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.