Borderline Personality Disorder Differences Between Adolescents and Adults

The earlier that symptoms are recognized, the earlier treatment can begin, whether that’s management or recovery. Two doctors took that well-known truth and applied it to helping recognize early symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in adolescents and adults.

Professor Mary Zanarini, Ed.D., of Harvard Medical School and Dr. Marianne Goodman of Mount Sinai School of Medicine found four major early-onset symptom differences between adults and adolescents. Their other findings may also help families and physicians recognize signs that might put a person at risk while helping them look for other disorders or behaviors that may be aggravating the BPD.

While the participants who also had problems with substance abuse and those who had post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were similar for both adolescents and adults, they found other differences in those groups who had either adolescent-onset BPD or adult-onset BPD.

There were 224 adult participants and 111 adolescent participants in the study. The doctors evaluated each participant for signs of 24 BPD symptoms, and of those only four were much more common in people whose BPD started when they were adults: countertransference problems; manipulating, devaluating and sadistic behavior; undue dependency and masochistic behavior; quasi-psychosis.

Childhood abuse and neglect were found to be major factors in the number of people who have their first symptoms of BPD as an adult. The researchers found that those with adult-onset BPD more often said that as a child they had been the victims of severe neglect, sexual abuse or other types of abuse.

Adult-onset BPD participants were also rated as more introverted than those who had adolescent-onset BPD. Adults also reported higher rates of conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Behaviors resembling teenage angst can be symptoms of BPD in some teens. During adolescence, teens’ bodies are rapidly changing physically, emotionally and mentally. Some symptoms may go unnoticed until they become extreme and more frequent.

The participants with adolescent-onset BPD reported some symptoms more often than the adult-onset participants. More teens than adults reported having major depression, social phobia, anxiety/panic disorder and non-specific eating disorders.

While adults reported that they were more commonly treated in day or residential BPD treatment, adolescents reported more hospitalizations: 98 percent of adolescent-onset BPD participants under the age of 18 had prior psychiatric hospitalizations compared to 72 percent of adults, and 93 percent of the teen participants reported that they had a history of taking prescribed medicines, compared to the 84 percent of adults.

The study did reveal a diamond in the rough: The adolescent-onset BPD participants were functioning better socially and vocationally than the adult-onset BPD participants. The researchers believe this could be attributed to support they have been receiving from their friends, family and health professionals.

BPD is distressing at any age. Whether the first symptoms appear during adolescence or adulthood, the struggles in BPD management can cause challenges in any family, friendship or marriage. As more research comes to light about the causes, signs and symptoms of BPD, the entire community can offer support to teens who may be experiencing early symptoms.