Caring for the emotionally dependent parent

I used to run a program for older adults, and also saw many, many patients at the end of their lives. Very often I ended up working with their adult children instead. Many of these adult children felt extreme amounts of guilt because they weren’t doing enough to help their parents when, in fact, they were doing more than most people do for themselves.

Often, the parent, unwittingly, seemed disapproving of the adult child, shooing them away, labeling them needy or—always worse—controlling. Sometimes the parent was very ill and, so, very angry at the adult child for dealing with the reality of the situation. Sometimes the parent was not so ill and, so, if the adult child did not pay the attention to parent wanted, the parent grew snippy and ornery. Once the comments were out of the bag, the parent seemed to feel better, as in lighter, as in happier. But the adult child felt worse. The adult child also felt worse even when the parent boasted about how great their son or daughter was at meeting their every need. Go figure.

A parent’s illness signals a reminder that we are not children anymore—that the wounds we got as kids—inflicted by parents, sometimes intentionally, oftentimes not—are still with us and feel like they define us without our even realizing it. This happens in all aspects of our lives, but the original relationship with our parents is most poignant because that’s often where the patterns begin to define us.

You’re probably already doing this, but if you’re not, why not invite yourself to stand apart from the parent who criticizes…and even the one who fawns. This has nothing to do with love or caring, but rather how to define oneself. What does it feel? It might be a subtle feeling, something almost non-feel-able, but if you focus long enough, you’ll notice a slight shift, if only for the moment. Perhaps it feels like freedom?

Now consider your parent. Is he or she emotionally dependent on you? If so, it can be breathtaking to realize how dependent they not only are—but always were…on you as a child, a little kid.

Shifting your perspective just a bit can help you as a caregiver gain compassion for yourself and your parent, no matter how “close” or “un-close” you are.

This post first appeared at PsychologyToday.com as Caring For The Parent Who Doesn’t Care For You:Perhaps there is a new way to view the relationship so it doesn’t hurt so much.

Look for my new book about coping with narcissistic parents, available late 2015.