When Your Narcissistic Parent Is Sick or Elderly

Are you guided by guilt?

Posted Apr 04, 2011

Many adult children of narcissistic parents are finding themselves in the sandwich generation. Statistics reveal that 1 in 8 adults are simultaneously supporting their own children and grandchildren while also providing assistance to aging parents.

It's a stressful time for most, but what if that parent is narcissistic and consequently you don't have a strong emotional connection? Perhaps there has been childhood abuse and a lifelong lack of bonding or closeness. You may have had limited contact for years or even no contact. Maybe you have a superficial relationship and talk only about the weather or mundane topics. Now your parent has reached the age where elder care is needed. What do you do?

A recent client told me, "The stress is overwhelming and I feel like the meat in the sandwich." Her pain was palpable. The struggle of resources being stretched in many directions is certainly a sign of the times. But, there is an additional strain for adult children of narcissistic parents. When raised by a narcissist, the healthy parental hierarchy is skewed. The child is expected to be there to serve the parent and is unlikely to get his or her own needs met. When that parent becomes elderly, the expectation becomes more intense. The soul searching begins. Suddenly guilt, obvious disconnectedness and disturbing childhood memories cause an internal battle. Things don't change in narcissistic families. The patterns repeat. You find yourself in yet another adult passage of life. Where do you go from here?

I've talked to adult children of narcissistic parents on all ends of the spectrum. Some have taken their parents in, some have maintained no contact, some have suffered because they didn't have feelings when the parent passed on, and some are in the midst of it right now. The juggling of resources and care includes the inevitable bouncing around of ambivalent emotions. I believe the answers lie within each individual and family circumstance and rely heavily on your own stage of recovery.

In my study of maternal narcissism, I found that most "others" do not understand this struggle with "mothers." I believe it is the same if the parent was a narcissistic father. This leaves you with few people to rely on, talk to, and gain understanding. Within the narcissistic family, you will likely find disconnectedness or denial with other members, siblings, etc., some who may have embraced education and understanding and most who have not. So, you are left with you and your internal debate.

Guilt is not your best mentor. But, I do believe there are two important things to consider. One is your value system and the other is your stage of recovery. Some may react with, "Grandma needs us!", "We are horrible people if we don't respond right now," or, "My father has always been demanding and here it is again." We can safely take some time for our own consideration and feel good about that. It may be lonely, but it's a part of this mature season.

Let's look first at your stage of recovery. In Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, I have identified a five-step recovery model for adult children of narcissistic parents. In brief, the first three steps include acceptance, grief, and separation/individuation with building a solid sense of self. Interestingly enough, I have found that decisions about the relationship you will ultimately have with the narcissistic parent can't be soundly made before these steps are completed. This means that internal recovery work must be done first. Many people want to jump ahead in recovery before completing the other steps. This may cause decisions that don't feel right in the end. So, if you have successfully and sequentially completed steps one, two, and three, your decision about what to do with the elderly narcissistic parent will fall into place more easily. You can work this recovery program by following the steps in the book, seeking therapy from a trained professional, or by attending our upcoming workshop where we will be working the recovery steps together.

Secondly, it is important to discern your own value system. If you are continually guided by guilt or "shoulding all over yourself," you will not necessarily make good decisions or be a considerate caregiver. The important thing to remember here is that if your parent had limitations in empathy and was unable to love, this does not mean that you cannot love. You may have had an influential grandparent or another adult who guided you. Maybe you did your own personal work. Knowing how to love is more important than being loved! When we know how to love, we can make decisions based on our own values that feel good to us, even though we may be giving to someone who has not been able to reciprocate. While this may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense in practice. When we have worked our own recovery that includes self-fulfillment and gentle internal empathy, we are more able to give what feels right to us. We learn to do that with good self-care and appropriate boundaries. It no longer has anything to do with tit for tat. It is about following your heart.

That said, there are some adult children who were raised by such toxic parents that they couldn't be around them or care for them. This is also good self-care. But, it is a very individual decision and should be made after recovery steps are taken and embraced. Each of us knows what is right for us when we take the time to work the recovery. We cannot judge another's path. I know many people who had to make a decision to completely separate from their family of origin and for good reason.

In the juggling of these intimate decisions, know that you really are not alone. Come join the sisterhood and brotherhood of adult children of narcissistic parents to gain support and understanding. Stay with us for continued resources. We are here. It's OK to talk about it!

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