Pamela holds a Bachelor's of Arts in Sociology and Psychology and Master's in Public Health. She was raised by a mother with BPD.
Mothers With Personality Disorders
Personality disorders typically begin in adolescence or early adulthood. Signs and symptoms of personality disorders persist throughout much of adulthood, including the childbearing years. For young children, this means the maladaptive interpersonal patterns present in mothers with personality disorders influence their early childhood development. When a mother with a personality disorder has a child, the symptoms of that disorder put the mother at risk for not being emotionally or behaviorally stable; thus, these women are unable to provide predictable interactions with their young children.
This article will address the scientific evidence available on how personality disorders, specifically narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD), influence a young child's development. Research specific to mothers with NPD is scarce, particularly for young children. For this reason, research that includes mothers with either NPD or BPD has been included in this article.
What Are the Characteristics of Mothers With NPD?
Characteristics of narcissistic mothers include the following:
- an inflated sense of self-importance
- a grandiose view of themselves
- a lack of empathy
If anything goes wrong, the mother is quick to blame others rather than accept she has contributed in some way to the drama and difficulties in her life. Because a narcissistic mother has little genuine interest in others, her relationships tend to be superficial, including her relationships with her children.
Due to these characteristics, narcissistic mothers are usually completely unaware of their children's developmental needs. These mothers have little insight into their mental illness and thus have no awareness of how their behaviors affect the development, psychological, and emotional needs of their children. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.
What the Science Says About NPD and BPD Mothers With Young Children
Early childhood ranges from 3 to 7 years old. The early years are some of the most important developmental years in a child's life. It is during this time that young children form attachments to parents and other caregivers. Secure attachments are important both during the early years, when a child is an infant and a toddler, and for long-term, adult behaviors.
- Research with children ages 3 to 6 years old has suggested that parents with symptoms of personality disorders participate in more negative parenting behaviors. Moreover, these parents display an increase in dysfunctional interactions between themselves and their children. This was true for even mild personality disorder symptoms.
- Another study examined mothers who were diagnosed with BPD and compared them to mothers who were not diagnosed with BPD. All mothers had children ranging in age from 4 to 7 years old. In this study, mothers with BPD were more likely to be hostile and display fearful and disoriented behaviors. Mothers with BPD were also more likely to engage in parent-child role reversal, where the child ends up parenting the mother. Furthermore, mothers with BPD were less sensitive and provided support for autonomy.
- Maltreatment was examined in children, ages 4–7, who did and did not have BPD. BPD was associated with various types of maltreatment. The children who had mothers with BPD were more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse and neglect. Several traits of mothers with BPD were examined and associated with different types of maltreatment. For example, affective instability, identity disturbance, negative relationships, and self-harm were associated with child neglect. Another set of traits, including identity disturbance and negative relationships, were associated with sexual abuse. Finally, if a mother with BPD self-harmed, that was associated with physical abuse. When the children described their experiences with their mother, they talked about fear of abandonment and role reversal.
- In children ages 3 and 4, one group of researchers showed that those who had mothers with BPD traits had poorer executive functioning skills.
- One study examined teacher-reported differences in preschoolers who did and did not have a mother diagnosed with BPD. In preschoolers who had mothers with BPD, teachers reported higher rates of emotional reactivity, withdrawn behaviors, and internalizing problems. Additionally, these same preschoolers had more symptoms associated with other psychiatric disorders: affective disorders, anxiety disorders, pervasive developmental disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
What Can You Do?
Some of you reading this article may find that you share a child with a woman who has narcissistic traits, and you probably wonder if there are resources out there for you. I have spent countless hours searching for books written for children to help them understand why their mom might act different from other mothers. To date, I have found no such book that I would personally recommend. Instead, I recommend to you, the parent, the Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid Workbook, a book based on scientific evidence.
Children of narcissistic mothers will experience trauma throughout their life that must be addressed. I recommend this book because it helps you teach your children mindfulness techniques they can use when difficult situations arise with their mother. You cannot change the mother, but you can help a child become more resilient and more able to cope with the behaviors of their mother.
Looking for Additional Information?
The early childhood period is not the only stage of development that is influenced by mothers with personality disorders. In fact, even in infancy, children are affected by the ways mothers with borderline personality interact with their babies. To find out more about how infants are affected by mothers with borderline personality disorder, go to this article about infant development.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Tyler on January 12, 2020:
Thank you, Pamela, for this wonderful article. As a child of a narcissistic mother, I can relate to so much this. My mother chooses to have hardly anything to do with my life – which is perhaps a blessing. I’ve given up trying to please my her and to not make her feel ashamed or embarrassed by me. I know that I don’t do as well as I could in life because I don’t want her to be jealous of me. All the positive affirmations and mantras I see on social media and in books just don’t sink in – it’s as if I’m blocked from being happy and successful or being seen as any better than her. I don’t want to be unhappy and miserable like she is, yet she causes it! It’s made me have problems with my self-esteem and friendships, as I end up finding people who boss me around or just want to use me. I feel sad and pathetic. People tell me to just put things in the past, and that my mommy is playing me for a fool. I want her approval, and to feel that she cares and is interested in me. I want her to make me feel safe and secure, to be kind to me and accept me without those disapproving looks and guilt trips whenever I make a mistake. Anyways, this was a really great read, and I hope it'll help me be a better mother than my own.