Not only pleasant people get old

“Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a life time”—Herbert Ward

My previous blog addressed caring for elderly parents.  This article discusses the issue of becoming a caregiver for parents who were abusive or neglectful when you were a child.  Some adult children choose not to become caregivers.  If you have experienced abuse by a parent, it simply may not be practical to care for them when empathy and concern are required.

For adult children who choose to become a caregiver to a parent who was abusive or neglectful, it is important to realize that there is no simple formula for defining one’s obligations to a parent(s) who didn’t fulfill their own.  The research on adult survivors of childhood abuse who later become caregivers for their abusive parent(s) is limited but recent research has indicated that individuals who report having endured childhood maltreatment are more vulnerable to depression than non-abused caregivers when caring for their parents.  If you choose to care for a formerly abusive parent, you need to be aware of the risk.  Some issues to consider:

Reduce your risk.  One factor that seems to lessen the vulnerability to negative outcomes involves the type of coping strategies used.  It appears that coping strategies that involve escape or avoidance (e.g., denial, using drugs or alcohol, emotional eating) are more likely to lead to negative outcomes such as depression than coping strategies that encourage people to take action to alter a stressful situation.  The latter is called problem focused coping. 

Set firm boundaries.  One type of problem focused coping is to set firm boundaries to protect yourself from your parent. You cannot control their behavior but you can stop allowing them to control yours.  It’s OK to no longer tolerate being treated with meanness or disrespect.

Self-awareness is important.  It is important to recognize any abusive feelings that might surface in yourself after coping with life-long abuse by a parent and get help before your behavior carries over into elder abuse.  Individual psychological therapy can be enormously helpful if you find yourself in this situation or if the abusive parent dies before there was a resolution to the childhood abuse or if there was never an apology.

There may be societal or religious pressures to care for a parent “no matter what”.  For outsiders who only see a very polite, frail, gray haired man or woman who sits waiting for visitors that never come, it may be hard for them to imagine that the person was once a tyrant to their children.  In the end, if you choose not to be a caregiver or to limit your involvement, it’s important to not see yourself as a terrible person and to recognize that outsiders don’t always know the whole story.

 “Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves.” – Nathaniel Branden

Dr. Lisa Berg-Kolody, PhD

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This website is for informational purposes only and should not be considered professional advice or a substitute for psychological therapy.