Childhood Abuse and Emotional Underregulation in Adulthood

People who have suffered childhood trauma are at increased risk for psychological problems resulting from extreme stress. Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one such condition that has been linked to severe childhood trauma. When the trauma is inflicted by a caregiver, the child’s ability to cope is significantly impaired. The effects of unhealthy coping, attachment dysfunction, and emotional regulation can affect many areas of the child’s life as they continue into adulthood. Affect dysregulation is the inability to control one’s moods and emotions and has been linked to BPD and other mental illnesses. Underregulation of emotions is expressed by lack of control, extreme emotional overwhelm; while overregulation is the result of numbing and is exhibited by an inability to express emotions. To determine which of these factors is more indicative of BPD in adults who suffered trauma during childhood by their primary caregiver (TPC), Annemiek van Dijke of the Delta Psychiatric Hospital in the Netherlands conducted a study of 472 clients with a diagnosis of BPD.

The participants’ levels of affect regulation were documented and they were evaluated for various forms of TPC, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, and emotional trauma. Van Dijke found that 63% of the participants had experienced some form of TPC and that those with underregulation had more symptoms of BPD than the participants with overregulated affect. Although the study did not consider other factors that could influence BPD, such as family history, other traumas, and the mental health of the caregivers, the results clearly emphasize the importance of examining emotional regulation, and specifically underregulation, in clients with a history of TPC.

The findings also showed that the participants with TPC were at increased risk for posttraumatic stress (PTSD). But Van Dijke noted that no research has been conducted to determine exactly how specific forms of TPC affect the severity of PTSD symptoms or how they are indirectly affected through affect regulation as a result of TPC. In sum, Van Dijke believes that these results can benefit clients who have suffered TPC by educating clinicians on the importance of helping clients build more secure relationships and develop healthier emotional expressions.

Van Dijke, A., Ford, J. D., van Son, M., Frank, L., & van der Hart, O. (2012). Association of childhood-trauma-by-primary caregiver and affect dysregulation with borderline personality disorder symptoms in adulthood. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027256

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • william

    March 28th, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    How would you feel if someone that you thought you could trust then turned on you and inflicted this kind of abuse and hurt upon you? You would feel stressed, anxious and not sure where to turn. Now that is how you would feel as an adult. Imagine the mind of a child trying to wrap his or her mind around that kind of deception. Pretty tough.

  • Parsons

    March 28th, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    Childhood abuse scars for life, and I think that the proof is right here on this page. Anyone who thinks that just because children are traditionally more resilient than adults have no idea the lasting pain that this causes. I have been through this before in my own life so I have firsthand experience at trying not to let it eat away at me. It is hard to shut out those memories of pain that can haunt you for years, but you know what, I decided that I was not going to let that define me forever. And did that take some work and the ear of a good therapist. But I have made it through it, with forgiveness but necessarily always being able to forget the damage that was done.

  • Darren Sammy

    March 28th, 2012 at 11:36 PM

    @william:you are so right.not saying abuse is good, no matter what or who did it but when the abuse is from somebody the child does not know, there is a fair chance that with the help of caregivers(usually the parents) the child is able to overcome the episode.but when the fence eats the crop then it can get excessively difficult for a child.

  • Patsy

    March 29th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    Funny how so many of these disorders are so intricately linked together. It is like it is hard to find one without another. After reading some of the articles on here, I see that probably for most people in therapy, they are generally not going to be suffering from just one thing but numerous symptoms of several different ailments. You would have to have a very good therapist to see just how many things you could possibly be suffering from and who could generate a treatment plan which could address all of your prescribed issues.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.