The Borderline Personality Disordered Family, Part II: The Children

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

How are the children of the Borderline Disordered Mother and Father affected by their parents’ psychopathology?

In Part I of this series we learned that it is a common experience for the children of the borderline mother and father to be experienced by their children as projections of themselves. Projection is a term that means that aspects of a person’s self concept are placed onto the other person. Therefore, if a borderline mother believes that parts of her inner self are bad or evil this will be projected onto one of her children. The child onto whom so much “bad” is projected will then be viewed as bad or evil by the parent. This child is known as the “bad child.” In a similar way aspects of this mother that she thinks of as good will be projected onto one of her children whom she see as the “good child.” This perception of others as all good or all bad is typical of the way the borderline personality views people and this is referred to as “splitting.” Splitting means that people are viewed as either good or bad. While it is common for young children to split this is something we learn to overcome by realizing that people are a mixture of many characteristics. The borderline person never really learns about shades of gray in others or in themselves.


The Good Child

It is also true that, for the borderline person, there are constant shifts in the way people are viewed so that others are sometimes seen as all good and benevolent and suddenly viewed as persecutory and evil. The children of the borderline are victimized by the ever shifting perception their parents have of them. As long as the “good child” remains loyal and obedient to their parent they will be viewed as a perfect child deserving of love and protection. However, this means that the child must learn to give up any hopes or aspirations for their own development.

The mother or father cannot tolerate the good child becoming independent and autonomous. A fundamental feature of the borderline personality structure is that they are “insecurely attached” meaning that they constantly fear abandonment. Therefore, the demand of the borderline of her child is to be there to care for and love this parent.

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This good child, learning to surrender all sense of self, becomes depressed, hopeless and resentful because they have submerged their own needs in order to protect themselves from the potentially violent parent.

There is a wonderful, old classic Hollywood movie from the 1940″s starring Bette Davis and entitled “Now Voyager.” This old classic is occasionally aired on television stations like Turner Classic Movies. In the story, Bette Davis plays the role of an adult daughter who is constantly victimized by her tyrannical and borderline mother who cannot and will not allow her daughter to live her life as a free and independent movie. Only after the daughter has a nervous break down, is placed in a mental institution and recovers her sense of self worth, does she declare her independence from this suffocating mother. In her voyages around the world she is tested but repeatedly discovers great strength and courage within herself. The role Ms. Davis played was of the “good daughter” who always submitted to the whims and demands of her mother’s endless demands. This role is a magnificent portrayal of the fate of this good and perfect child. The two dimensional, flat and colorless life is the evidence of how dispirited and depressed the good child is.

The Bad Child

The “bad child” does not fare as well as the “good child” because the “bad child” becomes the target of the hatred of the borderline parents. This is the type of adult survivor of child abuse I have frequently worked with as patients in psychotherapy. Typically treatment takes a long time because of the amount of damage that has been done to this person’s self esteem and dignity. The steady and systematic physical and emotional abuse heaped upon this child is devastating. Physical scars fade and vanish but the emotional scars that this individual carries around with them remain deeply imprinted. Long after they are adults these patients report dreams that stereotypically deal with the themes of being pursued by Nazis, animal predators, murderers of all types and of having no place to hide and find safety. The world does not feel safe to someone who has survived such massive abuse. For these people feelings of depression, guilt and fear run deep. These emotions are accompanied by low self esteem and difficulty function in the world of work and intimacy. One of the great psychoanalytic writers of the 1980’s referred to this type of abuse suffered by the child at the hands of the borderline parent by term soul murder.

What Saves Some of these Survivors of Abuse?

There are a number of factors that can enter into the life of a child to save them from the consequences of murderous parents:

1) Even if one parent is able to act as a shield and protector against the abusing parent this can go a long way towards bringing balance, sanity and protection to the child.

2) There are those children who run away from home. For most children this is not a good idea because they can fall into the hands of predators in the outside world. However, I have worked with a number of cases where, once the child reached adolescence they ran to the home of a friend and family they knew well and found permanent protection.

3) Benevolent neighbors, school officials and religious leaders in the community who notice something is wrong can call child protection services and have the state act and remove the child to a safe place.

4) Close relatives who are aware and care about the child will act, at times, and remove the child from the home and fight out the issue of custody in the courts.

How Children Can Cope with Borderline Disordered Parents

Children coping with borderline disordered parents face a unique set of challenges that require resilience, adaptability, and self-awareness. Developing a strong sense of self is crucial for these children. They must learn to differentiate their own emotions and desires from the emotional turmoil and demands of their parents. Practicing self-care and boundary-setting can be powerful tools in maintaining mental health. Engaging in activities that foster a positive self-image and provide a sense of accomplishment can help build resilience. Furthermore, seeking support from trusted adults, such as teachers, counselors, or family members, can provide a much-needed safe space for expression and understanding. It’s also beneficial for these children to be educated about their parent’s disorder to some extent; understanding the nature of borderline personality disorder can demystify their parent’s behavior and help them realize that it is not their fault. Building a support network that includes therapy or support groups can also be an invaluable resource, offering a sense of community and a place to share experiences and coping strategies.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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