Borderline personality disorder, also known as BPD, is a mental illness categorized as a mood disorder. Someone with BPD typically has unstable moods, difficulty with relationships and erratic behaviors. If you think these characteristics of the disorder sound like your average teenager, you aren’t wrong, and this is a big problem when it comes to diagnosing troubled adolescents. Many teens display worrying signs of BPD, but doctors are often hesitant to make a diagnosis. It can be hard to distinguish between the disorder and the ups and downs of adolescence. The result is that some teens are labeled as having borderline personality traits. What does this mean for teens and their parents?
What Is Borderline Personality Disorder?
The borderline term was first used to describe patients who were on the border between neurotic and psychotic behaviors and emotions. A person with BPD finds it difficult to regulate thoughts and feelings. She tends to be impulsive and may engage in reckless behaviors. Her relationships with others are usually unstable. Symptoms of BPD include tempestuous relationships, extreme reactions, distorted self-image, impulsivity, suicidal behaviors, severe mood swings, intense anger and feelings of being dissociated.
Teens and BPD
While BPD has been a recognized diagnosis for over 30 years and research on the disorder in adults is extensive, studies focusing on adolescents or children with the disorder are rare. Especially in teens, the symptoms of BPD overlap with the normal moodiness, angst and recklessness that many adolescents go through. BPD in teens often goes undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. Experts also find that BPD is often misdiagnosed in both teens and adults as either bipolar disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.
Borderline Personality Traits
Although the difficulty in diagnosing BPD in teens has meant that too many may go undiagnosed, some experts think that such a diagnosis is not even possible for adolescent patients. The behaviors and moods of teenagers are changeable and may pass with growth. In other teens, though, the mood swings and other symptoms are true signs of BPD or another disorder. To get teens the help and support they need, while allowing for the fact that they may grow out of the symptoms, many doctors will give the diagnosis of borderline personality traits, rather than BPD. The traits include:
- Self-injury such as cutting
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Overreactions to events
- Extreme sensitivity
- Strong need to be affirmed by others
- Mood swings
- Reckless behaviors
- Misperceptions, like thinking everyone hates me
- Trouble regulating emotions or needing help to calm down
Some of the traits described here are common in teens and alone don’t indicate BPD or borderline personality traits. For instance, you might have a teenager who (from an adult’s perspective) overreacts to being dumped by a boy she was seeing for two weeks. This is not necessarily a problem, but may just be a normal reaction for a teen. It’s when a teen displays several of these traits, or when they are extreme and begin to interfere with daily life, that you should be concerned. If you do have a teen who has you worried, seek a professional opinion. Even if your doctor agrees that your teen may have BPD, a diagnosis of having borderline personality traits can lessen the stigma attached with a mental illness diagnosis. It may be that your teen will grow out of this phase, but if not, she will still have access to treatment for BPD with this diagnosis. The important thing is that you do get help, because untreated BPD can lead to devastating consequences.