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  • Writer's pictureCharity Lane

The Unspoken Guilt of Parents Whose Children are Struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder

Updated: Apr 19

People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) can suffer tremendously from this mental health condition. Parents whose adult children have been diagnosed with BPD can deal with many feelings relating to the mental health challenges their child is facing, such as sadness, confusion, and frustration. However, one of the more difficult emotions that can arise is guilt.


“Have I done this to my child?”, might be a question parents ask themselves when their children develop mental health disorders, such as BPD. Not only is this line of thinking fraught with unnecessary blame, but it will also lead to more suffering and difficulty for both the child and the parent/s. It is therefore important to move through these fears and into a gentler, more compassionate understanding of ourselves and our children.



What is Borderline Personality Disorder?


In broad strokes, BPD is a mental health condition where the individual struggles with regulating their emotions, and often experiences extreme mood swings that can drastically change the way they view themselves and the world around them. BPD can make relationships very difficult for both the one struggling with this mental health condition, as well as those in the relationship with this person. 


The Complex Factors Behind Borderline Personality Disorder


So, where does BPD come from? Is it inherited? Is it to do with how we experienced our childhood years? Unsurprisingly, BPD appears to arise from a combination of both genetic as well as environmental influences. In other words, it is a case of nature and nurture


Genetic Predisposition


BPD has been seen to aggregate in families where other members of the family also have BPD, indicating that this condition may be partially heritable.


Furthermore, females tend to be diagnosed with BPD more frequently than males. There is still dispute and active discussions in the research about why this is the case, with reasons ranging from actual sex differences that may increase susceptibility to the condition, to the more nuanced analysis of how women and men are treated and viewed differently in both their day-to-day lives as well as by medical professionals and how their sex may influence the way their symptoms are viewed.


Whilst the research is still in its infancy, there have been some specific genes indicated in BPD. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that it appears that epigenetics plays more of a role in the development of this mental health condition. Epigenetics refers to the interplay between the environment and gene expression.


Environmental Triggers


It is no surprise that the environment we grow up in has a large influence on the way we develop and our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In regards to BPD, it has been found that childhood trauma can lead to changes in gene expression, which may underlie the onset and progression of this mental health condition.


Childhood trauma can take on many forms, and is not just reserved to singular traumatic events, such as an instance of sexual abuse, but can also be the day-to-day environment that does not sufficiently support or validate the child’s personhood. Caregiver mental health and behaviour toward and around children is also very influential on the developing mind. Instability, inappropriate, and/or aggressive behaviour can contribute to a child feeling unsafe, unseen, and misunderstood. This feeling of being misunderstood or overlooked can lead to the development of maladaptive behaviours, beliefs, and mental health states, such as BPD


It is important to remember, however, that the development of BPD is likely due to a complex interplay between genetics and environment, and that there is no one gene or childhood experience that will cause this mental health challenge, but rather a combination of factors that contribute to its development. In other words, BPD is understood to be influenced by both nature and nurture.


Parental Guilt Surrounding An Adult Child Diagnosed with BPD 


As soon as we start to look at the nurture aspect of any mental or physical health condition, it is understandable that the reaction from those who did the nurturing can be both defensive and/or guilt-ridden.


It is worth noting that most parents and caregivers do their best to care for their children. This does not always mean, however, that the care the children received was what that child needed. For most of us, there are likely a multitude of needs our caregivers were unable to meet or were simply unaware of, and these unmet needs may continue to influence the way we experience the world and our place in it.


As mentioned earlier, it is important to remember that there is no one cause of BPD. However, as an adult child diagnosed with BPD goes through the process of understanding this condition and coming to terms with it, they may turn to blaming their caregivers for this diagnosis. Whilst this is an understandable response from your child, it is also very important that you do your own inner work to ensure that you can both be there for your child as they explore their BPD diagnosis, as well as maintain your own well-being and holding both of your experiences with compassion and tenderness.


Acknowledging Feelings of Guilt


Guilt can be a very difficult, uncomfortable, and often painful emotion, and whilst it serves an important purpose to help us stay aligned with our values, if it becomes a prolonged experience or morphs into shame then it can start to wear us down, erode our well-being, and hinder our relationships. This is where the paradoxical effects of long-term guilt and shame come into play.


We feel guilty when we have harmed those we care about or have acted outside of our values, but if we let the guilt shut us down, then we are unable to do the work of repairing relationships, taking accountability for our actions, and growing from the experience. This in turn can cause more harm to both ourselves and others, exacerbating feelings of guilt and further distancing us from our loved ones. The first step to working with feelings of guilt is to acknowledge and recognise that we are feeling guilt. 


The Guilt Loop


In taking this integral first step, it is also important to remember that judgment and self-criticism will only fuel the fire of guilt. However, when faced with feelings of guilt, judgement, self-criticism, and other self-punishing behaviours are what many of us turn to. Unfortunately, these behaviours cause us even more emotional distress and exacerbate and prolong our feelings of guilt. This loop of guilt, emotional distress, and punitive action leading to more guilt is known as the guilt cycle. This loop is very common so if you find yourself falling into the guilt cycle, you are in good company. Moving beyond the guilt cycle is not only essential to mending relationships with our loved ones but also to mending our relationship with ourselves.


The Power of Understanding Guilt


We tend to think of guilt as a negative emotion, however, guilt plays a vital role in our lives, especially when it comes to our close relationships. We feel guilt because we feel that we have either caused some kind of harm or have acted outside of our values. In this sense, guilt can be a helpful internal signal that lets us know we may need to mend a relationship or realign ourselves with what is important to us. 


Once we have acknowledged and recognised that we are feeling guilty, it is important that we endeavour to hold ourselves with a tender acceptance and, if at all possible, a loving awareness. Acceptance and loving awareness of where we are will allow us to take the necessary action to get to where we want to be. From a place of recognition, acceptance and compassion we can listen to our guilt and understand what it is trying to say.


A Note on Unearned Guilt


No one is perfect, and none of us are exempt from feeling guilt at times. It should be noted, however, that some people tend to feel guilt more than others, and this guilt can sometimes be unearned guilt.


This is often seen in those conditioned as girls and women in Western, industrialised society. An example of unearned guilt would be mothers experiencing guilt when they take time to care for their own well-being, instead of investing all their time and energy into their children, despite mothers’ well-being playing a key role in their children’s well-being.


Understanding how different cultural values and prejudices have influenced why and when we feel guilt helps us understand whether our guilt is a useful signal directing us back to our values, or it is a learned response that is limiting our wellbeing.


Seeking Support for BPD


There are multiple ways people struggling with BPD can be supported, including, but not limited to, psychotherapy, psychology, medication, and hypnotherapy. It is important to find a service or practice that feels supportive, and helpful, and promotes meaningful and sustained positive change. This can take time and patience, but once found, the right support can be life-changing. 


Whilst it is important for those struggling with BPD to find services that support them in their journey with this condition, it is also extremely important that those in their life, whether that be parents, siblings, partners, or carers, also look after their own well-being and mental health.


When someone we care about is suffering, we often want to help at any cost, especially if you are a parent of a suffering child. For many, this can mean that we abandon our own needs in our best attempts at helping our struggling loved one. Whilst this is a noble act and an understandable response, this way of providing care will eventually become unsustainable, leading to the build-up of resentment, and leaving us in both emotional and physical distress.


It is therefore essential that carers, parents, friends, and/or partners of those struggling with BPD, or any difficult life circumstance, look after their own well-being as well as provide care for those who are suffering in their life. This can look like seeking out therapy, looking after one’s physical health, and/or fostering a restorative spiritual practice.


Psychotherapy for BPD


Psychotherapy is one of the primary forms of therapy used to support those struggling with BPD. Whilst there certainly are medications that can help mitigate some of the symptoms of BPD, many have found that engaging in talk-based therapy has been an integral part of learning to live and work with their BPD diagnosis.


Talk-based therapies, such as psychotherapy, allow us to develop an understanding of ourselves and our experiences, which in and of itself can be healing. The development of BPD is influenced by various factors, but one of the common themes for those with BPD is adverse childhood experiences. Working through and gaining an understanding of what we went through as a child and how these early experiences shape who and how we are today, can be a vital way we heal and develop self-compassion.


Psychotherapy provides a safe, warm, and supportive environment, along with gentle guidance to help individuals traverse the difficult terrain of their minds, beliefs, and fears and can therefore be an invaluable tool for not only those struggling with BPD, but anyone and everyone wanting to understand themselves better and live a more peaceful, loving life.


Support Groups


Whilst one-on-one therapy can be invaluable for those struggling with BPD, or those with loved ones struggling with BPD, an often under-valued healing resource are support groups. When we are suffering, it is very common to feel isolated and alone. It can therefore be extremely helpful to find a community of people who have gone through, or are going through, a similar experience.


People with BPD can find a lot of solace and support from connecting with others with the same diagnosis, as there is understanding that comes from direct experience of BPD that other people, even therapists, are not able to provide. This also goes for carers or parents who have children suffering with mental health challenges, or any challenges for that matter. Being around others who know what it is like to be in our shoes can help us move beyond feelings of guilt, isolation, or shame and can help us cultivate compassion and understanding for both ourselves and our loved ones.


Rebuilding Bridges: Communication Matters


Whilst many of us are aware that communication is key to good relationships, most struggle to put this axiom into practice. This is very understandable because we do not have a lot of exposure to or education about how to communicate clearly, compassionately, and productively. 


Unfortunately, lack of communication, especially in familial or romantic relationships, can be very detrimental to all parties involved. Often we forget that our good intentions may not shine through our actions or be perceived by our loved ones. So, even if you are trying to act in a loving and caring way, it may not be interpreted that way. This is why speaking openly and honestly with those around us is so important to foster mutual care and respect relationships.


In the case of being a parent of an adult child diagnosed with BPD, communication becomes even more essential. This is because those with BPD can often find it difficult to trust others, even their loved ones. Clear, honest, and compassionate communication is key to building trust and therefore will help parents both connect to and be a source of support for their children with this mental health challenge.


Listening with an Open Heart


When people are working through a diagnosis of BPD, they may begin to explore their childhood and how their early experiences may have led to their development of BPD. Adult children coming to their parents with insight into how they experienced the negative or traumatic aspects of their childhood are often met with defensiveness and even anger from their parents. This can leave children feeling invalidated and unheard.


As people with BPD tend to struggle with trusting those they are in a relationship with, defensiveness, invalidation or anger from a parent can deepen the cavan of mistrust and make the relationship even more difficult or distant. It is therefore of utmost importance that parents aim to listen to their children’s concerns or experiences with an open heart and compassionate understanding.


Of course, the parent/s have had their own experiences and may see things differently than the child, but in holding each other with tender compassion we are more readily able to build relationships of trust, support and understanding. 


Expressing Your Support and Your Boundaries


It is important that in any relationship we feel we can express our boundaries freely and hold the expectation that these boundaries will be respected. This goes for the parent/child relationship as much as any other relationship.


As the parent of an adult child struggling with BPD, or a child suffering in any way, it may feel as though you need to provide unwavering and unconditional support regardless of what that means for your own well-being. However, it is essential for sustainable relationships that all parties can have their needs and boundaries both expressed as well as respected.


So, whilst we want our children to know we are there to support them along their journey with BPD, we also need our children to know that for us to be able to provide that support sustainably, we will need them to honour our boundaries.


Healing and Moving Forward


All parents make mistakes and many project their own insecurities and frustrations onto their children or unintentionally cause harm. Some parents repeat patterns of abuse they experienced in childhood. Some parents are struggling so much with their own mental health or the pressures of living that they are emotionally and/or physically absent from their children. Some parents are not in a place where they are capable of looking after their children and need to turn to others to take care of their children. Some parents are active addicts whose addiction ravages not only their own lives but the lives of their children, and the list goes on.


Whilst it is of utmost importance that we take responsibility for our actions, and where possible aim to repair and heal harm we have been a part of creating, it is also important to remember that parents are humans too, and this is also their first time doing life. 


As a parent who is confronted with their child’s reflection on the harm they experienced during childhood, it is important to eventually move toward self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is essential, as when we live in self-hatred or shame, we are not only deeply harming ourselves, but we are also teaching our children that love, including self-love, is conditional and some are not worthy of it. This is a corrosive, and potentially deadly, belief to teach ourselves and our children, and one that we should be very intentional and persistent with excavating from our psyche.


The path toward self-forgiveness can be a long and painful process, however, if we learn the healing practice of self-compassion we can not only tread this path with a little more grace, but we can also be a much-needed role model to our children.


Showing them that it is possible to repair relationship wounds, or to at least take responsibility for our actions and honour the experiences of others, whilst also holding our own Being in a tender and loving way. Self-compassion is a life-long practice, but becomes easier and more expansive with time. 


Easing the Weight of Guilt 


Guilt is meant to be a transient emotion. One that lets us know we have caused harm or that our actions are not aligned with our values. Once we feel it we can course-correct, move back into alignment with our values, apologise, and/or help heal any relationship wounds we have been a part of creating. When we feel guilt for a prolonged period of time it can metamorphose into shame.


Shame is a very mental and physiological state and can cause us immense amounts of pain. When we have a healthy relationship with guilt, we meet this emotion with self-compassion. We learn to listen to what our guilt indicates to us, and then we move on with insight into how we want to be in the world. We do not need to be weighed down by guilt for the rest of our lives, we can live in a more compassionate way that allows us to be human and allows those around us to be human also.


Spring Clinic's Support for BPD


BPD can be very challenging for not only the one with the diagnosis but also their loved ones. Given that BPD often is influenced strongly by early childhood trauma or adverse events, parents of adult children with BPD can feel a lot of guilt. As mentioned here, guilt can be a powerful indicator to us as to how we can realign with what is important to us.


For parents, this can look like healing and repairing relationship wounds that may exist between them and their children. This repair can lead to even deeper, more meaningful and fulfilling relationships that will benefit the whole family unit. Through self-compassion and self-forgiveness we can make the journey through guilt and into deeper connection with ourselves and our loved ones.


For information about our different practitioners, you can read their bios here (https://www.springclinic.com.au/about), or you can contact The Spring Clinic on 03 7035 9031 to find a therapist who is right for you.





Notes on Borderline Personality Disorder

  • A mental health condition where the individual struggles with managing their emotions, and often experiences extreme mood swings that can drastically change the way they view themselves and the world around them.

  • BPD can co-occur with other mental health challenges such as anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and other affective disorders


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