It’s a common scenario: Your parent is aging, and little by little the roles are reversing. You are becoming their parent, and they are becoming like your child.
If you were born between 1946 and 1964, then you might be one of 76 million baby boomers approaching and/or ready to enter retirement. Or perhaps you’re first ramping up a career that had been put on hold while you focused instead on raising your own family. (That’s how it is for me. When my two sons were in high school, I returned to college for an advanced degree, knowing that once they flew the coop, I’d want to focus on a new career. I’m busier now than in all the years I spent as a full-time mom.)
And with our parents living longer than ever before, we’re caught up in a place we hadn’t anticipated and very well might be caring for our parents for as long as we cared for our own children.
But what happens when it’s hard to care for a parent, not only due to the logistics involved, but because of feelings of resentment toward them? Not everyone can do it with an open heart. Perhaps the relationship is already strained and difficult.
What if your parent is a narcissist – the type of person who has always been self-involved and all about me, me, me – and now needs you more than ever?
As a child of a narcissist, it’s likely you’ve grown up with your own unfulfilled needs…and you now have nothing left to give, or don’t know how. If your parent has always been more concerned with themselves than they ever cared about you, how do you now find the inner means to care? According to writer and licensed clinical social worker Meredith Gordon Resnick, author of a series of books on narcissism, “Some adult children struggle terribly with a kind of neediness for their parents’ attention, despite knowing on an intellectual level this attention will never come in the way they wish (positive, authentic, sincere, prolonged).
How can you get past that hurt in order to care for your aging parent? I asked Meredith to weigh in on this difficult subject. Read on for her thoughts and expert advice.
When I used to see patients in home health and hospice, I also saw their family members. Many were adult children. The question of how to care, with compassion, for an aging parent they resented because of their narcissism came up a lot. What could they do to get over their resentment in order to be compassionate and caring caretaker?
The answer to their question was at once simple and complicated; easy and difficult—focus on oneself and not on the parent. But many of these adult children were not ready to do this—and not ready to get over the resentment or let it go.
Some children of narcissists are able to access the pain and use the pain to truly separate from the parent and view the parent and themselves as separate beings. Others—and you have likely known people like this—say all the right things and sit in therapy for years and years, but can seem to move beyond it because they still long to be “seen” by the parent.
It’s no surprise that healing one’s own resentment involves understanding what you can and can’t control in your parent. It also involves knowing that resentment doesn’t buy you power (also no surprise.)
History has shown the adult child that they can control little if anything about the parent. Why would this change as the result of the caregiving role? It wouldn’t.
Meredith offers these 10 tips to help with caring for an aging narcissistic parent:
- Ask what the parent wants—and listen without reacting; try to do what you can that is reasonable.
- Learn how to recognize what is unreasonable (for you). There is no need to have a long, drawn-out discussion with the parent about it—simple yes or no answers works (and best if you can deliver them without attitude).
- Document everything you’ve done for the parent.
- During certain conversations you may wish to have a supportive person present.
- If anything concerns legal or monetary affairs, it’s wise to have an attorney or a witness of some sort. Also: document the interaction.
- State your limitations in what you can do. Be prepared for criticism—or tears, both of which are likely forms of manipulation—and listen without reacting. Be aware of your own disappointment that this is not how you’d hoped your relationship would be.
- Assist the parent in objective tasks—making phone calls, filling prescriptions, taking notes at the doctor’s appointment. These are concrete actions that give you something to focus on and can also help the parent.
- Limit discussion to that which is productive—resist the I-deserve-to-speak-my-mind-too temptation.
- It’s better to have a well-planned thought than to blurt out something you’ll regret that will cause (you) more grief later.
- By keeping the focus on yourself you may better be able to own your own limitations and withdraw from the drama before the drama gets the best of you. If you don’t, you risk becoming self-righteous…which only draws you back into the dynamic once again.
About Meredith Gordon Resnick: Meredith holds a license in clinical social work and has worked in direct healthcare and mental health care for more than two decades. She is the creator of the “Surviving Narcissism” series and author of “Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved; Surviving the Narcissist: 30 Days of Recovery; and “When Your Parent Is a Narcissist.”
Her book is also available on iTunes.