What Families Need in Helping Someone with BPD

What Families Need in Helping Someone with BPD

Research shows us that 70% of people with Borderline Personality Disorder drop out of treatment. According to John Gunderson, medical director of the Center for the Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) at McLean Hospital, in Boston, Massachusetts, failure to involve the family as support for the treatment of BPD makes patients’ involvement in therapy superficial and a major reason for premature dropout. Family members or partners consult clinicians for help in coping with someone with BPD because they care, and are frightened, frustrated, and feeling helpless. This is someone they love.

As a clinician, you have an opportunity to guide these families toward reconciliation and repair. Family members spend more time with the person with BPD than anyone else and are in a key position to provide ongoing help and guidance, prevent escalations, and motivate their loved ones to participate in evidence-based treatment. So what do families need in helping someone with borderline personality disorder? Here is a compilation of what families need from clinicians based on hundreds of helpline calls, reports from family skills group participants and from the work of John Gunderson himself…

Accurate information

Knowledge of the biological basis of BPD can help families reframe the behaviour of their loved ones in the light of current science and accept that evidence-based treatment works. Accurate information can dispel the stigma that colours attitudes toward people with BPD.


Understand that the person with BPD is doing the best he can and does not intend to harm others or himself. Discourage viewing the person with BPD as “manipulative,” as the enemy, or as hopeless. Understanding can melt anger and cultivate compassion.


Accept that the person with BPD has a disability and has special needs. Help the family accept their loved one as someone with a chronic illness. They may continue to be financially and emotionally dependent on the family and be vocationally impaired. BPD is a deficit or handicap that can be overcome. Help families to reconcile to the long-term course of BPD and accept that progress will be slow. There are no short-term solutions.


Do not assume that every family is a “dysfunctional family.” Emotions are contagious. Living with someone with BPD can make any family dysfunctional. Family members have been recipients of rages as well as abusive and irrational behaviours. They live in perpetual fear and feel manipulated. They often react by either protecting and rescuing or rejecting and avoiding. Reframe their points of view with compassion. Families are doing the best they can. They need support and acceptance. “Bad parents” are usually uninformed, not malevolent. They did the wrong things for the right reasons (the “allergic to milk syndrome”). Anyone can have a disturbed child. Keep reminding the family of the neurobiological dysregulations of BPD, and of the pain their loved one is coping with each day.

Collaboration for change

Accept that families can help, can learn effective skills and become therapeutic partners. They can reinforce treatment. The IQ of a family member is not reduced if a loved one has BPD. Do not patronize family members. Family members are generally well-educated, intelligent people who are highly motivated to help. Respect their commitment. When you provide them with effective skills to help their loved one, they can become therapeutic parent or partners. You can help them.

Stay in the present

Do not focus on past painful experiences when the person with BPD cannot cope with aversive feelings and has no distress tolerance skills. Avoid shame-inducing memories. If you induce arousal and the patient cannot cope with the arousal, therapy becomes unacceptable, giving her additional pressure and stress and undermining cognitive control. This is a surefire way to get her to drop out of therapy.

Be non-judgmental

Respect that families are doing the best they can in the moment, without any understanding of the underlying disorders or the ability to translate their loved one’s behaviours. Although they may have done the wrong thing in the past, it was probably for the right reasons. Their intention was not to hurt their loved ones.

Teach awareness of nonverbal communication

Teach them limbic language so they can learn to speak to the amygdala and to communicate emotionally through validation. Teach families to be aware of body language, voice tones, gestures, and facial expressions. Especially avoid neutral faces. Teach effective coping skills based on cognitive behaviour therapy, DBT, and mentalization.

Corroborate allegations.

Try not to assume the worst, and corroborate allegations. Remember that your perception of an event or experience may be different from what actually happened.

Remember, families have rights

When families are paying for therapy, they have rights, beyond confidentiality regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This reality must be acknowledged. Excluding parents completely jeopardizes the feasibility of the continuation of therapy. They need to help decide if investment in therapy is worthwhile and have a right to know about attendance, motivation, and benefits from therapy. What is confidential in therapy is what is talked about. Let them know about the therapy, prognosis, and course of the illness.

Avoid boundaries, limits, contracts, and tough love

These methods are not effective with people with BPD. Be sure that families under- stand that boundaries are generally viewed as punishment by the person with BPD. Be sure they understand how to change behavior by explaining reinforcement, punishment, shaping, and extinction so that they do not reinforce maladaptive behaviours.

Discourage “we”

Encourage family members to nurture individual relationships with the person with BPD, not the united front of “we.” Although both parents can have the same goals for their loved one, they must express these goals in their own style, in one-on-one relationships. Focus on developing individual relationships and trust, not solving individual problems. This will discourage “splitting.”

Encourage family involvement

When a person with BPD resists family involvement, this should not be automatically accepted. Resistance is symptomatic of the person with BPD devaluing his loved ones. If you participate in devaluing the family, difficulties are intensified when treatment comes to an end, especially when the person is financially dependent on his family. Remember that the family loves this person and will be there for him when you are no longer involved.

This post is not just here for the therapists and counsellors reading it, it is for those of us with BPD as well, to acknowledge how hard it can be for them and for the families of those of us with BPD. If you have any thoughts about this post do let us know in the comments below as we always appreciate the feedback.


This post was written by Therese J. Borchard

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