My ex-therapist Jane, used to use the phrase ‘magical thinking’ to describe my tendency to assume that others know, or should be expected to know, what I am thinking. I couldn’t help but post this comment by my youngest child that immediately brought Jane’s words to mind – and of course, as this little one’s parent, I am extremely biased and can’t help thinking it must be one of the cutest illustrations of magical thinking around 🙂
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.
I recently saw Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out’. A friend of mine told me it was a ‘tough watch’ for someone with emotional problems – that’s me – so I went prepared with lots of tissues and the hope that I might learn a thing or two not just about how to talk to my kids about their emotions, but about how to manage my own.
I wasn’t disappointed. The film is about a young girl, Riley, who moves across America for her father’s work, leaving her friends and hobbies behind. The film’s protagonists are Riley’s emotions – Joy (Gold), Sadness (Blue), Anger (Red), Fear (Purple) and Disgust (Green). Riley’s memories are shown as coloured balls (the colour representing the emotion associated with them), and the key aspects of her personality are moulded by ‘core memories’ of special life events. It’s a film that appeals as much to adults as to children, and it hit home for me in a number of ways.
Soon after Riley moves across country, Joy decides to marginalise Sadness in order to protect Riley from her. She is motivated by wanting to please Riley’s mother, who tells Riley it will be easier for her father if they can both appear happy. I winced in my seat – because who hasn’t said something similar to their own children on occasion? I know I have. And yet what is the hidden message we may inadvertently give our children, when we ask them to ‘pretend’ in that way? “Your emotions are not as important as those of someone else; you are responsible for someone else’s happiness”. I believe strongly in ‘good-enough’ parenting, and that there is far too much unnecessary parental guilt around – I do not want to add to it. Children are resilient, parental bonds are strong; we build and rebuild our relationships with our children every day. But for me, that scene was a lesson in remembering to always allow our children to be children, however difficult that may be for us.
Emotionally developed adults have a sense of self-worth which enables them to validate their own emotions and to self-soothe, which means that sometimes they can ‘hide’ their emotions for a time, for the benefit of another. But children do not yet have that capacity – they are still learning who they are, and how much they are worth. We cannot, as Riley’s mother did, try and make them our emotional allies, however well-intentioned we might be. Our kids’ emotions might feel threatening to us (particularly if we feel unhappy or stressed) – but that is our burden to bear. We need to open our arms to their emotions, so that one day, they can do the very same thing for themselves, and then also for others.
Perhaps because it deals with emotions and one’s ‘inner world’ the film has sometimes been portrayed as being about mental illness. However, my own view is that ‘Inside Out’ is not about mental illness – it is about mental wellness, and the role our emotions play in that. This is not to deny that it may speak powerfully to those who have depression, bipolar, or another mental health condition (in my own case, borderline personality disorder). It’s not even to deny that Riley herself shows signs of slipping into depression as the film goes on (feeling numb, becoming a ‘different person’). But to see the film as being specifically about mental illness, risks pathologizing key life experiences and emotions that we will all end up dealing with. A significant minority of the population struggles with mental illness – but we all have mental health, and mental well-being is fundamental to every one of us.
My own mental well-being is affected frequently by the pain that accompanies the joy of my children’s ‘milestone moments’. As any parent will know, these moments have a habit of reminding us that our ‘little people’ will not be little for very long. The question I ask myself repeatedly, is: “how can I fix this, so that my experience of joy is unsullied?”. And so for me, what I see as the key message of ‘Inside Out’, could be life-changing.
And the message is this: that there is no joy without sadness, and accepting that leads to freedom to be ourselves, and ultimately to greater fulfilment. Many of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid difficult or unpleasant emotions, and the attitude that sadness is an undesirable state of being, even ‘wrong’, permeates the very air we breathe. It’s certainly one that I grew up with. And so many of us invest a great deal of energy in trying to pretend we are okay when we are not – both to protect others and ourselves. But it is precisely that effort and the lack of coherence between what we appear to be, and what we really are, that leads, as in Riley’s case, to a deterioration in mental well-being.
You will hear many parents say that all they want for their children is that they are happy. But I think the triumphal point of the film was when Riley generated a core memory that was both gold and blue – a mixture of joy and sadness. The moment when she integrated those experiences and, on some level, recognised both as a fundamental part of herself. Both joy and sadness had made her who she was – and she was so much the richer for it. This film has shown me that when I experience joy tinged with sadness my question should not be ‘how can I fix this’, but ‘how can I accept this’.
I do not wish sadness on my children – but I know that it will be always be a part of their lives. My wish for them is that they can accept it, feel it, make it a part of themselves, and allow it to help them grow – into the most authentic version of themselves that they can be.
I recently had an MRI scan as part of a research study, and this is the picture I came away with. I think it’s always nice when they give you a souvenir for taking part in medical research…! Not being a physician or radiographer, I can see the picture but I don’t really know what I’m looking at, and I certainly don’t know what the researchers are looking for. But what I found even more intriguing than the brain scan itself, was one of the exercises that I did alongside it. Although I don’t know what they were looking for from the exercise, or what questions they were seeking to answer, it certainly had something to teach me, and what I took from it was a mental picture and a lived experience of something I have read about many times in parenting books.
The exercise in question involved choosing one of a number of stimuli based on whether you got a ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’ response to your choice. Responses changed, and you had to try and figure out the rules to get the maximally positive result. I found that when the tests involved either ‘positive and neutral‘ or ‘negative and neutral‘ responses, I was able to keep focused; to remember what I was doing as I went along; to try and figure out the rules; and to stay motivated to ‘get it right’. The positive responses were encouraging, and the negative responses just brought out my competitive nature and my determination to figure it out and ‘beat the system’! However, the difference in my reaction to those responses, compared to my reaction to mixed ‘positive and negative‘ responses (with no ‘neutral’), was immense. It was as if my brain just went into meltdown: I couldn’t concentrate; I kept forgetting what I was doing; I couldn’t figure out the rules or try and follow the ‘logic’; I felt confused and incredibly demoralized and demotivated.
I’m not sure what the ‘point’ of the exercise was – or what the researchers were trying to learn. But the first thing I thought of straight after that experience, was the parallel with the way in which I sometimes behave towards my children. I try to be consistent with my children – both in terms of discipline and also in terms of how I react to them in different situations. But, as with any parent, I don’t always succeed. And I think that at the moment, BPD means that I don’t succeed anywhere near as often as I might otherwise. Emotional dysregulation and emotional lability are at the core of BPD, and I do often find my mood switching very quickly between calm and angry; or between happy and irritable.The changes in my mood also mean that one day I might find something very triggering which on the previous day, did not affect me at all. I try not to let this volatility affect my children, but neither can I fool myself that they don’t notice it, or that it doesn’t sometimes affect them. A major reason for my being in therapy, is to try and ensure that I minimize the impact of my mental health difficulties on my children.
And so the experiment struck me because I wondered whether this is how my children feel, when presented with rapidly changing reactions; when there seems to be no rhyme or reason why their choices or behaviour receive a ‘positive’ response one moment, and a ‘negative’ response the next. A consistent and predictable environment helps children to work out ‘the rules’ of social interaction and acceptable behaviour – when that consistency isn’t there, do they find it as confusing, demoralizing and demotivating as I did? When presented with constantly changing reactions, I felt as though my brain was in meltdown and I couldn’t function – could that be related to how my children feel when they are visibly having a meltdown?
I’m not sure if it’s legitimate to extrapolate from my own feelings and worldview, to that of my children – not only are they different people, but the way in which they see the world is probably very different at this stage in their lives. But – what if there is something in that extrapolation? If there is, it gives me an important insight into some of their behaviours and the feelings that might underlie them, and it shows me just how difficult it might be for them to respond to me in a positive way sometimes, when they do not know what to expect.
This may sound sobering – and it is. But the reverse side of this particular coin is that although the change in my reactions was dramatic, it was also temporary. I sometimes switch rapidly from one emotional state to another, and sometimes that change is very visible to my children. But, as my therapist has told me on a number of occasions, my children and I will continue to work on our relationship all of our lives – we will be constantly building and rebuilding and repairing.
I am excited to have taken part in this research study for a number of reasons – but most of all, I am grateful for the fact that a different perspective on what goes on in my own brain, may have given me new insight into what goes on in theirs.
“Depression and low self-esteem often go hand-in-hand. Low self-esteem leaves individuals vulnerable to depression. Depression batters self-esteem.” *
“With low self-esteem you also might believe that you don’t have rights or that your needs don’t matter, especially emotional needs, such as for appreciation, support, kindness, being understood, and being loved.” **
I felt a strange sort of pride in my eldest child the other day. It wasn’t over something he had done, but something he had said. It wasn’t because it was something clever, or something witty, or something kind. It was definitely beautiful, but that wasn’t why I was proud. And to him it was probably ordinary – but to me it was immensely brave.
My child asked me directly, in the moment, to meet an emotional need. We were discussing colours and he told me that his favourite colour was peach, because it was the colour of my skin, and that my skin was beautiful. It was a wonderful compliment and I thanked him and told him it was lovely. Then a moment later he said: “Mummy, can you say something nice about me too?”
I was awed, humbled and mortified all at the same time. I quickly responded to his question with a number of things I loved about him, and reassured him that they were true and I thought them, even if I didn’t mention them in a particular moment. But I was ashamed I hadn’t brought them up immediately, and ashamed of my reasons for not doing so. I failed to differentiate him as a separate human being – I assumed that his world-view would be the same as my own. If someone gives me a compliment in response to my own, I assume that they are doing it out of obligation; that is it not genuine. I didn’t want him to feel that way, but that was my assumption, based on my insecurities. He is a child, he does not think that way – yet. Hopefully, he never will.
I hope he also never has reason to doubt whether his needs deserve to be met. I hope his self-worth is such that he never doubts that there are innumerable positive aspects to himself. I hope he never has reason to feel staggered by something that should be so simple but which for me, is so very challenging. I find it so difficult to communicate my emotional needs – or even to acknowledge that having them is legitimate. I cannot conceive of being brave enough to ask someone to say something nice about me – particularly someone I care about.
What if they couldn’t think of anything to say? Not only that, what if they felt put out by the fact I had put them in a difficult position by asking the question? What if they felt compelled to say something nice? What if they said something and didn’t mean it? What if they thought I was self-centred and proud? What if they thought of something to say but that something felt small and insignificant? What if, what if, what if….Fear, pure fear. The question just feels too risky.
I envied my child his lack of fear. He had the confidence and the security (I hope) to ask the question without fear of rejection. It appeared as awesome courage to me – I wonder how it felt and what it meant to him? Whether or not it constituted ‘boldness’, most of all I was proud of the fact that he realised he needed something, emotionally, and then he asked for it. He wasn’t ashamed, embarrassed or scared of that need. He just asked.
The lessons that our children have to teach us can be some of the most inspiring but also some of the hardest to learn. They may involve ‘unlearning’ ways of being and thinking ingrained in us since our own childhoods; and they could involve accepting that we may have lost some vital and affirming experiences along the way. We need to be conscious not to try and ‘live through’ our children. But perhaps we could all benefit, sometimes, from trying to see the world – and in particular trying to see ourselves – through their eyes.
* Margarita Tartakovksy, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘8 suggestions for strengthening self-esteem when you have depression’.
** Darlene Lancer, from an article published by PsychCentral called ‘Low self-esteem is learned’.
As a parent, you’re always conscious, I think, of trying not to live life through your children. The implication of such ‘living vicariously’ is that you are trying to live the life you never had. What I never realised was that having children would mean living life through them – not the life I never had, but the life that I did have. That I would be transported back to my own childhood.
I remember a couple of years ago, crying at a friend’s house during a play date in which a small ‘gang’ of girls had told my son they didn’t like boys and didn’t want to play with him. He seemed (at least outwardly) fairly unaffected by the whole thing and went off to play by himself, so it wasn’t any outward emotion or evidence of unhappiness, that had disturbed me.
It’s a common human experience to feel sad when those we love feel sad; or to feel happy when they feel happy. It is the essence of what it means to have empathy. I don’t know – I have no conceivable way of knowing – whether what I experienced that day, or in many subsequent days, was simply empathy, but perhaps ratcheted up a notch to reflect the fact that those with BPD often experience feelings more intensely. All I can say is – it felt as though it was happening to me.
A similar situation arose a few months ago, when my son was pushing around a friend of his at school, who had started to say that he didn’t want to play with him anymore. Very quickly, I spiralled down into suicidal thinking. My therapist thought that I blamed myself and felt the situation as a criticism of my parenting. While that may be true, I don’t think that rejection of my parenting was the major contributory factor to how I was feeling – that would imply that I was facing the situation as an adult and a parent. The biggest factor was a much more all-encompassing sense of rejection of self.
Was I being self-centred, making the situation ‘all about me’? All I can say is, it didn’t feel as though it was about me – it felt as though it was happening to me. Of course I hurt because my child hurt and not just because I did; and part of my despair was over the thought that he might, one day, end up feeling as unable to cope with the world, as I did. But at the same time, that sense of rejection went right to my core and left me feeling worthless, and the sphere of rejection grew outwards until it felt as though everyone was party to that rejection in one form or another.
I was living parts of my own childhood through my son, but with a twist – reliving the life I had had, but with the thoughts and emotions I never did. At least, not on a conscious level.
Just as therapy is helping me to discover how I really think about myself, being a parent is inadvertently opening a door on feelings I may have had about myself when growing up, but locked away because they were too difficult (or risky) to handle. I can’t really remember how I felt about the verbal and emotional bullying at school – how I dealt with it on a day to day basis. I had some wonderful friends, my academic pursuits defined me and I needed the structure that a school day provided. Those things undoubtedly resulted in my enduring memory that I ‘loved school’. But they pass over a whole part of my school experience that I have until now ignored, but that having children has brought not only back to memory, but back to lived experience. And not only back to lived experience, but back to un-experienced thoughts, fears and emotions.
The terrifying thought is that this journey of re-living and of discovery, has only just begun. At some point my children will experience the death of a loved one; complete rejection by a friend; disappointment or failure of some kind; a broken heart. I know it may sound self-centred to worry about re-experiencing those things, and of course I wish that they never had to experience them at all. But I know they will, as we all do. I just wish that the person they had by their side to help them through, was someone whose experience had left a legacy of wisdom, and not a legacy of fear. That the person they had by their side would be someone who already knew how it felt to be them – not someone who was discovering their feelings for the first time. That the person they had to stand by them would be someone who could stand in their shoes and yet stand firm – not someone who would tremble.
I’m sure that there are common threads here, for any parent. Our children will always remind us of our childhoods, the good times and the bad. They will always ‘take us back’ – but if you’re a parent with BPD, or someone with BPD who is thinking of becoming a parent, I think it’s important to be aware of what that ‘taking back’ involves, and of what might surface in the process. Somehow I feel naïve for not realising earlier, that my children’s emotions would transport me back in time, but with the insight and self-awareness of an adult.
I hate to give advice, because I am the furthest thing from wise, and because everyone is unique – but I believe that anyone considering starting a family, whether or not they have mental health difficulties, should think about the implications. Everyone’s life changes in at least some ways when they have a child, and thinking through what those changes might be, and what they might mean for you, can only be a good thing. Nothing can prepare you for having a child, but the more ‘surprises’ you can try and pre-empt, the better – there will always be more to come!
Many people think long and hard about when might be the ‘right time’ to start a family. In some ways, I think there is never a right time – there is no ‘perfect age’ at which to have children, or the ‘perfect stage’ in one’s career. But as a general point, I would encourage anyone with BPD who is thinking about starting a family, to think about it in the context of their recovery. I wish I had known about my diagnosis before I had had children, and had been aware of how it would affect me and my parenting. I wish I had sought help and had had therapy years ago, so that I could have been further along in my recovery and possibly been better equipped to deal with the challenges I face now. Life changes and stress points exacerbate BPD symptoms, and there are few more significant life changes than the birth of a child.
Wherever you are in your recovery, you will probably still be triggered, to a greater or lesser extent, by the things that toddlers do; you will probably still react, to a greater or lesser extent, in the way that toddlers do; and you will probably still be transported, to a great or lesser extent, back to the most difficult parts of your own childhood. However, being further along in your recovery may give you a few more tools at your disposal, both cognitive and emotional, for dealing with all those troubles.
I have tried to end each of my posts on ‘BPD and parenting’ on an uplifting note, because above all, I want to show that it is possible to have a mental illness and to parent – not perfectly, not even always consistently or according to our intentions, but thoughtfully and responsibly, and with validation, acceptance and great love. I want to end this little ‘series’ by thanking my children for teaching me. They challenge me and fascinate me; they confuse me and inspire me. And yes, okay, sometimes they irritate me (but never was a truer word said than “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”*)! By being themselves and giving me a little window onto their souls, they are also helping me to open up a few more windows (and doors) into myself, and that, ultimately, can only be a good thing for us all.
* quote by Carl Jung
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.
As with every book, I believe there is a time for every post. And given the day I have had looking after my children on my own, while my husband is away, today is definitely the day for this post. More than once, I felt like putting my head in my hands, and dissolving into tears.
For some time now, I have been semi-consciously avoiding writing a post about parenting. Part of it is due to an illogical belief that by keeping my children out of my blog, I am keeping them away from the darker side of my world, even though in reality, they live with it every day. But it is also due to a fear that they might someday find my blog, and I don’t want them to see anything there that might ever lead them to doubt how I feel about them, or to blame themselves for anything that I may have said or done.
However, it occurs to me that if they ever were to read my blog (strictly R rated –so not for a while!), they might in fact find it helpful in explaining some of the things they have seen or the ways in which I behave. It may be a relief to understand, rather than a burden. And given the importance of the topic, I do feel a need to write about it: not just for those with BPD who have children and who might understand; but particularly for those with BPD who don’t have children, and who might want to understand the implications for their condition – and vice versa – of becoming a parent.
Let me first say this: I believe parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and it is challenging for everyone. It is immensely hard whether you have mental health difficulties or not; whether you are a working parent or a stay-at-home parent. Nevertheless I think there are some particular challenges to parenting if you also have BPD, and those are to do with the fundamental characteristics of the disorder, and of its origins. I am going to split my post on parenting into three parts: Trigger troubles; Toddler troubles; and Transported troubles. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in subsequent weeks, but for now, I wanted to focus on the ways in which parenting can be a minefield if you have BPD – and your children can be the triggers that set off the explosions and the pain within you. The ways in which we may react to those triggers, because of BPD, will be covered in Part 2.
I was recently struck by a post called ‘Help! I have borderline personality disorder and my dog betrayed me!’, by Jeremy Medlock (and his dog Frankie!), of the ‘Out of the Box’ project. The post included the following lines:
“A relatively small event can trigger a huge emotional response, completely uncontrollable and unstoppable……once Frankie has ignore me, she’s instantly triggered the borderline and I have to hold control for what happens next”.
These words resonated with me immediately – and not just because one of my closest friends (also a dog owner) keeps telling me how alike dogs and toddlers are. I struggle with parenting because my children continually trigger the borderline, and it’s a constant battle to try and keep my reactions under control. I will admit that my children are towards the naughtier end of the scale, but this is not the only reason I find them triggering: children will always (to a greater or lesser extent) trigger their parents with BPD, because of aspects which are inherent to being a child.
Some of the most common triggers for those with BPD are: loss of control or feeling controlled; not being listened to; not feeling understood; being criticised; being emotionally invalidated; having one’s needs ignored; feeling engulfed and having one’s boundaries violated; and feeling abandoned.
Children are constantly acting in ways that trigger those feelings, and it’s not their fault – it’s part of what being a child is all about. My children do it in a million ways:
- Acting in ways which I am powerless to change (for example, waking up early);
- Vying with me for control over every little thing;
- Constantly ignoring me and not listening to what I ask them to do;
- Making constant demands on me and not understanding that I have needs of my own;
- Ignoring or minimising my emotions or criticising my behaviour;
- Clinging to me or losing emotional control (which can feel like I am being engulfed or ‘attacked’ by their turbulent emotions, and those emotions feel as though they are going to overwhelm me);
- Growing up – which leaves me always conscious of the fact that one day, they will abandon me, and I have to try and live with the certainty of inevitable loss.
These things are an expected and usual part of children’s behaviour, and I’m sure every parent finds them frustrating and difficult to deal with. For someone with BPD the emotional response to those frustrations is instant, enormous, and it can feel uncontrollable and overwhelming. I can appreciate, intellectually, that my children are just being children, and are not ‘out to get me’, but as with so many aspects of BPD, the intellectual appreciation has little power to moderate my emotional response. And unfortunately, however powerful my love may be for my children – and it is – love doesn’t moderate my emotional response either. You can love your child intensely – and they can still trigger you intensely.
There is a fair amount of sobering literature out there, on the ways in which borderline parents can be ‘damaging’ for their children, and I have tried to avoid reading most of it, simply because I find it too difficult and too upsetting to think about, and also because I know that it would be too easy for me to forget that there are positive stories too. I am not denying or trying to make light of the pain that some of those with BPD can and do inflict on their children, knowingly or unknowingly, and I am not excusing it.
But if you are a parent or soon-to-be-parent with BPD, I would like to say this to you, by way of encouragement. I believe that someone with BPD who has self-awareness and insight into their difficulties, can have a real advantage in terms of putting themselves in their child’s shoes and empathising with their emotions and behaviour. If you have BPD you also more-than-likely have a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of emotional validation and unconditional acceptance, as many with BPD have grown up in an invalidating environment and have not felt accepted for who they are. And there is nothing like feeling invalidated, to make you determined not to do the same to someone else.
Validation: ‘causing a person to feel valued or worthwhile’. If you can show that – and teach it – to your children, you will have given them a supremely important and a lifelong gift. And if you can remember that while you are navigating the minefield and negotiating your trigger troubles, you can more easily hold onto hope that you and your children can emerge on the other side, more or less intact.