What Is the Link Between Temporary Separation from Parents in Early Childhood and Serious Personality Disorders Later On?

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Temporary separation from parents in early childhood can have a big effect on a young person’s development. It can cause psychological stress with a lasting impact and affect the way a young person forms and maintains relationships in the future.

Research shows that temporary separation in early childhood increases the risk of developing mental health disorders in general – and, particularly, serious personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. 

This blog explores the link between temporary separation from parents and personality disorders and what might explain the connection. It also offers some information on the management and treatment of personality disorders that support a rich and fulfilling life.

What Are Personality Disorders?

When someone has a personality disorder, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with their personality. Personality disorders usually develop after distressing events or periods that affect the way someone relates to themselves, others, and the world around them.

These changes can make parts of daily life difficult to manage without effective support. People with personality disorders may:

  • Have strong emotional reactions and/or experience emotions intensely
  • Find it hard to form and maintain stable relationships
  • Have an incoherent or changing sense of self and identity

There are several different types of personality disorders that are grouped into three categories. These are:

Suspicious Personality Disorders

  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Schizophrenic personality disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder

Emotional or Impulsive Personality Disorders 

  • Histrotonic personality disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder.

Anxious Personality Disorders

  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder

Each personality disorder has its own diagnostic criteria. Some people may meet the criteria for more than one personality disorder and be diagnosed with a ‘mixed’ disorder.

What Happens When a Young Child Is Separated From Their Parents?

Research shows that temporary separation from parents in early childhood is associated with serious personality disorders in adult life, especially if they are separated before the age of five.

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what explains the connection. However, they think that separation may cause certain changes and developmental pathways that make developing personality disorders more likely.

In particular, researchers have found that people who experienced temporary separation from parents during early childhood are more likely to have insecure attachment styles than those who don’t. Temporary separation also has long-term effects on the way the body responds to (and is affected by) stress.

Insecure Attachment

When a young child is separated from their parents, it can affect the way their ‘attachment style’. Attachment styles describe the way that someone attaches to another person in a relationship. They are shaped by a young child’s early relationships with caregivers (usually a parent or their parents) and may be affected and changed by relationships later on in life.

Some people have secure attachment styles, where they feel safe and stable in close relationships. People with secure attachment styles can have meaningful and close emotional connections while setting their own boundaries and communicating their needs.

Other people have insecure attachment styles, such as disorganised, anxious, or avoidant styles. Insecure attachment styles are characterised by anxiety in relationships that may make it hard for someone to have space in a close relationship or cause them to avoid intimacy altogether. Insecure attachment styles are often characterised by a fear of abandonment and unstable relationships.

A child’s relationship with their primary caregiver usually shapes their attachment style until adolescence, and sometimes through their teenage years and into adulthood. 

Sensitive and responsive care from parents is associated with secure attachment styles. But temporary separation from parents can lead to feelings of abandonment and a fear that their needs (including for survival) will not be met. These experiences can shape what a child expects from their future relationships, leading to a fear of abandonment that characterises insecure attachment.

Sensitivity to Stress and the HPA Axis

When we experience stressful events (or stressors in our minds, bodies, or the world around us), our body responds in certain ways. These responses help to avoid or overcome dangerous situations, such as by making us more alert or feel less pain.

One key part of the body’s stress response system is the HPA axis. The HPA axis regulates certain hormones, such as cortisol, that our body releases when it perceives stress and has widespread effects throughout the body, impacting our mood, muscles, and immune system.

When our stress response systems are working well, we experience a stress response at the time of a stressor, before our bodies return to a normal state when we perceive the danger to have past. However, when our stress response system isn’t working normally it can have a long-term impact on the way our body functions. HPA-axis deregulation is associated with sleeping problems, anxiety, memory issues, behavioural problems, and mood disorders like depression and bipolar.

Research shows that stressful or distressing life events can have a lasting impact on the way the HPA axis functions. It’s found that temporary separation from parents in early childhood may cause changes in the HPA axis regulation that last into late adulthood, including a higher sensitivity to stressful events. 

Connecting Attachment Styles and Stress Responses to Personality Disorders

Research shows that insecure attachment styles and changes to the body’s stress response system are both linked to personality disorders. Experts think that there are two possible pathways that explain the connection between separation from parents and personality disorders in adult life.

Insecure attachment styles impact the way a person forms and maintains relationships with other people, making it harder to have stable and fulfilling relationships. This is a core part of having a personality disorder.

Insecure attachment may also lead to other traits that are found in many personality disorders. For example, it may affect the way someone develops their sense of self and skills like emotional regulation, social skills, and communication. 

Changes in the stress response system are also closely connected to personality disorders. Low physiological arousal may be associated with antisocial behaviours and low empathy. People with borderline personality disorder also show elevated and blunted cortisol responses in the HPA axis.

How Can Personality Disorders Be Treated and Managed?

Having a personality disorder can make some parts of daily life really hard. However, with the right support, people can learn to manage and cope with their emotions, relationships, and the different ways they experience the world.

Many people with personality disorders live fulfilling lives with meaningful and lasting relationships.

Treatment for personality disorders usually involves a combination of different approaches. It typically includes psychological care alongside social and occupational support. Some psychological approaches include:

  • Dialectical-behavioural therapy – a talking therapy that can help people manage their emotions
  • Mentalisation-based therapy– a talking therapy that helps people to recognise and understand their own other people’s mental states
  • Other types of behavioural therapy such as cognitive-behavioural therapy
  • Art therapy – a treatment approach that can support people who find it hard or cannot express their feelings verbally

The Wave Clinic: Building Futures with Young People

The Wave Clinic is a private and residential treatment space dedicated to young people. We specialise in the treatment of borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, trauma, and other mental health concerns.

Our programs take a whole-person approach to mental healthcare, combining specialised clinical care with education, community responsibility, and a gap year experience to build a journey of growth and advantage.

If you’d like to find out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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