The intense and constantly and dramatically fluctuating moods of the emotionally unstable parent permeate and dominate the household and can overwhelm the child, particularly when the intense emotions the parent is expressing are especially destructive ones such as hatred or suicidal despair.
Because the parent’s intense, destructive emotions are so unpredictable and can emerge ‘out of the blue’ the child can be made to feel constant trepidation, anxiety, or fear, never knowing what to expect.
By definition, the emotionally unstable parent has great difficulty controlling his/her emotions; lack of control over one’s feelings is sometimes referred to as emotional dysregulation.
This emotional dysregulation is likely to be most apparent when the individual is under stress (including minor stress that the majority of people would easily be capable of tolerating with relative equanimity).
Emotionally unstable patients often regard themselves as victims. Also, some may frequently use threats to manipulate others (without much in the way of guilt due to their lack of empathy).
Some may be suffering from personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder.
Children who grow up with such parents tend to become psychologically insecure due, in large part, to the inconsistency and unreliability of the parent’s emotional support.
Such parents often exploit their children, viewing them more as possessions to be used for their benefit rather than as individuals with their own specific set of unique emotional and psychological needs.
And, because of this, the child-parent relationship may become inverted; this is sometimes referred to as the emotional parentification of the child – s/he becomes, in many respects, the parent’s parent (e.g. perpetually providing the parent with emotional support; indeed, this happened to me, starting before I became a teenager – in fact, my mother used to refer to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’.
Because the child is often forced to live to fulfill his parent’s needs rather than his/her own, this can lead him/her to develop identity problems as an adult.
Often, the emotionally unstable parent can mask their problem outside the home, meaning that nobody appreciates the high stress under which the child is forced to live; this makes intervention on the child’s behalf far less likely.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).