Can physical or sexual abuse in childhood cause borderline personality disorder?

Answers from Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D.

Traumatic events in childhood increase the risk of borderline personality disorder and other mental health problems. Emotional trauma at a time when the brain isn't fully developed may cause changes to the brain and decrease a person's ability to deal with stressful situations later in life.

While the exact cause of borderline personality disorder isn't fully understood, it's most likely caused by a combination of heredity and environmental factors. You're at increased risk of borderline personality disorder if:

  • You have a first-degree relative — a parent, sibling or child — who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
  • You were physically or sexually abused or grew up in an environment with fighting and conflict.

Borderline personality disorder is a serious emotional disturbance that's characterized by:

  • Unsatisfactory and unstable personal relationships
  • Self-esteem that goes up and down
  • Intense anger or trouble managing anger
  • Impulsive, dangerous or self-harming behavior
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Intense fears of abandonment

It's common for borderline personality disorder to occur along with other mental health problems. Childhood abuse also can be associated with other mental illnesses. Examples include:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Eating disorders
Jun. 04, 2009