The Transgenerational Trauma of Personality Disorders

Jenna NoblePersonality Disorders

Thankfully I did not grow up with an alcoholic parent.  But I do remember sneaking up the stairs at night when visiting my grandparents to see my grandfather sipping his nightly whiskey.  He was a horribly abusive man. I remember as a little girl knowing not to engage him as he sipped his drink. 

However, the shock wave of his abuse and alcoholism did transmit throughout the next generation and the one to follow.  Transgenerational trauma is very real and ingrained into my family lineage. 

I did not grow up with an alcoholic parent, but I did grow up with many of my closest friends dodging an angry, drunk parent on an all-too-often occasion.  I watched the dynamic of their families.  The alcoholic parent was like the sun – hot, unpredictable, and at times, hostile. The rest of the family was the earth, orbiting the sun’s existence and keeping a safe distance so as not to become scorched, but close enough so as to not freeze out their parent’s love because, like we keep reassuring rejected parents, children will always have a natural desire to be loved by their parent regardless of that parent’s shortcomings (either real or perceived). 

This experience had me thinking about the family dynamic that involves a personality disordered parent.  We work with families that are struggling to maintain a relationship with their children due to the actions and behavior of a disordered parent.  We also work with families that are trying to navigate a co-parenting dynamic with their alcoholic ex.  The dynamic and behaviors are much the same.  In both instances, it is a family affair…and a trauma that passes from one generation to the next.  

If you grew up with an alcoholic parent or you were married to an alcoholic, you know that their needs come first.  The family is centered around the alcoholic individual and the children learn very quickly that their needs come second, if they are lucky.  They learn to tip-toe around the moods of the alcoholic parent.  The impact that comes from an individual in a family unit with alcohol abuse issues is significant.  We understand as a society, that it effects the whole family and have groups such as Al-Anon to help those that love someone battling with alcoholism to find support from others that understand and teach them skills to navigate the relationship.   

Loving someone, or being in a family with someone, that has a personality disorder is very much the same.  The personality disordered individual is the sun, and everyone else in the family is the earth.  Their needs are first, and the rest of the family must placate to their moods, threats, violent outbursts and rapidly changing emotions and behavior.  The children quickly learn that the needs of their parent come first.  The children’s needs are secondary.  Unlike the scenario with the alcoholic, society does not yet fully understand this.  There are no well known “Al-Anon” type groups for parents and their children to receive support and learn skills to manage the turmoil that a personality disordered individual brings into the family dynamic.

The family can see the bottle in the hand of the alcoholic, but often they cannot see the personality disorder, or disordered traits of, the individual because they very often go undiagnosed.  Personality Disorders are a family systems problem that society has not yet caught up to.  And both issues from personality disorders and alcoholism are creating a shock wave of trauma throughout the generations that follow.  This leads to the children of these families growing up to become the sun in their own family, or to marry the sun while they remain the earth in their story.   

How to Stop Intergenerational Trauma

So, what can one do when they suspect they are dealing with a partner or co-parent that displays traits of a personality disorder and it is negatively impacting their family unit?

  1. Seek therapy for yourself and your children
  2. Find a support group
  3. Educate yourself
  4. Work with a coach
  5. Take an online course

Seek therapy for yourself and your children

Find a therapist that is well-versed in family systems and personality disorders.  Living with someone who has a personality disorder, or traits of a disorder, is very taxing and can lead to cPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder).  In order to effectively navigate the turbulent waters you find yourself in, you must take care of your own mental health and maintain, or regain, enough mental stability to implement tools and skills.

Find a support group

Support groups can often be hard to come by, unfortunately.  Try asking your therapist for recommendations as they may know of online groups; or you, yourself, can reach out to your local mental health services office to ask for direction.

With social media today, you can often find online groups, but be forewarned that nothing you post on the internet is private, even if the group is marked as being private. Also keep in mind that many of these groups do not provide solutions, but rather they keep people stuck in their trauma.  If you are interested in finding one of these groups, be sure to sit back and watch the interactions before participating so that you can choose one you feel supports your needs. 

Educate yourself

There are many great books that are for individuals navigating relationships with a personality disordered individual.  To name a few:

  • Stop walking on Eggshells” by Paul Mason & Randi Kreger
  • Loving the Self-Absorbed: How to Create a More Satisfying Relationship with a Narcissistic Partner” by Nina W Brown
  • “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist” by Bill Eddy
  • “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner” by Julie A. Fast & John D. Preston
  • Why Is It Always About You? Saving Yourself from the Narcissists in Your Life” by Sandi Hotchkiss
  • “Love and Loathing: Protecting Your Mental Health and Legal Rights When Your Partner has Borderline Personality Disorder” by Randi Kreger
  • “I Hate You – Don’t Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality” by Hal Straus & Jerold J. Kreisman
  • “Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship” by Christine Ann Lawson

Work with a coach

Working with a coach that is well-versed in high-conflict issues and personality disorders can be instrumental in navigating the terrain.  Your coach will help stabilize you and teach you tools and skills to manage the conflict, communicate effectively, regulate your own emotions during intense behavior disruptions and, most importantly, teach you how to teach these skills to your children so that they can navigate the relationship with their other parent. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Coaching and how it can benefit you, schedule your FREE strategy call today!

Take an online course

Much like working with a coach, online courses that teach the skills needed to navigate a relationship with a high-conflict or personality disordered individual are instrumental.  Living in a digital world certainly has its advantages, one being access at your finger tips to the best resources in the world at any time from anywhere.  One such online course that we offer at Pathways Family Coaching is “Pathways Through Conflict”.  This program includes skills such as how to regulate emotional stress, family resiliency, effective conflict resolution, how to parent with awareness and much more. 

Click HERE to learn more about our “Pathways Through Conflict” online course.

Remember, any relationship can be managed and navigated with the correct skills, implementation of those skills, knowledge and support.  Your family will thank you for the work you choose to do today. The trials we find ourselves in may not be our fault, but the solution is always our responsibility. 

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