Why the holidays can bring up fear and dread for those with BPD family members
We can’t control our BPD and highly emotionally sensitive people. What we *can* control is our response to them.
The way we respond to their distress — which is heightened around the Fall and Winter holidays — greatly influences their distress, and ours. The good news is, we can respond skillfully and avoid making things worse. We can even make it easier for our people to down-regulate their own distress.
I want to share a story with you of a mother who came to me not long ago, desperate for someone to help her and her husband with their BPD daughter who managed to bring destruction upon every holiday and family gathering. With the right skills and treatment, they are now in a much better place… but if you have a BPD person in your life, I want to share just how bad it was before it got better because I’m sure you can relate.
Debbie* grew up in Chicago as an only child with a small extended family. It was just Mom and Dad (both over 40) and two older, bachelor uncles. She envied the families that lived in her neighborhood. It seemed as if the kids always had a sibling to play with and that birthdays and other rites of passage—baptisms, graduations, etc.—were special occasions, filled with fun, laughter, family, storytelling and memories. She told herself that she would have at least four kids and that she’d decorate, celebrate and cherish every single holiday.
When Debbie married, she was filled with hope that she and her husband would be close with his siblings and their families, as well as with his parents and extended family.
Infancy and toddler years
The birth of their first child, Isabel*, was celebrated throughout both sides of the family. However, Debbie’s husband’s job had moved them far enough away that the new mom had no nearby support in helping her care for a newborn.
As an only child, Debbie had no experience with infants and felt very overwhelmed. Her husband traveled for work and was gone often for one to two weeks at a time, leaving Debbie alone to care for an infant. Even with postpartum depression, Debbie was getting by quite well and she truly loved her young daughter. She even looked forward to having a second child as soon as possible.
The couple moved again, this time closer to friends yet still far from family. Debbie went back to work, leaving her daughter with a number of different caregivers, some better than others. When Debbie delivered her second child, Isabel was nearly two years old. The combined effects of postpartum depression, the overwhelming responsibilities of caring for two children under three years old, all while working a full-time job with limited support and a husband who traveled took their toll. Though Debbie had read every parenting book and was a committed and loving parent, she never felt good enough as a mom.
In time she became depressed, angry and resentful. She had to work hard not to be harsh with the children when they were only doing what children do. For this, she experienced profound guilt and shame, especially for her behavior toward Isabel who seemed harder to connect with than her younger son. Debbie loved them both and didn’t understand why she was so quick to be impatient with her daughter.
She began leaving the kids at daycare from the time it opened to the last possible minute she was allowed to pick them up. She requested the second shift at work so she would have less time around the kids, for fear she could possibly do them harm. When she told her husband she was afraid she was abusing the kids, he didn’t seem to believe it but made an effort to be more supportive. Debbie finally came to the conclusion her husband and the kids would be better off without her. At the same time she was well aware of the effect her death would have on the children. She felt trapped. Although there were more good times than bad, Debbie couldn’t help but focus on her mistakes and the potential negative effects they might have on her children.
By the time Isabel was five, Debbie had started taking an antidepressant medication and was feeling much more stable in her day-to-day life. That year, both husband and wife were looking forward to a holiday season with their children and extended family. Debbie invited in-laws to their home and went all out with decorating, including Isabel in the all the holiday preparation. It was just as she’d envisioned it as a young girl—creating traditions and memories during the holidays with her own family.
Looking back, it was at this very time that Debbie remembers having the first inkling that something was “different” about her daughter.
As an only child, Debbie was unfamiliar with what was considered unusual behavior for a toddler. Because of her extensive reading on the subject of parenting, she assumed that Isabel’s behavior a few years earlier was what the books referred to as “terrible twos” and “tumultuous threes.”
With the help of her antidepressant Debbie was better able to tolerate Isabel’s frequent meltdowns where she would throw herself on the floor, shrieking in rage and frustration, banging her head over and over—on the floor, the wall, the door, or whatever was available—until she collapsed into a puddle of tears. Only then would Isabel allow Debbie (and ONLY Debbie) to approach and offer comfort. These outbursts seemed to come out of nowhere. If Debbie attempted to distract Isabel, she would push her away until the episode ran its course.
Most of the time, Isabel’s father thought the behavior was amusing and ignored it, basically stepped over her and went on with what he was doing. But in public he became angry, both with Isabel for “acting like a wild animal” and with Debbie for “letting her get away with this nonsense.”
The comments from her husband coupled with the staring and whispering of others made Debbie’s shame spiral out of control. Eventually they began limiting their social contact with the outside world, going so far as to schedule their grocery shopping or other common errands during times when Isabel wouldn’t be with them.
Isabel’s daycare staff described similar behavior, noting that there was only one staff member whom Isabel would allow to help soothe her during a fit. Isabel did not like loud noises and would cover her ears and move to an area behind the daycare bookshelves during highly stimulating or otherwise noisy times. Isabel continued to come apart at drop-off time until she started kindergarten and thereafter experienced difficulty transitioning from home to school.
When in-laws joined them for Thanksgiving, Debbie experienced what felt like a full frontal attack on her parenting and worth as a person. Each and every guest had something to say about Isabel’s behavior; what Debbie “should” have done and didn’t up to this point, what they would have done and what she “should be doing now.”
Debbie was left feeling conflicted—pulled between defending and protecting her daughter whom she loved so much and being frustrated with Isabel ruining every family social interaction. Not only that, because of her love-hate relationship with her daughter, Debbie’s fear that she was a “bad mom” only grew. The criticism and unsolicited parenting advice from others made her shame and resentment worsen.
Adolescent and teenage years
During the next few years, Isabel’s emotional dysregulation ebbed and flowed. There were long periods of time that she was able to experience her emotions almost the same way as others her age. By ages 12 to 13, however, it became clear that Isabel experienced her emotions differently than her peers. Events like birthday parties, sleepovers, amusement parks, vacations and holidays became mine fields loaded with imminent danger of explosions.
During a gender reveal party for Isabel’s expectant cousin, she stole cash and pills from several relatives in attendance. After that, the family began to lock their valuables in their trunks anytime Isabel might be around. Isabel denied stealing from her family, accused her brother of being the theif, and said it was the fault of the “stupid” people who left their purses wide open.
Thanksgiving holidays included disasters like:
- Isabel unintentionally started a major family fight about what constitutes animal cruelty and they had to call the police because Isabel was dragging her aunt’s dog out of their home and attempting to put him in her car
- Isabel gave her grandfather the finger in response to his comment that her language was not appropriate for the dinner table. Then she got up, slammed the door and left, returning 30 minutes later, noticeably high and ready to engage as if nothing was wrong
Christmas holidays included disasters like:
- Isabel deliberately broke a treasured family ornament in a fit of rage
- She ran away during a Christmas Eve party and was returned by the police just as guests were leaving
- Family holiday gatherings frequently ended abruptly because Isabel was screaming profanities at Debbie, often accusing her of being abusive and a terrible mother
- Isabel became so enraged she didn’t get any of the gifts she wanted that she locked herself in the bathroom and cut herself to the point of needing stitches
With every passing year, Debbie did more and more to create positive family traditions and engineer happy holiday experiences. After a while, the approach of the holiday season became a combination of hope and dread… mostly dread.
She told me she wished she could be excited about Christmas again, the way she was when the kids were little. Now that Isabel is nearing the age of 19, the last nine seasons have been filled with stress and trauma. It’s at the point that Debbie’s extended family doesn’t want to be around her for fear of destruction. She finds herself torn between these two choices: Feeling bad because Isabel isn’t invited, is probably alone and may be getting into trouble, and having her destroy the day if she is invited. Both suck.
The worst holiday disaster might have been a New Year’s Eve party during the COVID-19 pandemic to which Debbie and her husband had invited several important clients. They had made arrangements for Isabel to be out of the house that night and went to extraordinary lengths to make sure no guest would be at risk of contagion. Around 11:30 that night, Isabel and her friends barged into the party, unmasked, high as kites, and extremely loud. They went straight for the buffet tables which were prepped for midnight serving and helped themselves to everything including the champagne. Debbie’s husband attempted to get them to leave and Debbie begged them to move away from the food and mask up. Isabel went ballistic. She cursed at both parents and told the guests that her father had been sexually abusing her since she was little, that Debbie had given her a black eye on several occasions, and on her way out with the slam of the door: “You’ll see, they are the reason I’m going to kill myself.” Not knowing how to react, Debbie called the police who took statements from the guests while other officers searched for Isabel. To this day no one knows if it was Isabel or her friends who were responsible for slashing the tires on three different cars that night.
Seeking treatment and support
Debbie says it was at this point she said, “THIS. IS. RIDICULOUS.” She was infuriated, mortified, and devastated.
When we began working together in 2020, Debbie said she felt as if she and her husband were trapped in an alternate reality they could not escape. They could not understand how and why their daughter, whom they had loved and supported, and given every advantage to, could be so cruel and lacking in appreciation.
She was hoping I could help them find a way out.
As with many of my clients, Debbie began by telling me they had tried multiple therapists, in-patient stays, intensive and partial hospital treatments, plus a number of different medication providers. Isabel had accumulated a laundry list of diagnoses and tried dozens of medications. IT seemed as if each treatment provider had their own opinion of what was going on.The most common response they had heard was that they “should look into Borderline Personality Disorder. We can’t diagnose it until she is at least over 18 but it would be good for you to familiarize yourself with it.”
The parents noted that for brief periods some of the interventions seemed to help, but those periods were very limited. Isabel had been “dropped” by a number of therapists who said they could not work with her. She had experienced a solid long term relationship with a therapist who let her vent each week and provided tons of validation, but there was no improvement or change in Isabel’s behavior or lessening of her misery.
They were scheduling the free consultation with me in hopes there was some way I would be able to work with Isabel to get her on the right track toward changing her behaviors.
One of the most difficult conversations I have with parents is relaying the message no one ever wants to hear: We can’t do anything to change your child. What we *can* do is work together to change the way you understand and respond to your child in ways that are specific to your unique situation. When parents make a commitment to do that, there is nearly always a shift in the relationship toward the positive.
Fortunately, I am able to follow that with assurance that there is a wealth of support, resources and education I can provide right away. And most importantly, with good coaching for the family members—who often have experienced what is known as complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), and when their person is ready to receive evidence-based treatments such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Trauma Therapy or Mentalization Therapy, recovery is highly likely.
One year later...
I’d like to share with you some of the outcomes Debbie and her husband have experienced over the next year of working with me, as well some of the obstacles that still remain.
As a starting point, Debbie, her husband and I agreed upon two main areas of focus—two things in their life right now that interfered with them having a life worth living. One was something they were unwilling to tolerate any longer and one was something over which they currently had absolutely had no control or power to change (what I call an “unwanted reality”).
Keeping those in mind, I began by giving Debbie and her husband access to all the information I have, both from my extensive training and clinical experience as well as my experience with my own family.
Looking at their unique circumstances through the lens of my knowledge base we were able to figure out the best ways to help the parents approach barriers to having a quality of life while their daughter continued to figure things out for herself. And, most importantly of all, we found ways for them to immediately build positive connections with Isabel, one small connection at a time, whenever possible.
Over the next 10 months, Debbie and her husband gained fluency in what I refer to as the “foreign language of BPD” and in observing the syndrome, or collection of behavior patterns, as Isabel experienced them—not judging her as “bad” but by describing their observations as simple facts.
This allowed them in turn to observe their own behavior patterns developed over years of responding to Isabel’s distress and rather than judging themselves—so important especially for Debbie—as failures as parents, choose to intentionally respond in a more effective way.
Over the months of practicing skillful communication, they saw a decrease in how often things escalated and an improved sense of confidence in how to respond skillfully when Isabel was upset. The couple was able to teach other family members what they were learning was effective and to identify communications that were not helpful when talking with Isabel.
Frequent contact via text and Zoom allowed supportive coaching from me as Debbie in particular practiced identifying her personal limits, articulating them to Isabel, and maintaining them when faced with Isabel’s oppositional defiant behaviors and emotional dysregulation.
She was trapped in a pit of self blame that amplified false beliefs that Isabel needed to be handled with kid gloves and that the disastrous outcomes of not giving her what she wanted made it impossible to do anything but relent, even if it meant sacrificing their own financial, physical and mental health, she felt it was worth it to avoid the risk of Isabel attempting or completing suicide.
After an initial (and expected) increase in unwanted behaviors, Isabel was able to dramatically reduce the number of times she texted her parents over the course of a day, stop asking for things they were unwilling to provide, and stop verbally attacking them in person and over text.
Both parents and child currently experience more opportunities to give each other and themselves the care they need if they are to stay the course in loving their talented and capable daughter into maturity.
There is less contention between them as parents as well. Safety protocols and procedures were implemented to allow Isabel more freedom while easing parents’ distress.
As their confidence grew in the ability to understand Isabel’s behavior in light of her emotional sensitivity and create and maintain reasonable personal limits, they were able to understand principles of behavior change as skills for increasing the likelihood of asking Isabel for something and actually getting it, or saying no to her and being taken seriously. The focus is always on establishing regular positive connection. That work continues in the present as we keep fine tuning their response.
*The names of clients and their family members have been changed to protect their privacy.