Changing your relationship with your adult BPD or sensitive child

Navigating the difficulties of having a borderline personality disorder or emotionally sensitive child is challenging enough. But when those ineffective behavior patterns persist into adulthood, it makes a parent vulnerable to worry, disappointment, conflict, ambivalence, illness and even despair.

Be it mental illness or substance abuse, gambling, unemployment, underemployment, domestic violence, anger management, incarceration, homelessness, financial distress, divorce, or wanting to return home, the behaviors associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be quite stressful. All the same, a parent’s instinct is to protect their child. That doesn’t end when the child turns 21. The urge remains to keep the child safe.

Challenges of helping adult children with BPD are frustrating and to make matters worse, attempts to help are often met with disrespect, anger and even physical violence.

There are a lot of unhealthy outcomes that can emerge, especially when a BPD coaching plan is not in place. Parents blame themselves. Parents are blamed by their children. Prolonged dependence of young adults endangers a parent’s financial future. Parents can get wrapped up in their adult children’s despair and bad decisions. The list goes on, but the point is easy to see – it can get out of control very quickly.

The guilt, shame and blame that comes with parenting a sensitive or BPD adult child

Did you know that parents of adult children rate themselves more positively based on how their children are doing? If it’s a tendency for most parents with neurotypical adult children, those with difficult adult children are at a much higher risk for falling into hopelessness and despair.

When we experience emotions such as guilt and shame related to ourselves as parents, self-blame may lead us into hiding instead of looking for support. Stigma, loss, grief, fear and worry are heavy, painful burdens.

Questions I often hear (and asked myself at one time or another) include:

Changing your relationship with your difficult adult child isn’t the same as quitting drugs or alcohol. With addiction the goal is to eliminate the problem from your life. Most of the parents I work with do NOT want to be completely cut off from their child (although they may have occasional thoughts of doing so). Let’s face it, you can become an ex-wife by divorcing or an ex-CEO by retiring but you can never become an ex-mother.

Families with less burden have found ways for the adult to contribute to the family while at the same time accepting that the cycles of stability and instability may continue over years. Parents who have learned to weather what may feel like an eternal winter have asked for help and education, and joined communities of others who experience similar distress with an adult child.

As I have said many times, “We cannot change our kids. We can change how we respond to them.” In doing so consistently (not perfectly) over time, we create lasting, positive changes in the relationship and take care of ourselves at the same time.

Stages of Change Model applied to parents of difficult adult children

Two things are true:

As you already know, it’s hard to appreciate the difficulty of altering a parent/child relationship. It begins with acknowledging where you are in that relationship right now and assessing the strength of your motivation to change yourself (since you do not have the power to change your adult child).

The Stages of Change model was created by Procheska, Norcross and DiClemente based upon their extensive research on how and why people change. It is used extensively in treating addiction and is also useful for parents of difficult adult children as it guides us to move gradually away from denying or minimizing the distress of their particular situation and toward gradually seeing the problem, considering change, taking action, and finally to maintaining the change. It’s always possible to cycle back to an earlier state of being from any of the previous stages.

Are you ready for change?

How ready are you to make change in your life? Take the change readiness assessment to find out. 

The 5 stages of change

In this stage parents are not considering change because they have no idea that change is possible.Often the belief is that avoiding doing anything to upset their adult child is the best answer. A mother might make excuses for her adult daughter’s rude behavior, “because she’s mentally ill.” Parents might tolerate an adult living in their home in spite of the adult refusing to clean up for themself, follow rules, and/or screaming and swearing at the parent who tries to bring up the issues. When we are in this stage it’s common to become defensive when others question our situation because we feel judged or criticized and definitely misunderstood. This tends to be a season of cycling between hope that maybe things will get better and the terrors of all the “what ifs.”

In this stage of change, we begin to gather information and seek knowledge and options, read books, listen to podcasts, search the web. In this stage of change it’s not unusual to spend thousands of dollars trying to find that one answer that will explain and fix everything.

The preparation stage begins when we find ourselves considering exactly how and when we are going to do something differently. Research extends to phone calls and appointments to explore options. There is now an urge to act sooner than later.

During the action phase we began the process of change by attending appointments and groups, practicing new ways of responding to our loved one, and utilizing the support of peers and professionals to lift us up when our loved one is resisting our changes.

Maintenance continues across the lifespan of the relationship. Day after day we increase our proficiency with using the skills we have found to be effective.We become more flexible in our response to our adult child as he/she/they will still have cycles of unpredictability.

Are you ready for change?

How ready are you to make change in your life? Take the change readiness assessment to find out. 

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blond woman with short hair wearing glasses and smiling | Lisa Bond Coaching | DBT skills and solutions for borderline personality disorder and high emotional sensitivity

Hi, I'm Lisa!

My mission is to provide high quality, evidence-based tools to meet the unique needs of individuals and families who want to create a life worth living, and coaches who want to help others do the same.

This practice is welcome and inclusive to all | Lisa Bond Coaching | DBT skills and solutions for borderline personality disorder and high emotional sensitivity

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