Abusive Parents: Scars Fade but Never go Away

As a geriatric consultant, counseling adult children who have sustained a lifetime of abuse from one parent or both is part of the issue. Counseling these adult children who are now called upon to care for an aging parent is another issue. Sometimes there is no love but  a sense of responsibility transcends all the abuse that has come before.  For other adult children,  it’s give back time. They walk away from a parent leaving them to find other supports in their time of need.

On January 20, 2014 Paula Span of the New York Times authored an article entitled: “A Risk in Caring for Abusive Parents.” Readers made their comments about the article. Below are my mine, followed by an inquiry from a reader, and my response.

The issue is a challenging one. Doing the right thing does not have a universal answer. The universality is in the fact that I do not believe an adult child truly walks away from such a parent without a scar. And we all know scars can fade but never go away.

Miriam Zucker:

One’s expectations can become so distorted by trying to please a parent who only knows how to hurt. These parents are expert marksmen. They know how to shoot an arrow and land a bull’s eye each time. We, as professionals, friends and family, have a responsibility to help get these sons and daughters out of harm’s away. To assist them find a balance between caring for one’s self and caring for a parent they do not love but feel a responsibility for.

Zen:

I fear for my husband who, 99% of the time, refuses to believe his mother is an abusive person. It pains him so much to think that his mother is such a mean, withholding, controlling and manipulative woman, so he chooses to rationalize her behavior away. He is a very linear thinker and also hews to thinking it’s either black or white, so when the mother-in-law does anything “nice” (something I would call “normal”), he uses that to defend her. He will return from a visit with his mother in an emotional “funk” that can last a day or more. I suspect that the pain he feels being abused by her is actually more tolerable than the pain he feels thinking she is such a horrible person, so he tries to rewrite the outcome by spending time with her (because on some visits, she is not so awful).

Miriam, I’d love to know how, as his wife, I “help get this son out of harm’s way.” Because even though she is hale and hearty at the moment, there will come a time when she won’t be, and it will be hell on earth on a daily basis, instead of a few times a month.

Miriam Zucker:

Zen, last paragraph first. Stay in the present. The future is unknown. By anticipating it, you are lessening the quality of your life in the moment. Home run for mother-in-law.

It may be very threatening for your husband to go from being the good son to becoming the bad boy. Abuse is his normal, his baseline. Two strategies for helping him and you get out of harm’s way: (1) when he returns from a visit let him know how upset he appears and the stress he is creating for himself as well as you. Help him to set boundaries with his mother, one step at a time. (2) If he continues to create a living shrine to her, set your own limits. The topic of his mother is not up for conversation.

Ultimately, your husband will change only if he perceives himself as having a problem. Yes try, but you may have to accept you cannot pull him off this battlefield.