Is It Just Teen Moodiness or Borderline Personality Disorder?

Somewhere during late middle school, that darling child who once lived in the home seems to change overnight into another person. For parents, it can seem like one night they put to bed an affectionate and open child, and the next day a moody stranger took over their child’s body.  Many parents are caught off-guard by these emotional shifts in their teen.
It’s a normal part of development for teens to begin to pull away from parental identity and become more secretive as a way of increasing their sense of self. Teens are going through a lot of changes internally and externally and their emotional responses to those changes can range from happy one day to sad the next.

Perhaps most frightening, teens are ready to try new things to find out what they enjoy and even just for the thrill of the experience. So how can a parent know when his or her teen is behaving in ways that fall within normal developmental parameters and when they are outside of that boundary?

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental illness that is marked by impulsive behavior and extreme mood swings. Since these are also hallmarks of normal teen maturation, it can be difficult for parents to tell whether their teen is going through a normal phase or if he or she is struggling with a mood disorder. Parents should be relieved to know that there are diagnostic criteria beyond moodiness used to define something as serious as a mental illness.

In fact, a teen would need to meet five of the nine diagnostic criteria to be diagnosed with BPD. Psychologists and psychiatrists depend upon a diagnostic manual that lays out the criteria needed for diagnosis Five key symptoms of BPD are:

  1. A strong fear of being abandoned
  2. A fragile sense of self
  3. Repeated hints of suicide
  4. A history of rocky relationships
  5. Risky or reckless behavior.

Some of these symptoms do appear in healthy youth. But when a teen demonstrates all of these symptoms together with extreme mood swings, it is probably time to talk with a mental health professional.

If the counselor believes the teen fits the diagnostic criteria for BPD, the treatment is often some form of talk therapy. Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on teaching teens with BPD to become mindful about their emotions and provides them with healthy skills for coping and building strong interpersonal relationships.

Parents of teens are trying to understand and relate to the developing personality living under their roof. It is extremely important that parents not give up, but stay engaged so that they observe the changes taking place. Although the teen sometimes feels like a stranger, mom and dad really do know their child and are in the best position to recognize potential problems.