Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder in Teens

The difference between typical teen behaviors and emerging personality disorders can be hard to recognize. How can you tell which is which?

September 10, 2023

Being a teenager is difficult. Teens go through many changes, including social and educational changes and hormonal mood swings.

Sometimes teens act without thinking if they will get into trouble, with out-of-character actions, thoughts, and feelings all being part of the typical teen experience.

Other times, emotions may overpower a teenager, maybe even control their actions. Some young people may also spend a lot of time being overly worried about social situations.

It’s important to be able to tell the difference between “typical” teen moodiness and signs of a mental health condition, such as BPD. Below you can learn more about the condition to understand what typical teen behavior may be—and what may be a sign that help is needed.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • The truth about the onset of borderline personality disorder in kids and teens
  • How emerging BPD affects adolescents
  • How to effectively manage and treat BPD symptoms in young people

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a complex mental health condition in which people often struggle with self-image, mood swings, impulse control, an intense fear of abandonment, and low feelings of self-worth.

BPD may cause people to have a difficult time controlling their emotional reactions to certain situations. It’s not unusual for people with BPD to live with other mental health conditions, such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder.

Borderline personality disorder is more common than many people realize, affecting an estimated 1.6% of U.S. adults. This number may be higher, however, because many people with BPD are misdiagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or depression.

Because the disorder is common—and complex—it’s important to recognize its signs and symptoms. The sooner BPD is diagnosed, the faster it can be treated.

Watch Now!

Dr. Lois Choi-Kain helps us understand the basics of borderline personality disorder

What Does Emerging BPD Look Like in Teens?

Like with any mental health diagnosis, what’s within a normal range for that person’s age, culture, and so, is taken into consideration. When mental health professionals consider a BPD diagnosis, they look for the following key symptoms:

  • An intense fear of abandonment
  • Unstable relationships with family members and friends
  • An unclear or constantly shifting self-image
  • Impulsive or self-destructive behaviors
  • A pattern of self-harm
  • Extreme emotional swings, particularly in response to seemingly minor issues
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness or loneliness
  • Explosive periods of anger
  • A feeling of being out of touch with reality

The following are significant symptoms that may indicate borderline personality disorder in a child or teenager.

Behavioral Dysregulation

This is one of the first signs people may notice, with some teens engaging in self-harming behavior. They may cut themselves, burn their skin, or punch a wall. Plenty of other issues may appear as well: the child or teen may use substances or engage in dangerous sexual behavior.

Relationship Problems

Many kids and teens with emerging BPD have trouble managing relationships. They may have an intense fear of abandonment or may have trouble controlling their anger. When very emotionally distressed, some teens may hold irrational or paranoid beliefs. These fears and beliefs may make it hard to develop friendships or romantic relationships.

Strong Emotional Reactions

There may be strong emotional reactions to seemingly minor issues, where they may appear to overreact to everything. Minor issues may feel like the end of the world.

It is difficult for health care professionals—and parents—to look at these signs and know whether an adolescent has emerging BPD or if the individual is simply going through a normal teenage phase.

With this in mind, a teenager who displays any or all of the characteristics associated with BPD might look around and ask themselves: “Does it seem that other people can deal with things I can’t deal with?” or “Why aren’t others struggling like I am?”

A teenager who feels strong emotions for longer periods than others or takes longer to get back to their emotional baseline may have the condition. Strong reactions to seemingly small irritations—a sense that minor issues feel like the “end of the world” and that behaviors like self-harm, drugs, or death seem to be the only way to make these stop—could be signs of a serious problem.

Teens with these actions and reactions should seek help for their symptoms.

Busting Myths About BPD

Young man is comforted by person with hand on shoulder

Dr. Blaise Aguirre helps us break down some common misconceptions about borderline personality disorder.

Young man is comforted by person with hand on shoulder

How BPD Differs in Adolescents and Adults

BPD is a personality disorder that has historically been diagnosed in adults. A significant body of evidence suggests it is possible for children and adolescents to begin to develop BPD before age 18.

Because teen personalities are still forming, young people may undergo many changes before they’re considered an adult. Mood swings, instability, and other symptoms may be a sign of hormonal fluctuations, stress, or anxiety.

Those who are experiencing symptoms of borderline personality disorder need help—don’t wait to seek care in the hopes that a behavior is “just a phase” or “they’ll grow out of it.”

The importance of early diagnosis cannot be stressed enough. The sooner BPD symptoms are diagnosed, the faster treatment can begin and the better the chance to live a successful, meaningful life.

The Myth of BPD and Gender

It’s estimated that over 14 million Americans have BPD. Once more commonly diagnosed in women, the largest study done on psychiatric disorders shows that it occurs equally often in women and men.

One explanation behind it appearing to affect more women is that women are more likely to seek mental health care than men. Since research on BPD is often conducted in psychiatric settings, it was previously less likely for men with borderline personality disorder to be included in these research efforts.

Another explanation is that BPD is often misdiagnosed in men. Many men with the condition are often diagnosed with depression or PTSD.

Or perhaps the issue is that for years, the general public and many in the psychiatric community have viewed mental illness in boys and mental illness in girls in very different ways.

The Bias of Behavior

To illustrate this gender bias, psychologist Alan E. Fruzzetti, PhD, offers a simple test.

“If I told you that a student in a classroom was pounding on a desk and being disruptive, would the image of a boy or a girl enter your mind?” he asks. “Or, if I told you that a student in a classroom was upset and incessantly tapping on a desk, would you think it was a boy or a girl?”

Most of us would imagine the “pounding” student was a boy and the “tapping” student was a girl. And, when observing essentially the same behaviors, many people would describe them and react to them very differently, according to the gender of the person displaying the behavior.

There are various factors as to why we view boys and girls through different lenses.

Different behaviors are deemed acceptable or troubling depending on one’s gender, leading to different social responses for boys and girls.

In general, a girl who is angry, depressed, or displaying other signs of distress has a better chance of being treated with compassion and understanding—and being referred to counseling and treatment—than a boy.

In contrast, boys who show similar behaviors are often punished or ignored completely.

“The problem is that both boys and girls display ‘non-normative’ behaviors, and our misunderstanding of these behaviors has produced serious consequences for their mental health,” Fruzzetti explains.

Gender Gap in BPD Diagnosis

This gap between boys and girls is particularly present in the diagnosis and treatment of BPD.

BPD affects approximately the same number of men and women, but the condition is likely slightly over-diagnosed in women and significantly under-diagnosed in men.

Many studies have explored the differences between men and women who meet the criteria for BPD, finding that more men with substance use disorders are diagnosed with BPD than women, while more females with eating disorders or PTSD are diagnosed with BPD.

“When boys don’t fit social and emotional norms, their behavior can be misinterpreted,” Fruzzetti says. “Bias around gender may have a lot to do with these different diagnoses.”

For example, when men display anger, it is more often seen as a sign of antisocial behavior than it is in women, even though women with BPD show more aggression than non-BPD women, and men with BPD show less aggression than non-BPD men.

Also, established stereotypes about the nature of masculinity can lead to BPD being misdiagnosed or missed altogether.

Fruzzetti states that boys generally possess fewer social and emotional skills compared to girls, which is often misunderstood and incorrectly attributed to a lack of motivation or flaws in character.

Challenges of BPD in Boys and Men

Because of misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis, many boys with BPD do not receive any treatment, receive the wrong treatment, or worse, end up in prison.

About 20% of males in the criminal justice system actually have BPD.

According to Fruzzetti, overall, our health care system is not set up to help men with BPD. In particular, the prison system does not provide proper treatment.

In prison, biases and stigma about mental illness are intensified. Boys and men who struggle with BPD are more likely to be punished rather than treated.

“The solution isn’t to be less compassionate towards women; it’s to be more compassionate towards men,” Fruzzetti says.

adolescent boy smiling and talking to friends

How Does BPD Develop in Children and Teens?

Just like adults, kids react to situations with their own unique responses. If you were to touch the arm of a very ticklish child and touch the arm of one who isn’t, they would react very differently.

The same holds true when it comes to the reactions of people with borderline personality disorder versus those without it.

When children grow up in a social or family environment that does not match their temperament, they may develop poor self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. They may have a hard time trusting others and have issues with their own identity.

When these children become teens, they can feel lost and engage in high-risk behaviors. They may look for ways to deal with feelings of emptiness—this is when symptoms of BPD can emerge.

Teens can begin to experience periods of depression, which can easily progress into self-harming behavior or thoughts of suicide. These issues require immediate attention and the introduction of effective treatment.

Any thoughts, feelings, or signs of self-harm must be addressed as quickly as possible.

How Borderline Personality Disorder Symptoms Are Diagnosed in Young People

BPD requires a licensed health care professional to properly assess symptoms and rule out other potential causes. A trained mental health professional diagnoses BPD by talking with the patient and examining the functioning and reasoning behind each of the teen’s behaviors.

To understand BPD, it’s important to learn why a person may be engaging in a certain manner. Why are they taking risks? Why do they appear to be acting irrationally?

For example, many teens experiment with drinking. Many young people drink to fit in, bond with friends, or experience something new. Just because a teen starts drinking doesn’t mean they have BPD.

On the other hand, if someone is drinking in order to change the way they feel fundamentally, it could be a sign of the condition. Someone with an underlying mental health condition may start to drink to avoid problems.

Other, less dangerous behavior could indicate an issue as well. For example, many teens with BPD lock themselves in a room and study for hours on end. This is an effort to avoid dealing with more serious problems.

Even though this may not seem like risky behavior, it could be a sign they’re having issues managing their emotions. When a teen patient meets with a therapist, they will discuss such situations and learn the skills needed to successfully manage their illness.

Watch the Video

Dr. Lois Choi-Kain explains how BPD is treated

How Is Emerging BPD Treated in Teens?

It’s important to know that BPD is treatable. It is possible for teens and their families to find relief after an accurate diagnosis has been made and the patient is engaged in evidence-based treatment.

There are two therapies proven to be helpful for young people living with borderline personality disorder: dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and general psychiatric management (GPM).

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

DBT is a popular treatment option for BPD. This highly effective therapy targets self-harm and suicidal behavior. It addresses destructive behavior, such as substance misuse.

During sessions, therapists work with teens to break down behaviors. Then, they give teens the skills they need to handle difficult situations and emotional circumstances.

Dialectical behavior therapy emphasizes four separate skills sets:

  • Mindfulness
  • Emotion regulation
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • Distress tolerance

DBT is often combined with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help teens maximize each treatment session. Teens can better control their emotions, stop self-destructive behaviors, and have an easier time managing their feelings.

In DBT sessions, teens learn how to:

  • Be non-judgmental about their own experiences and those of others
  • Increase positive experiences
  • Manage overwhelming emotions that prevent them from taking control of their lives
  • Communicate effectively with others
  • Accept situations they have no control over

General Psychiatric Management

GPM combines key components of other treatment types to provide care to patients even if specialized or more resource-intensive treatments are not available. Studies have shown that GPM can be as effective as DBT in treating BPD.

GPM for adolescents (GPM-A) is the same treatment method but adapted for young people. It focuses on providing young patients with the life-building skills needed to understand and effectively manage their condition.

These skills help patients focus on the idea that they aren’t just a patient, but instead, are still living a full life outside of treatment.

Kids and teens with BPD who engage in GPM-A treatment can develop non-reactive critical thinking skills, discover what they are good at, and learn how to view their experiences in a healthier manner.

Even though DBT and GPM can be highly effective, they are not appropriate for every patient. In addition, neither of these treatments are more effective than the other. Your mental health care provider can help you decide which method of treatment is right for you.

Your treatment team may suggest other forms of therapy that they believe may be most effective in relieving symptoms and helping that patient lead a better life.

It is always important to do your own research and ensure that the type of therapy suggested is backed by research and performed by a licensed mental health professional.

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How You Can Find the Right Therapist for BPD Treatment

Every person is different, and it’s important to customize a treatment plan to meet the needs of the individual. Teens and their families need to find the right therapist. A qualified, licensed professional can make a great difference in someone’s recovery.

Therapy is a safe space where teens can start to work through their relationship and trust issues. They can also experiment with coping techniques.

Before families decide on a therapist, it’s important to sit down with them first. Many teens find it helpful to interview the therapist to make sure they communicate well with one another.

A therapist could be highly qualified, but may still not be the best fit. Ultimately, in addition to a therapist’s qualifications, the relationship between a therapist and patient is incredibly important.

Can Medication Be Used to Treat BPD?

Even though some patients with borderline personality disorder take medication to help with symptom management, the FDA has not approved any medications specifically for the treatment of BPD.

It is common for people who have BPD to take medication to help reduce their symptoms or to help manage other disorders or symptoms, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or psychosis.

While medication can be helpful, individual and group therapy using DBT or GPM is the most effective treatment option for those who have been diagnosed with BPD.

How Families Can Be Involved in BPD Treatment

Teens need a strong emotional support structure as they go through treatment. Family members are encouraged to be involved during the treatment process.

Parental involvement can lead to improved outcomes, including better family functioning overall, which helps increase family participation in treatment. When parents and siblings are a part of treatment, everyone can benefit.

When teens feel their family members are supportive of them, they may be more open about seeking treatment or being active in treatment.

Many families struggle to understand the behaviors and symptoms of loved ones who have been diagnosed with BPD.

Some families find it difficult to acknowledge that teens are experiencing an actual mental health condition. When someone has BPD, it can affect how the family functions. Furthermore, unhealthy family dynamics can worsen a person’s BPD symptoms.

Family therapy can help everyone better understand this condition and learn how to cope with it. It teaches family members to identify cycles of negative reinforcement or difficulty with managing diagnoses and how to break from them.

This can improve the prognosis of the person who has been diagnosed with BPD.

Help Is Available!

Borderline personality disorder is a serious condition that can impact children and teens. It’s important for anyone who has been diagnosed with BPD to understand they are not alone.

If you think you or someone you care about may have BPD, it’s important to seek help as quickly as possible.

With access to the right treatment method and a trained therapist, people with BPD can have satisfying relationships, a strong sense of self-worth, and lead meaningful lives.

Do you know a teen who needs help managing their mental health? McLean offers world-class care for teens and adults struggling with BPD.

Call us today at 617.855.3452 to learn more about treatment options.

Want More Info?

Looking for even more information about borderline personality disorder? You may find these resources helpful.

Interesting Articles, Videos, and More

Learn more about borderline personality disorder and what you can do if you or a loved one is displaying signs of BPD.

Helpful Links

These organizations may also have useful information:

Behavioral Tech: Training for Mental Health Professionals
Behavioral Tech provides robust training for clinicians, especially in dialectical behavior therapy and other treatments for borderline personality disorder. Behavioral Tech also offers resources for providers and consumers in an effort to bring ever-better treatments to those in need. The organization supports advocacy efforts and BPD research.

Borderline Personality Disorder Resource Center
The mission of the Borderline Personality Disorder Resource Center (BPDRC) is to promote BPD education and connect those affected by BPD to established resources for treatment and support. The BPDRC is affiliated with the Personality Disorders Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division, and their efforts are overseen by innovators in the research and treatment of personality disorders. Among many resources, the BPDRC maintains a nationwide database of clinicians, agencies, and facilities that focus on treating BPD and co-occurring disorders.

National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder
This group provides education, while raising public awareness and understanding, in an attempt to reduce stigma and promote research and enhance the quality of life of those affected by borderline personality disorder. They work with Congress to enhance the quality of life for those individuals affected by this serious but treatable mental illness. NEABPD’s many resources include BPD Family Guidelines, The Family Connections Program, and Family Education Workshop videos.

New England Personality Disorder Association
NEPDA’s mission is to promote education, support, and advocacy in the field of personality disorders, with a concentration on borderline personality disorder. NEPDA sponsors workshops, conferences, and small group meetings for family members, friends and other loved ones, consumers of mental health services, professionals, and the community at large to improve awareness of personality disorders and reduce the stigma that is often associated with them.

Personality Disorder Awareness Network (PDAN)
A not-for-profit organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of personality disorders, alleviating the impact of personality disorders on families, and preventing the development of personality disorders in children.

Treatment and Research Advances Association for Borderline Personality Disorder
The TARA for Borderline Personality Disorder’s mission is to foster education and research in the field of personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder. They support and encourage educational programs and endeavors targeting mental health professionals, consumers of mental health services, families, and communities to reduce stigma and increase awareness, to disseminate available information on etiology and treatment, and to advocate for accomplishments of these goals.

Suicide Prevention Resources

Although it is not possible to predict suicide with any certainty, our best tool is recognition of the signs that many people exhibit when contemplating suicide. The following three behaviors should prompt you to seek immediate help for yourself or a loved one:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

If You or Someone You Know Needs Help

Find more suicide prevention resources.

If you are suicidal or are a danger to yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or visit your nearest emergency room immediately.

Books About BPD

Book cover - DBT for Dummies

DBT For Dummies
by Gillian Galen, PsyD, Blaise Aguirre, MD
(Wiley, 2021)

Book cover Handbook of Good Psychiatric Management for Adolescents With Borderline Personality Disorder

Handbook of Good Psychiatric Management for Adolescents With Borderline Personality Disorder
edited by Lois W. Choi-Kain, MEd, MD, and Carla Sharp, PhD
(American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2021)

Book cover - Beyond Borderline

Beyond Borderline: True Stories of Recovery From Borderline Personality Disorder
by John G. Gunderson, MD, Perry D. Hoffman, PhD
(New Harbinger Publications, 2016)

Book cover - Coping with BPD

Coping With BPD: DBT and CBT Skills to Soothe the Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder
by Blaise Aguirre, MD, and Gillian Galen, PsyD
(New Harbinger, 2015)

Book cover - Mindfulness for BPD

Mindfulness for Borderline Personality Disorder: Relieve Your Suffering Using the Core Skill of Dialectical Behavior Therapy
by Blaise Aguirre, MD, and Gillian Galen, PsyD
(New Harbinger, 2013)

Book cover - BPD in Adolescent

Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents: a Complete Guide to Understanding and Coping When Your Adolescent Has BPD
by Blaise Aguirre, MD
(Fair Winds Press, 2007)