Are Adult Borderline Personality Disorder Sufferers Eternal 13-Year-Olds?

The normal development of self involves the following stages.

  1. Approximately 6 months: the capacity for self-observation develops
  2. Approximately 12 months: the capacity for symbolic thinking becomes well established as does a ‘sense of self’
  3. Approximately 7 to 11 years: the capacity for concrete operational thinking becomes established, as does an intense emotional life. Also, at this stage, the child becomes increasingly concerned about his / her interaction with his / her peers.
  4. Adolescence: the capacity for concrete operational thinking continues to develop as does the ability to negotiate increasingly complex and nuanced social interactions
  5. Early Adulthood: concerns turn to intimacy and family.
  6. Mid-Life: concerns extend to wider society.
  7. Later Life: world view/understanding deepens; metaphysical concerns may become increasingly profound.

However, those who have experienced significant and protracted childhood trauma FAIL TO DEVELOP A STRONG SENSE OF SELF / SELF-IDENTITY, especially if they developed, because of their upbringing, an ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT STYLE (Main et al., 2002). An anxious attachment style can develop when an emotionally unstable parent (particularly a parent prone to explosive outbursts of rage) causes their child to have to be hyper-alert / hyper-vigilant regarding this parent’s unpredictably changing moods as a form of self-preservation (my own mother’s emotions fluctuated wildly which had an effect on me that made me able to sense how she was feeling from the minutest change in her expression, intonation or body language, and, to this day, I am able instantly to pick up on the most subtle of people’s changes in mood via tacit signs to which others may be oblivious).

Sadly, too, children brought up by such parents are unconsciously indoctrinated into developing the core belief that their own, personal concerns, worries, anxieties and needs are, at best, secondary to those of their emotionally unstable parent. Whilst, on the surface, the child / young person may appear to be ‘coping’ with such impossibly onerous responsibilities, there is often an extremely heavy emotional price to be paid in later life. 


There are three main ways in which childhood trauma can impair the development of self; these are as follows :

  1. No strong sense of self is developed; instead, a ‘false self’ is created that tends to take its cues about how to behave from the expectations of others, so lacks autonomy, authenticity and consistency.
  2. A less weak sense of self than the above type, but still a very fragile sense of self which is kept hidden due to a sense of shame and of being judged and rejected.
  3. This third type of self develops as a result of an emotionally over-involved parent / primary caretaker. The self is undeveloped as the individual has grown up to ‘learn’ (on an unconscious level) that s/he must be hypervigilant to the parent’s / primary caretaker’s needs (and, by extension, as s/he gets older, to the needs of others – such individuals may become ‘chronic caretakers’ of others whilst remaining neglectful of his / her own needs and lacking in assertiveness and in a sense of personal boundaries.

Arrested Development: Are Adult BPD Sufferers Eternal 13-Year-Olds?

It is frequently reported by those suffering from BPD that they are not able to function at a high enough level to contend effectively with adult responsibilities and that whilst they have the body of an adult they feel  ‘the person inside’ is a teenager or child. For this reason, they feel in great need of having a ‘real’ adult to guide, support and care for them.

New research suggests that those suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD), a condition strongly associated with childhood trauma,  may have ceased to develop emotionally at around the age of thirteen years due to the occurrence of severe trauma around this critical period in their psychological development.

In other words, they become emotionally developmentally arrested: puer aeternus (eternal children). Far from being a desirable state, it can make their adult lives all but impossible.

And their consequent behaviour during adulthood, as a result of having BPD, is not like that of a well-balanced and well-adjusted thirteen-year-old, but that of a challenging and difficult one.

So, according to this new research, those suffering from BPD can be regarded as being ‘stuck’ in the early adolescent phase of personality and emotional development. Because of this, their emotions remain labile, unstable and turbulent.

In particular, due to this arrested development of the personality, research suggests such individuals will :

– be hypersensitive to rejection

– have poor self-control (e.g. impulsivity/recklessness/diminished concern for the negative consequences of behaviour)

– have an excessive need for instant gratification

Therapies that may help individuals experiencing the kinds of psychological symptoms that I have referred to above may benefit, in particular, from two specific types of psychotherapy – these are cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).





I feel uncomfortable setting boundaries

I shout and scream when my wishes are frustrated or ‘dissociate’ (shut down)

I am completely intolerant  of others’ views, beliefs and opinions if they do not match my own (and may get angry or show contempt for the person who disagrees with these)

I am dependent upon others’ approval to feel validated as a person

Other people’s behaviour towards me is more a reflection on me than it is a reflection on them



I have a right to set boundaries out of self-respect and to protect myself

I can accept things not going how I would wish as other opportunities will present themselves and the universe is not set up solely to meet my needs

I can accept others having their own views and understand the person has come to them via his/her own learning and life experiences which may be very different from my own

I do not need the approval of others to gain a sense of validation as I have the internal resources to validate myself 

Other people’s behaviour towards me is more of a reflection on them than a reflection on me.


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