A team of Spanish and American researchers has concluded that childhood attachment- and trauma-related issues form a substantial portion of the risk for developing borderline personality disorder. People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) commonly have significant problems maintaining stable relationships and/or maintaining effective control over shifts in mood. In a study review published in late 2014 in the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation, researchers sought to determine if these problems have their origin, at least in part, in parent-child attachment difficulties that occur early in life, as well as in childhood exposure to emotional trauma and instances of child neglect.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Relationship volatility is one of the most prominent symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Individuals affected by the illness often shift relatively rapidly between benign feelings toward others and hostile feelings toward others. Underlying this shift is an idealized notion of personal and intimate relationships that can contribute to outsized feelings of disappointment. Mood volatility in a person with BPD may become especially extreme if he or she feels abandoned by others, whether or not abandonment actually occurs. Additionally, lack of a realistic or consistent self-image can also contribute to rapid or unexpected BPD-related changes in mood or lifestyle. Borderline personality disorder is one of 10 personality disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Doctors don’t officially diagnose these conditions in anyone under the age of 18 (largely because younger people normally go through substantial personality changes as they grow older), but their symptoms often first appear in adolescence or even earlier in life. Roughly 1.6 percent of all American adults meet the criteria for a BPD diagnosis, the National Institute of Mental Health reports. According to these criteria, affected individuals must have a minimum of five out of nine possible symptoms of the disorder.
Early Life Attachment Problems
Ideally, parents form bonds with their children that promote an ongoing sense of well-being as those children grow older. These bonds are especially important in the earliest stages of childhood when children mostly or completely lack the ability to care for themselves or to determine their surroundings. Even in infancy, children who don’t develop strong attachments with their parents can exhibit notable changes in behavior that indicate such things as insecurity, avoidance or a lack of trust. Attachment issues in childhood may be created or worsened by exposure to highly traumatic experiences that pose a serious threat to life or any sense of well-being. Such issues may also stem, at least in part, from less overtly obvious problems such as child neglect, an act defined as the failure to provide the environment necessary to nurture a child’s ongoing welfare.
Link to BPD
In the study review published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation, researchers from the Sonoma Psychotherapy Training Institute and Spain’s University of A Coruna and Institute for the Treatment of Trauma and Personality Disorders analyzed the results of a range of previous studies that explored the potential underlying causes of borderline personality disorder. Some of these studies focused on issues associated with problematic parent-child attachment in early life, while others focused on issues associated with the mental/emotional detachment or dissociation that can occur in the aftermath of highly traumatic experiences. In addition, some of the reviewed studies focused on issues associated with child neglect. After completing their review, the researchers concluded that the disrupted formation of natural parent-child bonds in early life is a significant contributor to the odds that any given person will ultimately develop a diagnosable case of borderline personality disorder. They also concluded that personality dissociation or detachment in the aftermath of exposure to highly traumatic events helps explain the existence of problems with parent-child attachment. In addition to helping set the stage for the development of BPD, a dissociated or detached personality can continue to contribute to the ongoing presence of the disorder’s symptoms. The review’s authors note that several additional factors help determine the likelihood of the onset of borderline personality disorder. These factors include the genetic inheritance of BPD-related traits and trauma exposure that does not result in alteration of the normal course of parent-child bonding. The authors also note that the existence of numerous types of attachment-related difficulty between parents and their children may help explain the diversity of the symptoms found in people with borderline personality disorder.