Childhood Trauma Leading To Over-Dominant Brain Stem


A Simple Overview Of The Brain’s Structure And Development :

A simplified way of describing the structure of the brain is to think of it as comprising three main regions that develop in the following order from birth to a person’s early or mid-twenties.

FIRST TO DEVELOP : The brain stem and mid-brain :

Main functions : Sensory / motor and basic survival mechanisms (‘fight / flight’)

SECOND TO DEVELOP : The limbic brain :

Main functions : Emotional development, behavior and attachment

THIRD TO DEVELOP : The cortical brain :

Main function : inhibition, thinking, language, planning, decision-making, abstract thought and learning.


As described above, it is the brain stem’s function to preserve our safety in dangerous situations (by physiologically preparing us for ‘fight or flight‘).

However, when a chid has been traumatized over an extended period and has been excessively exposed to frightening situations, the brain stem can become overative and over-dominant so that the brain is on a constant state of ‘red-alert’ (giving rise to feelings of hypervigilance, edginess, agitation and constant fear) even in situations which are, in objective terms, very safe.

IN SHORT, THE CHILD BECOMES ‘LOCKED INTO SURVIVAL MODE’, primed to lash out (figuratively or literally) or run away (again, figuratively or literally). And, of course, in the case of the former, this can lead to him / her being wrongly labelled as ‘bad’ whereas, in fact, his or her behavior is essentially due to what can reasonably described as brain injury incurred due to the traumatic events to which s/he has been subjected over a ptotracted period.


Such children are, in effect, ‘stuck’ at the first stage of brain development shown above (i.e. the brain stem / mid brain developmental stage).

Unfortunately, this means the child is not only locked into feeling constantly hyperalert to anticipated danger and profoundly unsafe, but can suffer from other significant impairments (see below):


Being locked into the brain stem development stage also prevents the higher regions of the brain (i.e. the limbic brain and the cortical brain, as described above) from developing properly, and, therefore, also from functioning properly.

This can mean that the child is unable to form attachments or control his/her emotions (due to the damage done to the ‘limbic brain‘ ) and is also unable properly to perform the functions of the ‘cortical brain’, including : inhibition (leading to impulsive behavior), planning, decision-making, reflecting and learning. Such problems can manifest themselves in numerous ways, including being unable to form friendships at school, ‘mis-behaving’ in class and learning difficulties)


Bottom-Up’ (as opposed to ‘Top-Down’) therapies such as SENSORIMOTOR PSYCHOTHERAPY can be of benefit to individuals affected by ‘brain stem’ associated problems and it is generally agreed that these problems should be addressed prior to addressing problems associated with the ‘limbic brain’ and ‘cortical brain.’

eBook :

How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain (And How These Effects Can Be Reversed).

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Four Types Of ‘Dysregulation’ Displayed By BPD Sufferers

emotional dysregulation

types of dysregulation

BPD And Dysregulation :

We have already seen from many other articles that I have published on this site that those who have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma are at greatly increased risk of going on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) than those who were fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable upbringing.

One of the main symptoms of this very serious and life-threatening condition (about ninety per cent of sufferers attempt suicide and about ten per cent die by suicide) is termed ‘DYSREGULATION.’

What Is Meant By The Term ‘Dysregulation?’

When the term DYSREGULATION is used in the psychological literature it most commonly refers to the great difficulty the BPD sufferer has controlling behavior and emotional states. However, more specifically, the dysregulation that those with BPD experience can be sub-divided into four particular types; these are :





Below, I briefly define each of these four types of dysregulation :

  • Emotional Dysregulation :

This type of dysregulation refers to extreme sensitivity and difficulty controlling intense emotions. Individuals suffering from this type of dissociation not only feel emotions far more deeply than the average person, but also take longer to return to their ‘baseline’ / ‘normal’ mood.

For example, a person with BPD who is emotionally dysregulated may be easily moved to intense expressions of anger and then take far longer to calm down again compared to the average person. Others may disparagingly (due to their lack of knowledge and understanding of this life-threatening – see above – and acutely, indeed uniquely, mentally painful condition) describe such an individual as extremely ‘thin’skinned’, as ‘having a chip on his/her shoulder’, ‘a drama queen’ or as or as someone who is prone to extreme ‘over-reactions.’

A leading theory as to why individuals with BPD are emotionally dysregulated is that the development of their AMYGDALA (a brain region intimately involved with how we express emotions and how we react to stress) has been damaged as a result of severe childhood trauma.

emotional dysregulation


This type of dysregulation refers to the severe problems those with BPD can have controlling their behavior ; such individuals may be highly impulsive and liable to indulge in high-risk behaviors that are self-destructive. Such behaviors may include :

    • excessive drinking
    • excessive drug taking
    • gambling
    • compulsive self-harm
    • risky sex
    • drink-driving / dangerous driving
    • excessive / compulsive spending leading to debt problems

This type of dysregulation refers to disorganized thinking which may manifest itself as paranoid-type thinking and/or as states of DISSOCIATION.

BPD sufferers are also prone to ‘black and white’ / ‘all or nothing’ type thinking, indecision, self-doubt, distrust of others and intense self-hatred.


This type of dysregulation refers to the weak sense of their own identity many BPD sufferers feel ( a typical BPD sufferer might express this by saying something along the lines of ‘I’ve no idea who I am‘), feelings of emptiness, and the difficulty many BPD sufferers experienced expressing their likes, dislikes, needs and feelings,

Dysregulation And Stress :

Individuals with BPD are far less able to cope with stress than the average person and dysregulation (relating to all four of the above categories) is especially likely to occur when such individuals are experiencing stress ; indeed, the greater the stress the individual is experiencing, the more dysregulated he/she is likely to become.



‘CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS.’ Click here for further details.

eBook :

BPD ebook

Above eBook now available from Amazon for instant download. Click on image above or click HERE for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Borderline Mother : Four Types



For those of us who grew up with mothers who suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD), our childhoods were often painful and anguished. We found ourselves living in a world that was contradictory and confusing ; it is likely that we suffered chronic anxiety as we did not know how our mother would react or behave from one moment to next.

Due to our mother’s instability, it is likely that we started off life with an insecure emotional attachment to her, and, throughout our childhood, it is likely that the mother with borderline personality disorder was inconsistent, unpredictable (expressing affection one minute but rage the next), inappropriately intense and emotionally controlling.

She may, too, have been deeply verbally hostile, expressing hatred and issuing threats. We may have often been told we were not wanted and that she might well abandon us. It may well have felt like living in an emotional prison.

The effects of mothers with borderline personality disorder on their offspring can be quite devastating ; we can grow up feeling fragmented, confused and, later, develop symptoms of psychological ill health ourselves, such as impulsiveness,   being full of rage and hostility, being sometimes prone to violence, depression and deep anxiety.

We may become in danger of tipping over into psychosis under stress (particularly in response to rejection and abandonment). We may, too, develop addictions as short term coping mechanisms to deal with our psychological pain. In short, we become at risk of developing borderline personality disorder ourselves.

Borderline personality disorder is diagnosed in women twice as frequently as in men. It has been hypothesized that this could be due to the fact that men with BPD are much more likely to be misdiagnosed as having anti-social personality disorder and end up in the prison system (which is often clearly likely to make their condition even worse). It is estimated that, in the USA, there are about 6 million people suffering from BPD, which, in turn, must mean that there are also millions of children living with mothers who have BPD.

Below are some of the most frequent things people who have been brought up with mothers with BPD say about them :

  • she is completely unpredictable
  • she denies what has happened
  • she sees everything in extreme terms (also called ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ thinking)
  • I sometimes find myself hating her
  • I am not able to trust her
  • she’s always exploding into rage
  • she imposes her negative view of the world onto me
  • she drives me insane
  • she makes me feel terrible about myself

All individuals who suffer from borderline personality disorder (BPD), including the borderline mother, experience its core symptoms; these are

However, one of these symptoms may PREDOMINATE and thus shape a particular BPD sufferer’s character.

In relation to this idea, James Masterson (1988) classified borderline mothers into four sub-groups; these are :





Let’s look at each of these BPD mother types in turn :

1) THE WAIF MOTHER – personality traits include helplessness, hopelessness, proneness to deep despair, extremely low self-esteem, very high sensitivity, having a ‘victim mentality’, passivity and vulnerability. Sees self as failure. May treat her children alternately indulgently and negligently. There often exists an intense underlying feeling of rage  which may be particularly likely erupt in response to abandonment (either real or imagined).


A) they may come to see themselves as failures for not being able to make her happy

B) they may internalize her despairing view of the world and become despairing themselves

C) they may become ENMESHED in their relationship with her and therefore find it difficult to separate from it.

2) THE HERMIT MOTHER : sees the world as dangerous and people in general as self-serving and callous. Constantly expecting disaster to strike and sees signs of imminent calamity everywhere. Has a deep sense of inner shame which she projects onto others. May have a tough exterior and a superficial image of being confident, determined and independent. However, beneath this façade she tends to be distrustful, insecure and prone to rage and paranoia. Gains self-esteem from work or hobbies.


A) they may internalize mother’s fear of world in general and therefore become anxious if they need to adapt to new situations

B) they may find it very difficult to learn appropriate coping skills in relation to a large variety of life’s problems

C) they may find it difficult to trust others

3) THE QUEEN MOTHER – constantly craves attention; uses her children to fulfil her own needs; cannot tolerate disagreement or criticism from her children as she sees this as evidence that they do not love and respect her; chronic feelings of emptiness;   inability to ‘self-soothe when distressed; powerful sense of own entitlement ; may be prepared to use blackmail in order to get what she wants; capable of planned and premeditated manipulation; discards friends without guilt when they are no longer of use to her


Essentially this type of borderline mother sees her children as her audience who must constantly respond to her in ways which bolster her (very fragile) self-esteem ; she expects from them their unquestioning and unwavering love, support, attention and admiration. A it is impossible for her children to satisfy her insatiable emotional needs, conflict increases dramatically as the they get older. Rebellion, deep confusion and anger are likely responses from children who live with this kind of mother, but beneath this the children long for approval, recognition, consistency and unconditional love. In essence, however, the ‘queen’ mother’s own needs trump those of her children’s, as far as she is concerned.

4) THE WITCH MOTHER : this type of borderline mother is consumed by self-hatred (often on an unconscious level) and tends to be extremely hostile and cruel towards their children. Because of their feelings of rage mixed with impotence, they have a propensity to be particularly cruel to those less powerful than they are (for example, younger). They also tend to be self-obsessed and have little or no concern for others. They are likely to respond particularly venomously to criticism or rejection. At the base of their need for power and control is their intense desire to prevent abandonment. This particular sub-group of BPD is very resistant to treatment as those who suffer it tend not to allow others to help them.


A) the children of this type of mother are likely to find themselves as the target of random, intense and cruel attacks

B) as with other forms of abuse, children who suffer the verbal/emotional/psychological abuse assume (completely incorrectly) that it is they themselves who are at fault. As a result of this profound misconception, they are likely to become depressed, subject to feelings of shame, insecure, hypervigilant (i.e. always on ‘red alert’ on the look out for danger) and dissociative.

As adults, they may develop difficulties with forming and maintaining relationships. It is possible, too, that they will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suffer from BPD themselves, thus potentially perpetuating the cycle.


  •  used by her to fulfil her own needs
  •  that it was impossible to predict her emotions/behaviour
  • worthless
  •  unlovable
  •  manipulated
  • constantly on ‘red alert’ in case we may inadvertently do or say something to anger her
  • alternately idealized and demonized by her
  • that we were her caretaker
  • used to provide her with emotional support
  • that she demands unconditional love, approval and admiration from us, but seems unable to love us unconditionally
  • confused by her unpredictable behaviour and treatment of us
  • controlled by fear (for example, of her rages if we do not comply with her wishes to the letter)
  •  deeply hurt by her cruel teasing
  •  that we are not permitted to show anger, regardless of how provoked we may have been
  • overly confided in (as if we were a surrogate partner or parent rather than her child : SEE SECTION BELOW)
  •  burdened by responsibilities we are too young to be expected to cope with
  •  that our own feelings are belittled, undermined, dismissed as trivial, denied and ignored
  •  that we are expected to achieve standards that are impossible to meet
  •  deprived of displays of physical affection (for example, hugs)
  •  as if we are constantly receiving ‘mixed messages’ from her (this can lead to finding ourselves in an emotional ‘double bind’ which is very distressing – click here to read my article on this).
  •  as if we are a ‘bad’ person (click here to read my article about how we are, insidiously, made to believe we are ‘bad’ people).

NB. Obviously, diagnosis of BPD needs to be left to a professional. Just because a mother makes us experience some of the feelings above does not mean she has BPD. Mothers with other conditions (for example, depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol addiction) may make us feel some of the things listed above, as, from time-to time, may mothers with no psychiatric condition.

When BPD Mothers Treat Us Like Surrogate Partners.

I have written elsewhere about how, after my parents’ divorce, my mother increasingly used me as her emotional caretaker, even referring to me, quite brazenly, as her ‘Little Psychiatrist’ (a role foisted upon me that I see now, with hindsight,  I was all too willing to fulfil to the point of preoccupation and even obsession) until I was thirteen and our relationship broke down in such a way that I was forced to go and live with my father and his newly acquired wife.

Such a relationship with a BPD parent (in which the child essentially becomes the parent’s surrogate partner) is, in fact, by no means a rare phenomenon in dysfunctional families. It is referred to by some experts in how family systems operate as ‘covert incest’ and can occur between a mother and her son or between a father and his daughter.

In my case, my mother used me to satisfy her psychological needs because my father had left the family home. However, such ‘covertly incestuous’ relationships can also occur in which both parents are still living in the same household but their marriage / relationship has broken down (this sad scenario is particularly likely to arise when one of the parents is an alcoholic).

Complicity :

It is important to realize that when a parent manipulates the child into becoming, essentially, a surrogate partner, it is not only serving this parent’s needs. It also serves to free the other parent from this parent’s emotional demands. In this way, the other parent is complicit in what is being done to the child, and, through lack of intervention, enables its continuation.

Typically, the parent who is using the child as a surrogate partner will make that child his/her confidante and seek advice on subjects that the child is emotionally  ill-equipped to provide such as marriage problems, loneliness, or relationship difficulties with new boyfriends or girlfriends.

Repercussions For Adult Life :

Unfortunately, such ‘covertly incestuous’ relationships can seriously harm the child’s capacity, when he becomes an adult, to form healthy, intimate and sustainable relationships with others. Many therapists are of the view that such difficulties are likely to persist until the affected individual gains insight into how his/her dysfunctional childhood relationship with his/her opposite sex parent has significantly contributed to these difficulties.

Note : ‘Covert incest’ is also sometimes referred to as ’emotional incest.’

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Related Article : The Possible Effects Of Unloving Mothers On Their Children

Select Works by Masterson :

eBook :

Christine Lawson discusses these types in more detail in her outstanding book Understanding The Borderline Mother, available on Amazon (see below). Click image for more details or to download a free sample.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Early Life Bonds With Parents Parallel Adult Bonds With Romantic Partner.

According to Shaver’s research, which is based upon Bowlby’s attachment theory but extends it into the realms of adult romantic relationships, the type of relationship we had with our primary carer (usually the mother) in terms of the quality of the bond that we developed with her during early life (or, to use Bowlby’s phraseology, the type of ‘attachment style’ we formed with her), is reflected in the types of attachments / relationships that we form with romantic partners in our adult lives.

Shaver points out the following parallels between our early life relationship with our primary carer and our adult relationships with our romantic partners :

  • Just as, in early life, our primary carer was our main attachment figure, so too, in adulthood, our romantic partner becomes our main attachment figure.
  • Just as, in early life, we relied on our primary carer as our secure base, so too, in adulthood, we rely on our romantic partner as our secure base.
  • Just as, in early life, we relied on our primary carer as our safe haven, so too, in adulthood, we rely on our romantic partner as our safe haven.
  • Jn adulthood, our responses to separation from, or loss of, our romantic partners resemble our responses to separation from, or loss of, our primary carer in early life. And, in relation to separation and loss, Shaver suggests that it is sometimes only when our relationship with our romantic partner breaks down that we become fully aware of the emotional bond that exists between us and our him / her (relecting the adage that you only understand the true value of something when you lose it).

Adult Romantic Relationships Tend To Mirror Early Life Attachment To Primary Carer

Shaver also states that there exist fundamental similarities between our adult romantic relationships and our early life attachment to our primary carer. For example, both types of relationship involve : ‘eye contact, holding, touching, caressing, smiling, crying, clinging, a desire to be comforted by one’s primary carer / partner when distressed, the experience of anger, anxiety and sorrow following separation or loss and the experience of happiness upon reunion.’

Shaver’s research also suggests that individuals who have had a secure and emotionally healthy bond (or, in Bowlby’s phrase, ‘attachment’ ) to their primary carer in early life tend to have long-lasting relationships as adults, whereas those who have had a problematic, less emotionally healthy and more insecure bond with their primary carer in early life tend to have more relationship difficulties as adults, are more likely to divorce and have a generally more cynical attitude towards the concept of love than those who had enjoyed a secure bond (attachment) to their primary carer in early life.



David Hosier Bsc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

All Videos

Effects Of Narcissistic And Manipulative Parents (Free PDF).

Below you can view or download the free PDF of my eBook (previously published on Amazon) : Effects Of Manipulative And Narcissistic Parents

To view my other eBooks that are currently for sale on Amazon, click here.


Anger Management Problems : Their Root In Childhood (Free PDF).

Below you can view the free PDF of my eBook (previously published on Amazon)  Anger Management Problems : Their Root In Childhood Trauma.

To view my other eBooks that are currently for sale on Amazon, click here.


BPD And The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a complex network of nerves that interconnect :

  • the hypothalamus
  • the pituitary gland
  • the adrenal glands

See diagram below for the location of the above in the body :

From top to bottom : 1) The hypothalamus ; 2) The pituitary gland ; 3) The adrenal glands

What are the functions of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands?

Their functions are as follows :

  1. The hypothalamus : controls body rhythms, temperature, thirst, hunger.
  2. The pituitary gland : secretes the hormone known as oxytocin which is believed to play an important role in the mother-child bonding / attachment process.
  3. The adrenal glands : these are responsible for regulating our response to stress via the functioning of two main hormones – cortisol and adrenaline.

Interaction Of These Three Organs :

As already stated, these three organs interact , communicating with one another by the means of neurotransmitters and hormones, and in so doing :

  • determines how we respond to stress.
  • controls the quality of the mother-infant attachment process in early life.
  • regulates mood.
  • regulates sexuality.

The Relevance Of The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis To Individuals Who Have Been Diagnosed With Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) :

One of the major theories relating to BPD is that, in those suffering from the condition, the HPA Axis as a whole and its complex interconnected nerve system does not function properly.

And, according to a meta-analysis of research into this phenomenon, an important adverse effect of this dysfunction of the HPA Axis is the elevation of ‘continuous cortisol output’ (resulting in higher than normal levels of cortisol circulating in the blood system) but also the ‘blunting’ of cortisol’s response to psychosocial stressors (meaning that BPD suffers are less able to deal with stress than the ‘average’ person).

High levels of cortisol in the blood system, when prolonged, can have a number of harmful effects, including increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels (thus raising the chances of developing diabetes).

Furthermore, elevated cortisol levels can increase the risk of suicide (Lester and Bean, 1992), negatively impact the immune system, accelerate the ageing process and damage the brain’s hippocampus.


Methods for reducing stress in those affected include yoga, neurofeeback, mindfulness meditation and trauma release exercises. There also exists some evidence that antioxidants may be of benefit.



eBook :

Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Childhood Trauma : Its Link To Depression And Anxiety (Free PDF).


Below you can view the free PDF of my eBook (previously published on Amazon) Childhood Trauma And Its Link To Depression And Anxiety.

To view my other eBooks that are currently for sale on Amazon, click here.

Oprah Winfrey Talks About Childhood Trauma Treatment.

The video which I provide a link to below features Oprah Winfrey talking about the vital importance of understanding, and treating, the adverse effects of childhood trauma on individuals’ mental health, physical health and life chances in general.

It opens with Oprah talking to one of the world’s leading experts on developmental trauma, Bruce Perry PhD, who explains how young children are particularly sensitive to the ill-effects of dysfunctional environments due to the brain’s extreme plasticity / neuroplasticity in early life.

He explains that just as a baby’s / infant’s brain is super-sensitive to linguistic input (nearly all learn language easily and naturally even though they are not making a conscious effort to do so due to the early brain’s sponge-like absorption of the words, grammar etc. they are exposed to) so, too, are they super-sensitive to any dysfunction that is going on around them (e.g. domestic violence, maternal stress / anger / rage, neglect etc.).

Similarly to how the young brain absorbs language, it absorbs these dysfunctional elements of its environment which, in turn, potentially adversely affect the development of their malleable and highly ‘plastic’ brains which, in its turn, sets the stage for the potential later development of behavioral, emotional and social problems.

In relation to this, Oprah Winfrey talks about the importance of understanding the roots of dysfunctional behavior in children, adolescents and adults (i.e. the adverse effects of their early environments on brain development) that might make themselves apparent in a whole host of ways (e.g. problems controlling anger, alcoholism, proneness to violence, inability to hold down a job etc.) and of treating such individuals using trauma-informed therapy.

During the interview, Oprah Winfrey also discusses why some children appear to be more resilient to trauma than others and the fact that one key to such resilience is to have at least one relationship which is emotionally supportive (the example given is that of a supportive school teacher though it could be a counsellor, god-parent or other caring and responsible person).

To read about the seminal study on the effects of childhood adverse experiences (ACEs) on mental and physical health in later life, click here to be taken to my article entitled : Childhood Trauma : The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.

Anyway, here’s the link to the video :

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).