What to Do When Your Parent-Caregiver Is a Narcissist
Coping effectively with a parent-caregiver who is self-absorbed and manipulative
Posted Aug 11, 2016
I interviewed Meredith Resnick in November, 2012, when her eBook, Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved, was released. The interview focused on what a person should do when his or her caregiver is self-absorbed and manipulative. Readers told me that both the interview and her book were tremendously helpful.
Meredith’s new eBook is called When Your Parent is a Narcissist. As soon as I heard the title, I knew I wanted to interview her again so I could get some pointers on how the chronically ill can effectively deal with a parent-caregiver who is self-absorbed and manipulative. (Chronic illness includes chronic pain.)
Some of you who are reading this may be chronically ill and depend on a parent for care (a person who is dependent on a parent for care is not necessarily young anymore). Some of you may know a child in this situation and would like to know how to help.
Meredith’s new book is full of practical suggestions for handling this unfortunate situation. Here’s my interview with her:
Toni: What are the signs that a parent is a narcissist? Can you explain the difference between a narcissist and a person who tends to be self-absorbed?
Meredith: A person who is self-absorbed, brash, or in your face can still care and show genuine empathy for his or her adult or young child. This is different from having a narcissist parent.
Look for a pattern of belittling, criticizing, shaming, ostracizing, humiliating, manipulating, favoring others and the like. While that person may not be a full-blown narcissist, he or she may have pronounced traits that fall on the spectrum and so it can be helpful to behave as though one is engaging with a narcissist.
This doesn’t necessarily have to mean cutting off ties (though it might). It does mean accepting, and then reminding yourself that this person (parent) is not safe to share your emotions with, to trust with secrets, or to rely on for consistent care—unless you want to engage in fraught interactions along the way.
Toni: Why does a child’s illness (a child of any age) bring a narcissist’s symptoms into sharper relief? What is really going on?
Meredith: Let me first answer with something from When Your Parent is a Narcissist:
It’s human nature for a child to crave their parent’s affection and to want to be seen as special and valuable in their parent’s eyes. For acts of caring and uniqueness and sincerity to be noticed. But from the very beginning, the narcissist parent lacks the ability to do this.
Narcissism, as a disease, carries with it the feeling that the individual is himself a black hole, a nothing.
This is the place that the narcissist parent parents from.
It’s also the place a narcissist parent cares for a sick child from.
In thinking about your question, it can be that an illness in the child (at any age) triggers the parent’s fear of death, of nothingness, of being annihilated, of falling into and turning into that black hole mentioned above.
This is terrifying and feels very real to the narcissist, although he or she has little or no conscious awareness of it. And then, unfortunately, it’s possible that your illness becomes their black hole.
Do you see how convoluted this is? Everything becomes about the parent in the service of keeping the parent from his or her own metaphorical death/annihilation. Once the adult child “sees” this truth, and that it’s not personal, while sad, it explains some of the craziness associated with parental interactions.
Toni: Do you think some parents actually want to see their child (young or old) get worse, not better? How does this feed the narcissist dynamic?
Meredith: Rather than thinking in terms of better or worse, sickness or wellness, think in terms of what will give the narcissist parent more to feed off of in any given moment. The narcissist is always looking for something to feed the part of his/her self that feels lacking. Again, an excerpt from When Your Parent is a Narcissist sums up the why:
The only time the narcissist parent does see the child’s value is when the child is working to “create” the parent. In other words, to give the parent an identity that is pleasing to the parent. But what is deemed pleasing to the narcissist parent is constantly shape-shifting, because the external world is forever in flux and their internal world lacks definition (which is an ongoing problem when you are someone who derives their identity from the outside, not the inside). Their internal self is extremely undeveloped and wounded, despite their caustic, controlled, polished, charming, or manipulative exterior.
Toni: What about the parent-caregiver who grows resentful and spiteful if the person in his or her care rejects the parent’s suggestions? How can the chronically ill child of a parent-narcissist respond without being sucked into an argument (which will only deplete precious energy)? Are there strategies the child can use to avoid getting into this situation in the first place?
Meredith: Whenever the question of resentment comes up, it’s usually a sign that the person who feels resentful is, on some level, wishing/expecting/hoping/silently demanding/waiting for the other person to see their point, to apologize and, ultimately, to change.
But even if all these things miraculously happen, the individual with the original resentment still owns the resentment. Just because an apology comes, for example, doesn’t mean the resentment (or anger) is going to miraculously vanish. This goes for anyone and everyone.
The answer comes back to focusing on oneself. All the energy turned outward in service of waiting for the other to apologize can instead be used more effectively. Instead of waiting for the narcissist to (finally) do something (authentic) for you, consider what difference that would really make, especially if the feeling lives inside you anyway.
Toni: Do you have any suggestions for how a third-party could help a young child whose parent-caregiver is a narcissist?
Meredith: Here are 10 things that come to mind. Please note that the list is not conclusive. Perhaps your readers can share their own ideas in the comments:
- Ask the parent what they think in order to get a better sense of how they view the problem and what they plan to do about it, but also to give you a sense of how they will or won’t accept help, and what your challenges are going to be.
- Try to engage the parent and try to keep things simple and direct.
- Understand as the third-party that you are also tending to a “child-like” parent and expect little.
- Expect fallout or a lecture even if everything is going well.
- Make sure to hold the child’s safety at the top of the list of the most-important things.
- Stay in touch with the caregiving team of healthcare providers.
- Don’t take things personally.
- Try to not be the sole “helper.”
- Protect your interests.
- Don’t take things the parent says personally.
Toni: People who are chronically ill need to pay attention to themselves—to their bodies and to the inner life of the mind so as not to intensify their mental suffering. And yet, the main goal of a narcissist is to draw attention away from others and back on him or herself. How can the child of a narcissistic parent whom the child depends on for care, support, and attention get the parent to refocus attention back on the child’s needs?
Meredith: Continue to practice the art of being present in the moment. Find ways to connect with the higher or deeper part of oneself. For those who have not yet read your books, I suggest they take a look—in particular at How to Be Sick. In addition, consider the suggestions I gave to third-party caregivers and use them lovingly for yourself. Finally, always keep in mind the option of seeking the advice of a professional counselor.
Here's the link to my first interview with Meredith: Is Your Caregiver Self-Absorbed and Manipulative?
Meredith’s new eBook is available at Amazon: When Your Parent is a Narcissist.
She holds a license in clinical social work and is the creator of the Surviving Narcissism series. For more than two decades, she worked directly in both healthcare and mental health including inpatient psychiatry, outpatient counseling, pediatrics, home health, and hospice.
Meredith’s essays have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Newsweek, Purple Clover, PsychologyToday.com, Los Angeles Times, Santa Monica Review, Journal of Palliative Care.com, Bride’s, and many others. Many of her essays have been anthologized in the books such as Dancing at the Shame Prom and The Complete Book of Aunts.
Toni is the author of three books:
- How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers,
- How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and
- How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.