

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  3. I liked this post. It was informative and well-written. Keep up the good work.

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  4. This is a wonderful analysis, and one thing it proves beyond doubt is that intelligent self-analysis is not in itself a solution, though it has to be helpful. Much better to have your remarkable degree of insight than to lack it.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and for commenting once more – your words really mean a lot. It is definitely frustrating to be self-aware but to see that that doesn’t ‘fix things’. It can feel so invalidating as well, because being aware of my behaviour to some extent makes me feel as if I’m ‘choosing it’, or that I should somehow be able to immediately stop it. It’s really good to have ‘external validation’ in the sense of recognition through words such as your own, of the fact that insight is helpful, but isn’t in itself an instant magic fix. Thank you again, and do keep in touch…

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      • My daughter was diagnosed with BPD – after 10 years. She has now ‘progressed’ to self-diagnosed OCD and never leaves her house. In fact she never leaves one room in her house. Hence my interest.

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      • Hi Rod,

        Thank you for letting me know about your daughter – my heart goes out to her and to you as well. Supporting someone you love who has BPD can be so immensely hard, and I can only imagine how painful it must be when it’s your own child. I hope she (and you) have found having a diagnosis helpful. I was going to say that perhaps it opened up potential avenues of support and treatment that were not there before, but if she is unable to leave her room, then it must be very difficult for her to access support, other than perhaps as part of an online community. I don’t want to ask too many questions or invade your privacy or that of your daughter in any way – I just want to wish her well and you too, in supporting her, and can only offer to be there on the end of an email for any questions or support, should that be helpful. Thank you again for taking an interest in my blog. It’s great to be able to reach others with BPD, and to know that what I write may help them in dealing with their difficulties. But it’s also amazing to be able to reach those who support people with BPD, and I’d somehow like to be able to do a lot more of that, but it’s harder to know how to reach them. I have such a need to be understood and validated and if I can help others with BPD to be understood and validated through providing more information and insight for those who support them, that would be wonderful. I wish my husband took as much of an interest in reading about the experiences of people with BPD, as you do! Many thanks again for your comments….

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  5. Such a good honest post. So often it feels as though I’m having my own child tantrum and can’t imagine how I would cope with a real one kicking off.

    Of course, we can activate that ‘developmental arrest’ later in life and awareness is always that first major step.

    I’m intrigued about how neediness makes you want to push people away. This is something I’ve always struggled with, without understanding why. Do you think this is due to having a needy mother, or is it related to a BPD symptom?

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    • Hi Cat,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I wanted to have more of a think about your question before replying fully, and before replying to your other comment on ‘How do we come to know things?’. Work is still hectic and I’m still behind with comments, but I wanted to just say that the brief answer to your question is probably both (needy mother and BPD symptom), but I need a bit more time to clarify my thinking and to write a decent reply! Thank you for bearing with me!

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  6. I can relate. Great points about the similarity between BPD emotions and toddlers’. Thank you!

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  7. Pingback: Transport troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 3 | Life in a Bind - BPD and me

  8. Pingback: Progress | Scattered Silence

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