Research Into Children Of Mothers Suffering From Borderline Personalty Disorder.



Reviewing previous studies involving children between the ages of 4 years and 18 years, Macfie states that such children of BPD mothers are at increased risk of :

  • experiencing changes in household composition (e.g. due to divorce/BPD parent co-habiting with varying new partners/acquisition of step-parents/acquisition of step-siblings etc.).
  • experiencing excessive changes in school (e.g. due to constant relocations).
  • being removed from the home(e.g. due to being taken into care/being palmed off to relatives/being thrown out of home etc).
  • being exposed to living with a mother who is an alcoholic.
  • being exposed to living with a mother who is a drug addict.
  • being exposed to living with a mother who threatens/attempts/completes suicide.
  • suffering from problems relating to poor powers of concentration/attention, delinquency, inability to control anger/proneness to aggressive outbursts,  anxiety,  depression,  low self-esteem.

And, reviewing previous studies involving infants, Macfie states that such offspring of BPD mothers are at increased risk of :

  • having mothers who are intrusive and insensitive in their behaviour towards the infant.
  • reduced responsiveness towards the mother, including dazed looks and looking away from the mother.

And, perhaps most worryingly of all, Macfie cites research conducted by Hobson et al., 2005, suggesting that, at the age of 13 months, a staggering 80% of infants of borderline mothers have a disorganized attachment style in relation to their interactions with their mothers.


Macfie suggests that mothers suffering from BPD may use the child to satisfy their own needs (e.g. the need to feel loved) and discourage the infant’s instinct to develop autonomy. This, Macfie suggests, can eventually lead to a kind of role reversal (e.g. parentification /adultification) which, in turn, increases the child’s risk of developing difficulties controlling his/her emotions and behaviours.


Macfie also states that if the child has developed a disorganized attachment style due to frequently being frightened by the BPD mother and/or due to frequently witnessing the mother in a fearful and anxious state, s/he is likely to develop a negative representation of others which may include a marked tendency to view people in general as dangerous, threatening and incompetent, Such a child’s self-representation is also likely to be negative, including seeing himself/herself as unworthy of love and care; such a negative self-view can then become self-perpetuating.

In short, the child of the BPD mother is in danger of developing a cognitive-negative-triad involving a negative view of the self and others, a negative view of the future and a negative view of the world in general (see SHATTERED ASSUMPTIONS THEORY) together with a set of most unhelpfully distorted core beliefs.

Out of these negative representations of self and others, Macfie reminds us that the individual who holds them may develop various severe problems which include:

  • volatile and unstable relationships with others.
  • serious issues relating to perceived abandonment and rejection.
  • impulsivity.
  • suicidal ideation.
  • self-harming behaviours.


Beeghly and Cicchetti, 1994 conducted research that showed that individuals who had been subjected to severe maltreatment as children have difficulty acquiring words that describe the mental state of themselves and others, suggesting that they have problems when it comes to mentalizing; the word ‘mentalize’  can be defined as the ability to understand the mental states of oneself and of others (which, in turn, significantly affects behaviour

it has been hypothesized that the inability to mentalize may initially develop during a highly abusive and traumatic childhood as a defence mechanism. But as a defence against what? It has been suggested that an inability to mentalize protects the child from understanding what is going on in the abusive parent’s mind as to do so would cause intolerable mental suffering. For example, the lack of ability to mentalize could protect the child from fully understanding a parent’s malevolent feelings towards the child such as wishing the child was dead or wishing the child had never been born (the latter is a wish my mother would frequently express to me and, as a child, I was perhaps unable to grasp the full implications of her expression of such a wish. It is possible then, that my own mentalization capacities became impaired as a way of protecting myself from fully grasping the hatred my mother was capable of feeling towards me.


The author of the study suggests that for ‘at risk’ children (i.e. those who are emotionally vulnerable – due, for example, to temperament, emotional reactivity and impulsivity – and grow up in a stressful environment due to various factors including those referred to above) the following interventions may mitigate the danger of developing full-blown BPD:

  • mentalization therapy (i.e. therapy that improves the individual’s ability to mentalize).
  • transference-focused psychotherapy.
  • dialectical behavioural therapy.


Hobson, 2005. Personal relatedness and attachment in infants of mothers with borderline personality disorder. Development and Psychopathology 17 ~2005!, 329–347. Cambridge University Press. Printed in the United States of America. DOI: 10.10170S0954579405050169

Jenny Macfie. Development in Children and Adolescents Whose Mothers Have Borderline Personality Disorder. Child Dev Perspect. 2009 Apr; 3(1): 66–71.doi: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00079.x. PMCID: PMC2819472. NIHMSID: NIHMS88708. PMID: 20161670




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

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