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Navigating Caregiving for Abusive Parents

Updated: May 23

Years ago, a teacher, let's call her Carrie came to me for guidance on navigating caregiving for aging parents. Carrie had spent years teaching and nurturing her students, but when it came to her own parents, she faced a complex and painful history. In addition to making difficult decisions about whether her father should continue driving or if her mother needed more help at home, Carrie was also grappling with years of difficult family dynamics.


Initially, Carrie felt isolated in her experience. She thought her situation was unique, assuming most caregivers had to choose between their careers and family time. What she didn’t realize was that many adult children struggle with the daunting decision of whether to care for parents who were neglectful, abusive, or unsupportive.


Confronting a Painful Past

As we talked, Carrie revealed the inner conflict she faced as her parents aged. She grew up with a narcissistic mother who was emotionally abusive, while her father was often absent due to his alcoholism and work demands. His absence left her vulnerable to her mother's constant criticism and manipulation.


Carrie had spent years in therapy working through her childhood trauma. Through this hard work, she learned to forgive her father for his lack of involvement and his failure to stop the abuse. She came to understand that his addiction and work commitments kept him away, and he likely didn’t know the full extent of what was happening. Even if he did suspect, his own struggles with addiction rendered him unable to intervene effectively.


Carrie’s father eventually acknowledged his shortcomings, and they formed a closer bond. He became a loving grandfather to her children, and as he aged, Carrie felt she could provide some level of care for him.


However, deep issues remained with her mother. Most notably, her mother refused to admit to any wrongdoing. Despite Carrie’s willingness to engage in family counseling to heal together, her mother’s denial, whether conscious or due to selective memory, created a significant barrier. Carrie wanted to break the cycle of abuse and move forward, but this denial made it challenging.



Caring for Elderly Parents Who Were Abusive

Carrie accepted her past and was determined not to repeat her parents' mistakes with her own family. But the pressing question was, how should she handle her mother's inevitable need for care? Could she "get over" her feelings of hurt and resentment? If so, how?


Understandably, the future frightened her. She felt she couldn’t provide hands-on care for her mother and wasn’t even sure she wanted to be involved at all. Carrie did have a sibling who wasn’t abused and could potentially take on some caregiving responsibilities, but this decision still weighed heavily on her.


As a therapist, I often hear from adults who were raised by abusive, neglectful, or narcissistic parents. They find themselves in a dilemma, feeling societal pressure to care for their parents despite their troubled pasts. Many grapple with feelings of guilt, wondering if they are terrible people for struggling with this decision. They seek advice on how to handle these complex emotions and what their options might be.

Grief and Trauma Therapy at Creating Space Therapy
Finding balance and peace while caring for parents with a challenging history is a journey; remember, your feelings and boundaries are valid.

Strategies for Managing Care for Abusive Parents

If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember you’re not alone. You’re not a bad child or an uncaring person for struggling with this issue. Here are some suggestions I often give to those seeking advice on caring for a family member with a complicated history:


  1. Begin going to therapy: Discussing your past and working through your feelings with a trained counselor can help you process resentment and make more informed decisions about caregiving. Therapy provides a safe space to explore your emotions and gain insight into how your childhood experiences shape your current relationships. It can also help you develop coping strategies for dealing with the stress and emotional turmoil of caregiving. Furthermore, therapy can empower you to set healthy boundaries with your parents, ensuring that your needs are also met. Ultimately, professional support can be a crucial step in healing and moving forward.


  1. Read "The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living": Dr. Ira Byock’s book explores the power of four simple phrases to acknowledge the past and promote emotional well-being. These phrases—"Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you"—can facilitate healing and closure. By reading this book, you can gain a deeper understanding of how to communicate effectively and compassionately with your parents. The lessons from the book can help you navigate difficult conversations and potentially rebuild strained relationships. Integrating these practices into your interactions can foster a sense of peace and emotional balance, even in challenging caregiving situations.


  1. Hire help: If you can’t provide care yourself, consider hiring a geriatric care manager. These professionals can assess an elder’s needs and ensure they’re met, acting as a buffer between you and your parent. A geriatric care manager can coordinate medical appointments, manage medications, and oversee daily care routines, alleviating much of the burden from you. They can also provide valuable resources and recommendations for additional support services. By involving a professional, you can ensure your parent receives the necessary care while maintaining your own well-being and reducing personal stress.


  1. Consider guardianship: If your parent can be legally proven incompetent, you might seek to have a legal guardian appointed. This can ensure their well-being without your direct involvement. Guardianship can provide a structured and legally binding framework for managing your parent's health care, finances, and living arrangements. It can also protect your parent from potential exploitation or neglect. Although this process can be complex and emotionally challenging, it can offer peace of mind knowing that your parent’s needs are being met responsibly. Consulting with a legal professional can help you navigate the guardianship process effectively.


  1. Accept their flaws: Understanding that your parents are human with their own flawed pasts can help you make progress in your healing and gain a deeper understanding of them. Recognizing that their behaviors were shaped by their experiences doesn’t excuse the harm they caused but can provide context. This awareness can foster empathy and potentially soften the emotional impact of their actions. Acceptance can be a powerful step toward emotional freedom, allowing you to release lingering resentment and anger. This perspective can also help you set realistic expectations and create healthier interactions moving forward.


Setting Boundaries and Prioritizing Self-Care

Every person has the right to set their own boundaries. This may mean limiting your involvement in their care or choosing no contact. The choice is yours, and it’s crucial to understand that you have options. They may not be easy, but they are available. If you make a decision and it doesn’t feel right, you can always change your mind.


Your parents have made numerous choices throughout their lives that have affected their health, finances, and relationships. However, you are not solely responsible for their happiness. Prioritize your own mental and physical health, let go of guilt, and find the path that feels right for you. Remember, offering assistance is a kind gesture, but it is not obligatory.


Seek Support and Find Balance with Professional Guidance

If you’re struggling with the emotional complexities of caring for a parent with a difficult past, you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. At Creating Space Therapy, our compassionate grief and trauma therapists are here to support you every step of the way. Schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced therapists today. Let us help you find the balance, peace, and understanding you deserve as you care for your loved ones and yourself. Reach out to us now to begin your path to healing and resilience.



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