Caring for the Aging Parent Who Molested You
Dealing with a relationship that has been compromised is fraught. How to deal.
Posted Dec 11, 2018
It is difficult enough to care for an aging parent, to watch their deterioration and decompensation. It is hard enough when there was an authentic two-way relationship. But in the relationship that was compromised, the one in which the child was sexually abused by the parent, a different kind of pain complicates the process when caregiving duties are required. This doesn't mean you are under any obligation to be a caregiver. But one's personal circumstances, or process, or any variety of reasons an outsider cannot judge, may find that person faced with determining whether or not they will become a caregiver.
If that parent, whom you may love or not love, or may wish had loved and protected you, is now potentially in your care, you know the anguish I am referring to.
Regret and loss flood the abusive relationship as do distress and anger. Those are a tough confluence of emotions to navigate—then and now.
This may be one reason why adult children who were molested are often heard saying that they didn’t do more to stop the abuse (back then, or even as they aged). “Why me?” is, sometimes, another way of asking, “What could I have done better to stop what happened to me?” Sadly, this shifts responsibility back to the child. It happens unconsciously; we’re not aware it’s happening even as we speak the words.
Naturally, the child still in us seeks to grasp some kind of control, to make some kind of sense of what happened AND avoid blaming the parent. Parents—even abusive ones—are the child’s world. But the responsibility belonged to the parent. The parent, caretaker or adult who was “in control” was actually out of control (evidenced by having abused/molested).
Thinking about the why
There are different reasons why people abuse. Perhaps they themselves were abused. Perhaps they did not adequately deal with their trauma. Instead, they acted it out again or in a different way. These are one or two possible reasons for why, but not an excuse for why. Having been molested does not excuse sexually abusive behavior. It simply fills in some of the blanks as to why it might have happened, illustrating the negative legacy of abuse.
Over the years perhaps these issues were pushed out of your thoughts. Maybe you didn’t want to talk about them. Or maybe no one wanted to discuss them with you. You tried to let it go—and maybe you did at times.
A note on “responsibility”
To my thinking, saying one “takes responsibility” for the abuse that happened to them sadly neglects to consider all aspects of the situation, of the people involved, of the child in need. I’ve heard this term over the years and it always baffles me. I’ve heard intelligent adults say things like their “thoughts were to blame” and “I attracted the abuse” and “I take responsibility for the abuse I endured when I was younger" as a means of trying to control. But the child who endured deserves our compassion, not our judgment.
This type of "positive-thinking, I-own-my-destiny" rhetoric can actually distract a person for a time, but it ultimately doesn’t work. Instead, it creates anxiety and makes some very intolerant of others who suffer and who are trying to authentically deal with the pain. Why? This is what happens when one does not deal with their own pain, with how they were betrayed. This is a process and, to some extent, happens to everyone to varying degrees. The fear of getting mired in the pain and trying to shunt it off actually keeps them trapped in the pain longer.
Now your tormenter’s caregiver
Now your parent is ill and somehow you wound up as the caregiver, expected to show compassion for an aging parent who molested or abused you.
The actions and steps of caring for a parent can trigger feelings inside you that you may not have been aware ever existed. Standing in the kitchen while preparing a parent’s medication or meal might trigger a repressed memory of something related. Perhaps something occurred in the same room, or immediately after or before meals were prepared. It can feel like that time period all over again.
An adult child in the caregiver’s role might try to do everything “right” and, in such an effort, recall the pain of having been transgressed deeply by the very parent they are now looking out for. Maybe they held the parent in high regard, impressed and awed by financial or social success.
Stress can often make us see
The realization of truth can be jarring. It seems to pierce the veil between repressed and remembered. Memories flood back, tiny bits emerge, pieces to a puzzle that never fit until now. (If they were so great, why was I always so uncomfortable around them?) Stress is a huge catalyst for these visceral memories.
Stress of real-time caregiving is exhausting. But coupled with the emergence of memories of abuse and wounding—physically, sexually, for example—at the hands or under the care of the person you are now caring for, is especially hard.
Abuse and molestation—violations—disrupt the healthy coping cycle; we have to be reminded that whatever happened to us can now be used by us to heal.
- The point of “going through” something is not simply to get it over with—not from a transformative point of view. The point is to collect the “pieces” of ourselves we’ve forgotten—that we had to, in a sense, forget, in order to survive—and recover them anew.
- Making sudden movements to try to “be done” with the internal pain will not work. Get help; seek support from a licensed therapist.* In sessions, you can determine what is necessary to do to keep yourself, children, others safe.
- If there are children present, keep their safety and well-being a priority. When it comes to children in potentially abusive situations, it is always better to err on the side of caution. Keep children away from harm. Talk to a licensed, experienced therapist about next steps. Bottom line: Always ensure that children are protected.
- It is necessary to do for the child or teen (or adult, for that matter) what was not done for you. This is a huge deal—that you can and want to protect another while working through your own pain.
- Think about your options as to whether or not you need to act as the primary caregiver. Are there others who can step in? What is best for you? Is there an ethical dilemma for you? Don't be afraid to ask for help.
- Think of forgiveness as acceptance. Don't worry about doing it perfectly. By acceptance, I mean simply that what happened, happened. Again, seek support and process memories in a safe, appropriate place.
Finally, if you are caring for a parent who once molested you, and you’re finding it difficult to endure at the moment, try telling yourself this:
Today I hold the possibility, not only of healing a wound, but growing myself more deeply, fully, and with a new regard for what recovery might mean to me, including things that are as yet unknown to me—aspects of myself that will help me feel more whole and integrated. Today I take care of myself first. I ask for help and get support. I understand that I need not carry the burden alone.
*A word about abuse and mandated reporting: Therapists, physicians, teachers, hospital workers, public health workers, and other professionals in healthcare and mental healthcare environments are mandated reporters of abuse, violence, and other crimes. Many professional organizations including the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, etc, have guidelines about reporting.