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.

BPD and parenting: Sitting with your child’s strong emotions

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A few weeks ago I spent more than half an hour sitting in a room with my youngest child while he was having an almighty tantrum. He was trying to get out of the room, and I was trying to keep him contained until the storm passed. To be honest, I don’t actually remember how it started – I think it may have been my persistent but calm refusal to let him any more crisps after lunch. Given how exhausted he was at the time, his frustration and anger quickly escalated and he started hitting me. We were in a room with a group of friends and I sensed this would go on for a while, so I carried him into another room, shut the door, and prepared to ride it out.

He screamed and cried. He grabbed hold of my clothes, my jewellery, my hair, and tried to pull them. He tried to scratch me, to hit me and to kick me. At one point he tried to whip me repeatedly with a cuddly toy, which I put outside the room and told him he could have it back when he had calmed down. He kept trying to turn the door-handle and to get me to move away from the door, and then he tried standing on my ankles with all his weight, while I held them against the door so that he couldn’t open it.

All the while, he was screaming ‘mummy’, and ‘mummy, stop it’, and ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’ – though I didn’t touch him other than to occasionally gently hold an arm that was about to hit my face. I held my hands under his as he flailed them around while he was lashing out – a fun game of landing ‘high-fives’ under any other circumstances. Part of me was wondering what the neighbours were thinking through the not-very-thick-walls and whether they were getting concerned about what I was doing to my child – and then I put the thought out my mind. My child was my focus – and I was trying to do what was right by him.

A number of times I offered him a cuddle or stroked his back; or I held out my arms inviting him to step into them. I was present with him in his anger, and I listened to his cries and his complaints. I regret not saying a little more to show him that I could see how angry he was, that it was okay, and that I loved him and would stay with him in his emotions, for as long as it took. When he said ‘mummy, you’re hurting me’, I regret saying ‘I am not hurting you’ – because in his mind, I was. Maybe not physically, but I was setting a limit that he found immensely frustrating and his anger was scary for him and it appeared to him as though I was inflicting that on him. I wish I had said something like ‘I can see that you are angry and perhaps scared and I want to help you feel better’.

I gave him a different soft toy to cuddle. Eventually I gave him a second soft toy. And suddenly, with no warning, the mood changed, he stopped crying, and he climbed into my lap for a cuddle. I let him know how much I loved him and how wonderful he was, and told him it was okay to be angry and that I understood how scary that could be, but that it was not okay to hit me. We joined everyone else in the other room, but I was hyper-vigilant for anything else that might spark off another melt-down.

I’m not saying all of this to show off my parenting skills – which, much of the time, are very far short of where I would like them to be. I came across a quote on Facebook recently, which said “Parenthood is……whispering ‘for fuck’s sake’ before answering to your name”, and often that is me, with a whole load of impatience and shouting thrown in. What I am describing above is a new thing for me – a new way of approaching things. Up until now my tactics have been the fairly common ones of threats, consequences, time-outs, and counting to three (using halves and quarters where necessary!). But these do not work well for my high-energy and strong-willed children, and things have been getting increasingly difficult, with them often seeming to spend more time in time-out, than outside it. And I have not been feeling good about my parenting, and have been doubting how loving or validating it has been.

So what has made the difference? It may seem strange to say it, but BPD has. BPD, examined in the light of therapy and a parenting website I found recently (Hand in Hand Parenting), which really resonates with me and just ‘feels right’ for our situation, at this time. If you google ‘BPD and parenting’, you won’t find many positive references – much of the ‘literature’ or comment seems to be about how to guard against the negative effects that a parent with BPD can have on their children. And I have no doubt that unreflective parenting, with or without the complication of BPD, will not always generate the most optimal results for our children. But experience, when reflected upon, is a great teacher; and what many people with BPD know a great deal about, is emotional invalidation. When you understand how that feels, and what effects it can have, it gives a powerful motivation to do things differently and to avoid repeating familiar patterns from your own childhood.

In my own therapy, my therapist and I have spent much time about the fact that I fear the impact that my emotions will have on others. That I can’t simply ‘report’ how I feel, without it ‘doing something’ to those I report it to. Often, when I’m really struggling with something outside of session, I will take it to someone else first. A close someone, a trusted someone – but still someone else. It’s as if it doesn’t feel safe to take it to her; and it feels as though I would be placing a burden on her, and I don’t want to do that. At those times, she is allied too closely to ‘mother’ –  my own mother who was, and is, unable to just sit with the emotions that I bring, and to contain them. My emotions have an impact on my own mother – nothing I say is just ‘for report’. She becomes upset or anxious by any hint that there may be something wrong or that things aren’t going well – and she does nothing to disguise it. In fact, quite the opposite – she seeks reassurance, and she seeks it from me. As an adult, I have reached the stage where this just makes me very angry. But the way in which I feel desperate to protect my therapist from the ‘negative consequences’ of my emotions, is a clue, I think, to how I might have felt about it as a child.

Perhaps that is why the concept of letting my child express his emotions, and just sitting with them while that happens, feels so important. I need him to feel confident that he can tell me how he feels and that I will be able to handle it. That I will still be there, I will stay calm, and I won’t fall to pieces. That I will be the same, before and after. And the next time, and the next. I want him to feel safe, and to know that the only impact he has on me is to elicit love and understanding, when he needs it most.

Borderline Personality Disorder has done that for me – and for him; but BPD when reflected upon with the help of my therapist and in the context of my own experience. I keep worrying that time is ‘running out’ for me to do things differently rather than repeating mistakes my own parents made; and I am thankful for my therapist’s repeated reassurance that it is never too late, that repair, if needed, is always possible, and that every instance of breaking old patterns and doing things differently is an important step for me and for my children. She believes in my ability to be a good mother; and after sitting with my child’s strong emotions and holding him close when those emotions had subsided, I am starting to believe in it too.

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18 thoughts on “BPD and parenting: Sitting with your child’s strong emotions

  1. You are the rare parent who thinks productively about parenting! Parents who stifle their child’s emotional expression usually do so via neglect, indifference, or criticism. I wonder if your mother scared you into thinking she was coming apart, creating the same result. I expect your therapist will be proud of you when she hears of this episode, if she has not already.

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    • Thank you so much for your kind words….yes, she was so anxious it was clear she couldn’t handle any of it. She wasn’t indifferent – or at least, not as far as I remember, and not at times when she wasn’t dealing with her own grief. She was the opposite of indifferent – she was intrusive. But she did criticize – and she did think I had no reason to be unhappy, and that the expression of negative emotion was bad. And she couldn’t handle me being upset or ill. Your comments here, and on your own New Year’s post, are spot-on…thank you…

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  2. I came across this post & your blog in a roundabout way whilst doing some research ut am so very glad I did. I am a parent, grandparent with among st other variants of mental health issues a diagnosis of BPD…tis post resonated so strongly with me on many levels that I felt compelled to reach out & connect just to say a massive well done for the way you have conveyed so succinctly the range of feelings & emotions we feel….Namaste Sue

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    • Thank you so much for commenting, it’s good to connect with you! 🙂 I’m so glad you came across the post and that it resonated, and thank you for the ‘well done’ – which I need to remember on days like today when I have ‘reverted back’ to shouty-ness and ways of relating that I’m not proud of. But reflection and change and parenting are all ongoing challenges and works in progress, and it’s good to know many of us are in the same boat and are finding we can draw strength and find new ways of being with our children and grandchildren, because of what we went through and are still going through…take care….

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      • You’re most welcome one of the things I’ve learned most along the way is that there are no mistakes only lessons to be learned SO it’s ok to have an ”bad/off” off day just as long as we don’t unpack & stay there…we really are very lucky in that we’re the first generation who truly understand the importance of empowering our offspring to be happy & healthy & whole. Stay well, be happy.x

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      • Thank you 🙂 Yes, I think our generation really is seeing things differently – that’s a really good point I hadn’t thought about before, and it’s really encouraging 🙂 Very best wishes to you too!

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  3. Honey, this is so inspiring. I too do this with my children whenever I have the emotional wherewithal to follow through and it is absolutely a result of years of therapy and ACA (adult children of alcoholics) meetings. I am so proud of you. Thank you for sharing this and reminding me that I have this ability too.

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    • Thank you SO much 🙂 you don’t know how much it means to have someone say they are proud of me…..and I’m very very glad that the post reminded you of the strength and ability you have within yourself, just like your words will remind me I still have it, even when I don’t have the emotional wherewithal to follow through on particular days. Many thanks for your wonderful comment, and take care…

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  4. This is so wonderful! ❤ I agree very much with your therapist: It is never too late*, and I believe very strongly in your ability to be a good mother. What you did sounds really beautiful!

    (*I see the difference that has been made to my life, in a relatively short space of time, by receiving empathic responses from key figures in my life now–e.g. my father, good friends, and, not least, my therapist–and, although this is not the same and I am in my mid-twenties, it has only served to reinforce my belief in the power this has to support a child.)

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    • Thank you so much 🙂 And your comment about the difference others are making to your life now, is also extremely helpful and important to me and another incentive to remember that I can still change things and make a difference for my children…thank you SO much, love xx

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  5. I have to agree 100% with you. I have a 19 year old boy who I raised completely different than I am my 9 year old boy. All because I’ve been diagnosed and treating my BPD. Thanks for writing this. Hopeful it helps others.

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    • Thank you so much for commenting, and yes, I do hope it helps. Thank you so much for sharing how BPD has influenced your own experience as a parent – it’s always good to hear of others who are also finding that BPD or mental health difficulties in general can give great insight into parenting and make a real difference to interactions with their own children. It gives hope where much hope is needed, as it is so easy for anxiety to run riot and for us to think our difficulties must be having only negative effects on our children…

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  6. This is beautiful. And inspiring. I feel so emotional reading this because of how safe and loving you are toward your son. I longed for that so much as a child. And I hope to provide that for my own children, should I have any. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Thank you so much Andi 🙂 though it’s so hard to keep following through and we had another ‘shouty day’ today and I acted so not how I wanted to. But it’s good knowing that I _can_ do it, even if I don’t always have the strength or ability on any particular day. But hopefully it will get easier with time and practice…..and I am sure that if you are a parent one day, you will be a wonderful, reflective and validating one – I really do believe that these experiences can help us so much to guard against repeating patterns (or going into polar opposite, but still stuck, inflexible and negative patterns of our own)…thanks so much for reading and commenting….

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  7. This is absolutely lovely. This is exactly how I’d want to deal with my own children someday (if I ever get the chance to be a parent – I hope I do). We know how it feels to have these strong, overwhelming emotions, and what it feels like having them invalidated, so we can learn from our parents “mistakes” and try to do it better.

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    • Thank you 🙂 And yes, although it is incredibly difficult parenting with BPD and without having had positive parenting role models ourselves, in many cases, we can definitely learn from our parents’ mistakes and do things differently, both with our children, and in ‘parenting’ ourselves…..

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