Understanding Personality Disorders


As a parent, when your child is in pain or sick, you want nothing more than a fast recovery.  It gets even more worrisome when they get worse and you have to seek outside help to find out exactly what is going on.  Then there is relief when you finally know what they need and the steps it will take for them to be well.  I think about this often as parents talk about why they are bringing their daughter to a Residential Treatment Center.  They share their stories of cutting, suicide attempts, emotional ups and downs, and sexually acting out; intertwined with loving interactions, fearlessness, social involvement and other positive behaviors.  Their faces are a mix of fear, pain, love and confusion.  These are the faces of a daughter being diagnosed with a personality disorder.  Like other illnesses a personality disorder is met with a mixed reaction.  On one hand, you might be relieved knowing something is driving these behaviors and on the other hand, feelings of hopelessness wondering if things will be better.  As I look into their eyes I am able to instill hope; a hope that their daughter and their family can have a future.

Most girls diagnosed with a personality disorder thrive in relationships.  Their challenge is how to manage those relationships in effective ways.  They often feel loved and cared about in intense ways; getting attention through the behaviors that brought them to residential treatment.  Behaviors like cutting, suicide attempts and sexual promiscuity often invite people to be close to them in intense ways.  In turn, young women often feel close and/or cared about as those around them respond to the crisis or sexual behavior.  This does not mean that all negative behavior is intended to get attention.  Often these behaviors begin as a way to deal with traumatic or difficult experiences.  As they find relief through acting out, the negative behavior is reinforced and they continue to seek out love and validation through these same behaviors.  At some point the risk is too high and parents need to seek out ways to ultimately keep their daughters safe.  A parents love is not enough and it is replaced by fear.

Fear can be replaced by hope.  As the girls and parents understand the personality disorder they are able to make changes in the way they interact.  Girls learn to manage their emotions in more healthy ways.  As they receive help to overcome past traumatic situations and develop new, trusting relationships they begin to find safety and peace.  Parents learn how to validate the difficult emotions their daughters feel and find ways to hold the boundaries in their relationships that also invite the safety these girls so desperately desire.

The knowledge of a personality diagnosis can be debilitating or liberating.  It takes time to understand what the family needs to do in order to heal.  This may take time but there is hope.  Finding that hope requires a loving and caring family, focused on understanding and healing.  It is something that is difficult to face alone.  There is hope.


By, Matt Bartlett M.Ed., LMFT