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Understanding Age Regression and BPD

Act your age’ is an adage we’re all familiar with (and were maybe told at some point). And while we can all sometimes be silly and do things reminiscent of our younger selves, what happens when an adult’s behavior becomes so childlike they can’t deal with their very real-life situations?

Sadly this is a reality for for some people with BPD who may avoid reality by regressing. But why does it happen and what should you do about it?  

What Is Age Regression?

Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called age regression an unconscious defense mechanism causing the temporary reversion of a person to an earlier developmental stage

In simple terms, this means that instead of behaving in an expected adult manner, the person responds in a way that is more appropriate to a much younger version of themselves.

Some suggest that people will regress to an age where they last felt safe or perceived danger and stress things other people dealt with. This is typical of childhood when the adults in our lives were responsible for ensuring we were happy and healthy, and we could rely on them to meet our needs.

During our developmental years, age regression is relatively typical. I know I certainly went through it multiple times with my daughter during major developmental milestones. 

This can show up as temper tantrums, whining or crying, or acting ‘like a baby’ so the parent can step in and deal with whatever situation is causing the child distress.

Why Does Age Regression Happen?

Age regression in adults is less common, but it often features in those with a history of trauma, both as a coping mechanism in their daily lives and when faced with their trauma in therapy or other psychological interventions. 

Regression can be functional, so while involuntary regression can crop up as a defense against new traumas or threats, it can be intentionally engaged, too.

Therapists have used age regression to evoke healing, promote self-help, and reduce stress by allowing the patient to confront their trauma while they’re in a safe space. This kind of practice, together with hypnotherapy, is controversial, however.

Some mental health conditions and psychiatric disorders feature age regression quite prominently. Dissociative disorders, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common and severe. But conditions like BPD can lead to regressive behaviors as well.

An adult woman screens at the camera. The title reads BPD & Age Regression
Understanding Age Regression and BPD

Understanding BPD

Borderline Personality Disorder is a condition that severely affects a person’s ability to manage their emotions and have healthy relationships. People with BPD struggle to maintain personal relationships. Because of their inability to accurately read situations or move past their fear of abandonment.

Some of the key aspects of BPD are:

So, how does regression fit into the BPD picture? 

Connection Between BPD And Age Regression

Emotional dysregulation is a core issue for those with BPD. This means that they lack the ability to respond appropriately to events and situations and that they don’t have the ability to manage what they’re feeling. 

This manifests as mood swings or ill-suited emotions for the current situation. BPD people may express rage, meltdowns, or even have crying spells that make no sense to outsiders. 

Fits of rage, outbursts, and meltdowns are all a response to the BPD person not being able to process and deal with their emotions. 

Age regression serves a similar purpose – it’s a form of escape.

When a BPD person regresses, they return to an age (or developmental stage) where they felt safe and someone else had to deal with the stressors around them.

In this way, if a person with BPD faces a difficult situation, for example, conflict with their significant other, they can escape from the perceived fallout by throwing a temper tantrum, crying, or simply retreating into themselves. 

Some ways in which regression can manifest for a BPD include:

  • Baby talk or infant-directed speech: This may disarm the person they’re experiencing conflict with. Baby talk also makes a situation seem less intimidating. This also allows the person with BPD to avoid taking accountability for their part in any conflict.
  • Crying spells: Episodes of uncontrollable or excessive crying are also common in BPD. They can be triggered by many things. Children tend to cry when they are overwhelmed or don’t have the emotional tools to deal with reality. People with BPD share this quality, too.
  • Needing a comfort object: Some people may need a comfort object like a cigarette, item of clothing, lucky charm, or even a phone, much in the same way a pacifier or blanket calms a small child.
  • Playing dumb: This is used a means of avoiding confrontation or an effort to prevent rejection. Playing dumb (“I don’t know what’s going on” or “I have no idea what you’re talking about”) is a defense mechanism that falls into the age regression spectrum, too.
  • Temper tantrums: Adults experiencing age regression might resort to temper tantrums, physical aggression, or verbal assaults. This is not unlike children who don’t get their way or can’t effectively express their emotions. Adults should have some skills for expressing feelings better. 

Causes And Triggers Of Age Regression In BPD

When it comes to identifying causes for age regression in those with BPD, there are certain triggers that can prompt a BPD person into behavior characteristic of a much younger person. 

Consider that the purpose of regression is to revert to a point in life where you feel safe or when someone else had to make decisions and solve problems. The following situations or events may be so intense for a person with BPD that they regress:

  • Conflict, arguments, or criticism from those around them
  • Being ignored – real or perceived (for example, not getting a text back immediately may be seen as being ignored)
  • Loss or change, whether it’s losing a person’s friendship, someone close to them passing away, changing jobs, or moving to a new area
  • Revisiting traumatic memories or remembering something that they struggled to process 
  • Feeling out of control or helpless in any given situation

Is Age Regression Intentional?

You may have noticed that most of these pertain to other people in the lives of the BPD person. This is significant.

The hallmarks of BPD include low self-esteem and an inability to formulate a cohesive sense of self.

This leaves people with BPD feeling cut off from themselves. Additionally, those with BPD tend to build their identity around their favorite person, and all their efforts and energies are directed at keeping this person in their lives. 

Anything a BPD person perceives as a threat prompting their loved one to abandon them will likely trigger an emotional response. 

This brings us to the question of whether age regression can be used as a manipulation technique.

There’s no clear-cut answer, but there are suggestions that people with BPD engage in age-regressive behavior in an attempt to draw their loved ones “back from the brink of abandonment” because it forces them into the adult role of looking after them.

By acting like a child, the person with BPD also effectively skips out on having to take responsibility for their actions. So even if they had a meltdown and a temper tantrum, child-like behavior is more likely to soften the response of their loved ones, rather than having them taken to task.

How Does Age Regression Affect People With BPD?

Like in childhood, temper tantrums, meltdowns, withdrawing, or refusing to communicate can complicate an emotionally-charged situation. 

While initial instances of regression may trigger a loved one to ‘cave’ and nurture the BPD person instead of expecting them to deal with the situation as an adult, they may soon learn the pattern and become tired of it.

Additionally, just like with small children, negative behavior that elicits the desired response (i.e., attention) will be perpetuated until corrected. This is very much in line with the cyclical nature of BPD relationships. Maintaining a healthy and fulfilling relationship with a BPD person is very challenging. 

Naturally, constantly avoiding accountability, failing to deal with situations head-on, and using child-like behaviors to manipulate circumstances are not conducive to functioning as an adult.

The impact isn’t limited to personal relationships. It can affect their work, health, and perception of themselves. 

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Coping Mechanisms And Management Strategies

How age regression is treated and managed depends very much on the scenario. The first priority is always to have a professional involved that can address any medical or neurological problems, as well as identify if there are additional psychiatric concerns. 

Like typical childhood age regression, addressing the underlying need will likely diffuse the situation – but it’s trickier for adults with BPD. 

Whereas children may have a meltdown because they can’t adequately express the overwhelming emotion they’re feeling, an adult is expected to have learned adequate tools and skills to deal with this.

This is why it’s so vital to get professional input and to engage in supportive counseling services.

Learning the appropriate skills through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, will help those with BPD avoid age regression and feel safe enough to deal with situations they are so afraid of.

For more on coping with age regression, I think you’ll find this video helpful:

How To Help Someone Struggling With BPD Age Regression

If your loved one displays age-regressive behavior, and you’re unsure of how to deal with it, here are some tips that may make it a little easier in the moment:

  • Empathize with your loved one regarding the cause of their perceived fears. For example, “I can see this is upsetting you.”
  • Guide them through the feelings and emotions they’re confronted with, and help them start identifying them. For example, “It looks like you’re really scared of me leaving right now.”
  • Provide concrete affirmations that can ground them in the moment and help them feel safe, such as, “I’m not going to leave you, and I’d like it if we can discuss what you’re feeling right now.”
  • Follow up: After such incidents have passed, use the opportunity to discuss professional help if needed or to reflect. The aim here is to prevent them from regressing in the future by assuring them they are safe and heard.

Final Thoughts on BPD and Age Regression:

Age regression isn’t often an overt return to childhood. Even bouts of rage, fits of anger, or sobbing spells can fall under this topic.

In all cases, however, these behaviors show that someone is struggling to process what they’re feeling. Being present, empathic, and supportive will go a long way to helping them through the moment.


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