How would you know if you were the only sane person in an insaneylum? Now imagine yourself as a child with no prior knowledge of what is sane or normal. How would a child know if they were a sane person in a family with disturbed parents?
A significant part of the trauma of growing up in an abusive environment is that children do not understand what is happening to them or why. They understand that life feels unfair, but they do not understand why things are so terribly wrong. And because children rely on their parents for understanding and survival, it is far more terrifying to think that the adults around them are unsafe or evil than to think that they must be bad or evil themselves.
That said, there is a significant difference between parents who are sometimes moody, depressed, anxious or inattentive from parents who have enduring emotional problems and a history of behavioral and relationship difficulties. The former are well intentioned but challenged parents who may even have a mild mood disorder, the latter are adults with Axis II Personality Disorders. Axis II or Cluster B Personality Disorders include Borderline PD, Narcissistic PD, Antisocial PD, and Histrionic PD
"Personality Disorders are present in 10 to 15 percent of the adult population, with Cluster B accounting for approximately 9 percent based on research." (Counseling Resource, Mental Health Library, pg.1). So we are not talking about some minute substrata of the adult population; several million families could be affected. And yet, there is no common denominator that defines a family with a parent who has a Personality Disorder. If there was, we might be able to help children who grow up in this kind of environment. The reality is that the child does not understand what is happening, and while the outside world may recognize that one or both of the parents are emotionally unstable, there is no legal way to make the leap that a child in the house is being emotionally abused and is unsafe, and then help them.
About the only thing we can do as clinicians or concerned citizens is familiarize ourselves and others with what Cluster B Personality Disorders look like and how they can negatively affect children. Then if we suspect that abuse is happening, we can try and alert other family members, school personnel or anyone who might have some influence to go in and help — through empathy and education — so that the family become more self-aware.
The most serious of the Cluster B Personality Disorders is Borderline Personality Disorder. In the case of a parent (more likely mom than dad) with this disorder, there is persistent instability in their relationships with just about everyone as well as persistent impulsive behavior, addictive behavior, and self-harming behavior. Borderlines have no personal boundaries so they do not respect other peoples' boundaries. Children of Borderlines are always at risk because they are both neglected and overwhelmed by their parents' behavior. They may be verbally, physically or sexually assaulted — either by the parent, or by the types of people that the parent poses them to. There is no consistency, no sound role modeling, very little if any nurturing, and they are in a constant state of high alert, because they never know what will happen next. So These kids grow up with low self-esteem, lots of internalized trauma, and repressed anger that affects their ability to function effectively in the world.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be most common of the Cluster B group — and in some ways the hardest to identify and therefore help the child. Narcissists are clever. They are great manipulators. They can turn on the charm when they need or want to. But there is always a self-serving goal. They are like the plant in "The Little Shop of Horrors" — their egos need to be fed constantly. Their children are either viewed as an extension of themselves or a punching bag for their own unrecognized violations and self-loathing. Narcissists are bullies. It's their way way or the highway. They have no empathy for anyone — including their children. In fact, they have been called "emotional vampires", because they use up everyone around them. Their vanity is boundless.
While narcissistic parents can maintain long-term relationships, they usually pair up with enabling partners. So the child has no one to turn to. And the child is made to believe that they are the problem; they are selfish, bad children because they do not appreciate and take care of their narcissistic parent adequately. Again, these are the hardest type of family situations to recognize and intercede. But it is very helpful to the child to know that there are people outside of the home who recognize their reality. That alone, may present a window of clarity to a bewildered child, and therefore hope.
Histrionic Personality Disorder is less pervasive than Narcissistic but shares many behavioral patterns. Like the narcissist, the histrionic personality seeks constant admiration, has no empathy for others and is consumed with entitlement, envy, and jealousy. What is specific to the Histrionic is a pervasive pattern of attention seeking, excessive emotional liability coupled with lots of drama. Their feelings are shallow, their behavior seductive and extremely manipulative. Their children, like everyone else in their world, are there to serve, comfort and fulfill them. And they vacillate between engulfing their children and neglecting them. Either way, the child's needs are not considered. Because they feel used and unseen, the emotional toll of being raised by a Narcissist or Histrionic can leave these children with intimate issues, anger, anxiety and lack of trust.
While Antisocial Personality Disorder is more obvious and identifiable to the outside world, it does not make it any easier to help the child of such a parent. These parents are usually irresponsible and have a total disregard for the rights of others. Their behavior can fall into criminal patterns because they tend to ignore the rules of society. And they show no remorse for their behavior. So they do not only mistreat their children, they mistreat everyone. Sometimes the intensity of their behavior leads to the loss of parental rights. That can actually be the child's salvation. Because a child brought up in that type of environment is not only scarred by the mistreatment they receive, they are not given any proper tools to navigate society later, so the only hope for them to learn right from wrong and also healthier ways to interact, is to be taken away at a young enough age and put into a more caring environment.
We may not yet have the laws and social structures in place to help the children of parents with Personality Disorders, but we can become more vigilant and responsible. It is our business to help those who can not help themselves. It is not a private matter. It is a social responsibility.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT