Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a disorder with criteria found in the DSM-IV and is characterized by avoidance of abandonment, identity disturbance, chronic emptiness, affective instability, self-harming behaviors along with common problems as extreme black-and-white thinking and emotional dysregulation. More women than men are commonly diagnosed with BPD, somewhere in the 2:1 to 9:1 ratios depending on sources. The numbers of women in treatment programs across the country disproportionately outnumber men, which is an indication that women of all ages, mothers and daughters, are more likely to be treated than boys or men.
Quite a bit has been written about girls and women with borderline personality disorder. But little research exists about how boys experience their mothers that are suffering with the BPD criteria, such as intense emotional dysregulation, unstable relationship patterns, fears of abandonment, or identity disturbance. Are boys being impacted in ways that most professionals and educators may not recognize? Understanding the problems that may stem from the BPD mother-son dynamic could help families and professionals prevent young males from being misunderstood or mislabeled as aggressive, defiant, or antisocial, so that these boys are not being marginalized, but instead they are given the amount of clinical treatment that girls and women often receive.
This is not to say that every son of a mother with BPD has a negative experience. Sons can experience the “good-enough-mother” and mature through developmental stages with few disturbances. However, when the relationship goes poorly, sons can suffer with serious psychological and emotional problems that impair a boy’s development and create lifelong identity problems well into manhood.
Emotional dysregulation, a common problem among BPD sufferers, is like riding a rollercoaster. If a boy never knows what to expect from one moment to the next, a mother’s roller coaster emotions can trigger real confusion and impact self-worth when he cannot seem to please her. The emotional invalidation that stems from this dynamic may create in a boy a constant need to seek validation. Or, he may detach from his emotions and stuff them, because the emotions are perceived as unacceptable.
Similarly, unstable mother relationship patterns vacillating between the polarities of available versus unavailable motherly affection and distant versus intense emotional enmeshment, along with fits of anger and abandonment anxiety can create a world of instability, distrust, and confusion about a boy’s relationship with his mother. He may develop distrust for other individuals as he matures into adulthood.
Black-and-white thinking, a common problem often based in irrational fears, can create rigid rules and expectations for a young boy to navigate, which may foster a need to be perfect in order to please his mother. Perfectionism comes with high emotional costs, such as extremes in thinking, anxiety, and irrational thought patterns that take over one’s life and cause problems in interpersonal relationships. Identity confusion, another criterion, causes problems in several areas of male identity development related to self-confidence, self-image, sexual identity, career choices, and long-term goals. An enmeshed mother-son relationship can harm a son’s sense of independence and autonomy. He may find himself riddled with guilt as he desires to achieve independence and yet fears that he is abandoning her.
Finally, the self-harming and para-suicidal behaviors of a mother with BPD can be extremely traumatic and may even contribute to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder, especially if his mother’s threats are repeated or if her suicide is successful. The subsequent trauma can skew a boy’s overall sense of security, because the suicidal gestures may be perceived as abandonment and cause a boy to fear loss.
This dynamic between a mother with BPD and her son has serious implications for a boy’s emotional life well into manhood. Families and educators can help these young men to emotionally recover and mature. Healthier emotional lives can be achieved through stable relationships and a validating environment. But, sometimes, a young man may need more intensive help by working with a psychotherapist to address the deeper issues around a poor self-image or lack of confidence. It’s important to realize that early therapeutic interventions can make a positive difference in helping a young man develop a healthy self-image with lifelong implications for a better life and relationships.