Talking to Kids about Personality Disorders

How to talk to your children about the personality-disordered behaviors of other adults in the family.

Why talk to children about Personality Disorders?

Dealing with a personality disordered individual is difficult enough for an adult. For a child, who has little control over the situation, and lacks the emotional maturity to understand the behavior of an adult with a personality disorder, this can be a confusing, hurtful, and emotionally damaging experience.

Children are completely dependent on the adults in their lives to ensure their personal safety and well-being.  Whenever children are exposed to someone with a personality disorder, be it a parent, grandparent, sibling, teacher, coach etc., they are extremely vulnerable.

When a child experiences sustained exposure to dysfunctional behavior or abuse, this can result in Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder , a psychological injury that develops from prolonged exposure to social or interpersonal trauma and dis empowerment from which there is no escape. 

Therefore we, as non-PD adults have both a moral and ethical obligation to always put children first. Putting children first involves safeguarding them from both emotional and physical abuse, both of which can be equally devastating.

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Author Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse defined certain roles that are common in dysfunctional families including:

  1. The Golden Child – This is the child in the family who can do no wrong and is pressured (overtly or covertly) to be successful to maintain or add to the positive image of the family.
  2. The Scapegoat – This child is the “black sheep” of the family and is regularly targeted or blamed for the faults in the family. No matter what they do they are never good enough.
  3. The Lost Child – This child is ignored and left to fend for him/herself so that s/he and does not take up any of the family’s energy or resources.
  4. The Mascot- The role of this child is to be funny or cute and distract the family from its pain.  

In dysfunctional families children are not allowed to be their authentic selves because it takes time and emotional energy away from the problems and issues the family is trying to deal with (e.g., a PD person).

However, by creating an atmosphere of openness, respect and safety children will feel more inclined to be who they are and less inclined to adopt any of the above roles to compensate for the family’s dysfunction.

What it feels like

In terms of emotional well-being, children are vulnerable to PD behavior and when left to figure things out for themselves, they can come to believe that the behavior is something they caused, perhaps even deserve, because they are somehow not good enough or different than other children or their siblings.

Further, because children are so dependent on adults, they often feel they have no choice but to accept the PD behavior. Thus, if we never talk to children about what is going on, we are potentially leaving them unprotected and vulnerable to abuse.

It is critical, then, to children’s emotional development and well-being, that non-PD adults do step in and educate, support and protect them.

Learning to Cope

First and foremost, children need to understand that what they are experiencing with the PD person is something they can talk about with you.  Listen to what they have to say and let them know that you believe them.  

Be careful not to call the PD person names such as “bad", "crazy", or "nuts”. If it seems appropriate and they are old enough to understand, then you can tell them that that the PD adult has trouble controlling their emotions. Explain that it is “not OK” and that it is not due to anything the child has done or not done even if the child feels that they have behaved badly or have been told they are doing something wrong.  This can greatly reduce feelings of confusion, guilt and self-blame in children, release them from responsibility, and reduce the chance that they will feel alienated from the PD person. 

This is especially important with a PD parent (see Parental Alienation Syndrome). Although it may feel like it is difficult if not impossible to educate children without alienating them, it can be done with the use of some of the suggestions outlined below in the "What to Do” section.

While children need to understand that the PD person is not “bad,” it is also important for them to know that an adult who has trouble controlling their emotions or reactions  explains but does not excuse PD behaviors and they do not have to accept whatever comes their way.  

Adopting an attitude of openness rather than not talking about “the elephant in the room,” invites children to express their feelings about confusing or hurtful behavior and to have those feelings validated. Moreover, it fosters the development of healthy boundaries, and decreases the chance that children will end up adopting unhealthy roles in the family.

In terms of protecting children from physical harm, it goes without saying that non-PD adults must always put children first. If, as a non-PD, you believe someone in your children’s life may be dangerous, you need to explain this to them. It may be difficult when the person is the children’s parent, but safety must come first. It also ensures that children know that they will be protected and cared for by the non-PD adult(s) in their lives. 

Being Age-Appropriate

What is appropriate to say to children depends on their age. Here are some guidelines:

Age 0-5

It is not appropriate to talk about personality disorders to a child of this age. Infants and Toddlers need to be told they are loved by all adults close to them and physically removed from any dangerous situations. Avoid expressing any kind of conflict in the presence of a young child. Don't talk about it or argue with anyone while the child is in the house - even in a separate room. Keep your focus on the child and their needs. Model for them an environment which is safe and predictable and a love which is fun, optimistic, and dependable. Take an interest in what they are interested in. Keep the drama as far away from infants and toddlers as you can.

Age 5-10

Children in these ages often have an acute sense of fairness and what is right and wrong. They often relate to all adults as figures of authority. Therefore it may be appropriate to discuss any dysfunctional behavior they witness in terms of "mommy made a mistake", "daddy should not have said that" or simply stating "I know at Dad/Mom/Grandma's house the rules are different but at our house the rules are..." Discussion about whether a parent or close relative suffers from a serious mental condition such as a personality disorder may be confusing, frightening and counter productive at this age. Keep the discussion on the level that the child is at. Address behaviors rather than personality. Reassure the child that they are loved and that their needs are important. Above all, keep your own word with the child to demonstrate to them that what real love and commitment is about.

Age 10-15

During this time, children begin to form their own opinions about the people around them. Their primary focus will begin to shift away from home towards their peers and they will begin to express independent opinions about the choices made by the adults at home. This will give you glimpses of what they are thinking. This independence will often lead to increased levels of conflict between the child and any personality-disordered individuals at home. During this time it is important to validate the child's concerns and feelings and show that you are taking them seriously, while working to maintain a level of objectivity when it comes to discussing others in the family. In general you should let the child do most of the talking. Avoid the temptation to add PD war stories of your own. Let the focus stay with the child and their concerns. Focus on what works rather than what should be. Help the child figure out strategies for coping that will help them navigate in an imperfect environment. Avoid using jargon about personality disorders. Keep the discussion on the level of the child's experiences.

Age 15-20

As children mature into adults, they will make many mistakes of their own, while at the same time making judgments about the mistakes of others around them. Their primary focus continues to move away from family and towards their own independent future. However, they will continue seek to understand the contradictions they have experienced in dealing with personality-disordered family members. This is a time to encourage discovery and independence in your young adult. The focus should be on them making good decisions for themselves and reaching their own conclusions in their own time frame. You can occasionally introduce a concept or idea about personality disorders but if you do, you should use little jargon and focus instead on validating and encouraging any productive self-discovery and development pursued by the young adult.

What to Do

  • Be flexible in your approach depending on the age and temperament of the children.
  • Keep your explanations as neutral as possible – you do not want to alienate the child from the PD person
  • Explain but do not excuse the behavior. For example, “When your father does such and such, it is absolutely not okay. He needs to work on that just like everyone has something they need to work on.  We are all human and humans make mistakes.”
  • Show compassion for the person with the PD while at the same time not excusing their behavior.
  • Reassure children that you are not angry with them for expressing how they feel. Asking validating questions can help them voice their concerns or fears and let them talk these through.
  • Be the solid adult in the children’s life who provides a consistent, safe and loving environment with healthy boundaries and expectations
  • If you are in a position to do so, ask a family counselor for guidance in how to talk to your children about this in an age appropriate manner
  • If you are in a family court situation with a PD parent and want to avoid accusations of PAS, consider having a family counselor explain to your children in an age appropriate and compassionate manner about personality disorders and why the PD person they care about behaves as they do.
  • If the PD adult is a teacher or coach or another student then working with a school guidance counselor and the school administration to be an advocate for your child is important.

What NOT to do

  • When the PD person is a parent, it is important that you do not alienate the child. Don’t verbally berate the personality disordered adult in front of them.
  • Do not tell a child that an adult is ill or mentally ill unless the diagnosis has been discussed with them. (See Amateur Diagnosis)
  • Don’t try to discourage a child’s love for their parent or grandparent. Separate your own feelings from your child’s feelings and allow them to make up their own mind about what they think.
  • Don’t lie to your children. Be honest with them if they ask a question - but don’t take it as a license to say more than you really need to. For example, if your child asks you, “did mommy do something wrong?” you can say, “I think mommy made a mistake.” And leave it at that.