Can You Make Peace with Your Aging Gaslighting Parent?

What to expect that peace to look like.

Posted Jun 17, 2020

As our parents age, we might find ourselves moving them near to us so that we can take care of them in their final years. If you have siblings, there may be practical reasons for you taking on this role, or it may be that you’re an only child and caring for your parent automatically seems to become your responsibility. 

Whatever the practicalities of the arrangement, if your parent has been emotionally abusive to you and used gaslighting tactics towards you during your life, any attempt to reconnect more closely (physically or emotionally) is going to bring up some big issues. You may have spent most of your adult life living in a different part of the country. Being geographically separated from an emotionally abusive parent is one way of creating an effective boundary between yourself and them — even if they visit for the occasional holiday, you know it’s going to come to an end. When that shifts, and your parent moves down the street, or even into your house, those boundaries are going to be severely weakened. 

You may well see this, though, as an opportunity to reconnect. At the most basic level, you’re aware that your ageing parent isn’t going to be around forever and you can see them becoming physically and mentally weaker, sometimes at an alarming rate. Surely, you tell yourself, that – no matter how they have behaved toward you in the past – you can make peace with them and resolve some of the issues which have plagued your relationship. This is your chance to have that relationship with your mum or dad which you’ve always wanted and, what with them being older and frailer and nearing the end of their own life, they’ll probably be so much easier going these days, won’t they? 

This is what I call the childhood fantasy. That child part of you, who was put down, criticised, abandoned, or emotionally neglected, has a fantasy of what this reconnection is going to look like. It’s driven by a desire to make good the past hurts which your parent has inflicted on you and, you hope, will open up the chance to be the way you want to be with your parent. Perhaps there’s a hope that you’ll connect deeply for the first time, that your parent might apologise for their behaviour or, at least, offer an explanation for why they acted as they did. There’s often a hope that you’ll “make peace” with this parent and that somehow your needs will be met by them, perhaps for the first time. 

Unfortunately, if your parent has always been emotionally abusive, it’s unlikely that they’re going to suddenly change just because they’re older and frailer. They’re still the same person inside. While there may be some exceptions, here are some of the things people often experience when they try to create this connection after leading a relatively independent life from their parent.

There’s no apology. Adult children often have a hope that their parent will apologise for his or her behaviour. We all love a deathbed scene in which the previously abusive parent has an epiphany and apologies for their dreadful behaviour, don’t we? While this sometimes happens in real life, sometimes it doesn’t. My four siblings waited around my father’s deathbed, expecting him to offer them some words of comfort and to apologise in some way for never having shown them any interest. He didn’t say a thing. He also made it very clear in his will who were his “favourites" and who he didn’t like at all. One of my clients, similarly, hoped that his dying father would offer him some kind of apology but, instead, his father told him, “I never liked you," as he lay dying.

The past is still written in their favour. One primary gaslighting tactic is to rewrite the past, so that whatever you remember is dismissed by them as your own warped fantasy. This isn’t going to change just because your parent is older. They’re still going to have their own version of the past and if you try to question it, you’ll be told you’re making things up. If you hope that simply being physically closer to someone and seeing more of them is going to give you the chance to question what has taken place in your life, you’re probably mistaken.

They’ll find new ways of being emotionally abusive. If your parent has always been emotionally abusive to you, this is their default and they’ll always be able to come up with new abusive tactics. One client told me how her mother, on moving closer to her, had become a lot more cautious about saying horrible things to my client – perhaps because my client was now married. What her mother did, though, was shift her attention to saying horrible things about my client’s son, accusing him of being nasty to her and of disliking my client’s mother. My client’s mother’s behaviour was exactly the same as it always had been; she just picked on a new target.

You might not feel able to have “the conversation." You might have an image in your mind of how it would feel to have an open discussion with your parent about the damaging effects of their behaviour on you, throughout your life. There may be specific incidences from your childhood which you feel the need to address. You may have spoken to your therapist about how good it would feel to have “closure” with your parent, with regard to trauma from your past which you still carry. While it would be great to achieve this closure, sometimes it just isn’t possible. You may feel your parent is just too old and frail, and perhaps even confused, to have “the conversation.” You may hold back because you are a caring person and you’re too worried about the effect it could have on their health and wellbeing. You might even realise that they lack the emotional capacity to understand what you’re saying and that they will deny that any abuse took place or dismiss what you’re saying as irrelevant. 

So, is there any point in trying to live out the fantasy in which you and your parent reach that point of emotional closeness you’ve always desired? I think it can be a healing process, but you need to readjust what you expect from it. If your aim is to engage in this peaceful, calm, loving relationship which you’ve always wanted and never had, you may well be disappointed. Unless that’s what your parent wants, too, and they’re coming from a point of awareness that they have acted in a way which has adversely affected you, they’re not going to be on the same page as you. But you can reframe this as an opportunity to explore what is coming up for you as a result of your parent living close to you. If you have been bullied, manipulated, put down, criticised, and had your boundaries violated by your parent, this is a great opportunity to regain control. This is about YOU, not your parent. It’s about how you choose to redefine your boundaries and your actions and, without focusing on what your parent may or may not do, it is your opportunity to grow into the daughter or son you would prefer to be.