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The Relationship Between Child Abuse and BPD

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Updated June 16, 2014

Does child abuse cause BPD? There is no simple answer; we don't yet know exactly what causes BPD. There is evidence that people with BPD are more likely to report a history of child abuse or other distressing childhood experiences. But, many people who have experienced child abuse do not have BPD, and many people with BPD were not abused or maltreated as children.

What is Child Abuse?

There are several different definitions of child abuse, and these definitions change over time. However, there are a set of experiences that experts generally consider to fit in this category, including physical abuse (being physically hurt or injured), sexual abuse (being subjected to sexual behaviors by someone older), or emotional abuse (being subjected to distressing emotional attacks; i.e., being verbally abused).

Experts also recognize that active abuse is not the only type of maltreatment that can have negative consequences for a child. Examples of other negative childhood events include physical neglect (being denied basic physical needs, such as food), and emotional neglect (having one's emotional needs denied or ignored).

Both child abuse and neglect can be related to the development of psychological disorders. Sometime the term "child maltreatment" is used to describe both abuse and neglect of children.

Research on Child Abuse and BPD

Research does indicate that there is a relationship between child abuse and BPD. People with BPD report high rates of childhood sexual abuse and/or physical abuse. Forty to 76 percent of people with BPD report that they were sexually abused as children, and 25 to 73 percent report that they were physically abused. So, while there is a good deal of research that links childhood abuse to BPD, there is also evidence that about a third of people with BPD report no abuse.

There is also evidence to link BPD to other forms of child maltreatment, such as emotional and physical neglect. In fact, some research suggests that emotional and physical neglect may be even more closely related to the development of BPD than physical or sexual abuse (however, this is difficult to determine, since children who experience abuse also often experience some form of neglect).

The Bottom Line

Research has fairly conclusively demonstrated a relationship between BPD and child maltreatment. However, there have been no studies that have been able to demonstrate conclusively that child maltreatment causes BPD. Rather, the research shows that BPD and child maltreatment tend to be associated with one another. More research is needed to determine whether child maltreatment is a cause of BPD, and, if so, what types of child maltreatment are most closely associated with the development of BPD. For now, we know that while child abuse is related to BPD, it is neither a necessary or sufficient cause. There are other factors, such as genetics, biology, and other environmental factors, that are also involved in the development of BPD.

Sources:

Bornovalova MA, Gratz KL, Delany-Brumsey A, Paulson A, and Lejuez CW. "Temperamental and Environmental Risk Factors for Borderline Personality Disorder Among Inner-City Substance Users in Residential Treatment." Journal of Personality Disorders, 20:218-231, 2006.

Soloff PH, Lynch KG, Kelly TM. "Child Abuse as a Risk Factor for Suicidal Behavior in Borderline Personality Disorder." Journal of Personality Disorders, 16:201-214, 2002.

Zanarini MC. "Childhood Experiences Associated with the Development of Borderline Personality Disorder." Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23:89-101.

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