The Aging Narcissistic Parent
By: Beth McHugh 2007
In previous articles I have talked about many aspects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). In this article, we will look further into the mind of a narcissist and will also address ways for the adult child of a narcissist to deal with the challenges before them.
To survive in an environment dominated and controlled by a narcissist, you need to be aware of your own weaknesses, i.e. the way your narcissistic parent manipulates you. I have called this characteristic a “weakness,” but under normal circumstances, this quality you may possess may not be seen as a weakness at all.
Let’s look at the case of Marie, whose mother is elderly and chronically ill, yet also a narcissist. Marie has grown up in a household dominated by the rules of her narcissistic mother. It was only because Marie suffered a life crisis as an adult that she sought counseling, and it was then that she slowly became aware that her mother suffered from NPD.
Marie spent many sessions denying that her family was harmful; such is the strength of the child’s need for a loving parent. When the gates of denial were finally open, out came the rage. Marie was extremely angry at her mother for not loving her. There were countless incidences of her mother’s negligence. As a child, Marie’s mother didn’t allow her to play with the neighborhood children, simply because she didn’t want “all those screaming kids” in her backyard. She thought nothing of the fact that Marie was an only child who needed the companionship of her peers.
The family home was close to a park, but her mother never took Marie there during the entire course of her childhood. This mother, unbelievably, never played with her child on the swings, the most simple of childhood pleasures. The swings had no interest for the mother, so Marie never got to enjoy them as a child. There was no natural mother-daughter bonding in this relationship.
Marie was very intellectually gifted, and always did well at school. This gave her mother enormous pleasure, as it would any mother. But the difference between Marie’s mother and other mothers is that Marie’s mother compartmentalized Marie’s behavior into good and bad. Doing well at school and college was good, and Marie’s mother would tell anyone who would listen about the excellent results. But she never talked to Marie or praised Marie. This is too difficult for the narcissist to do. Marie’s mother viewed Marie as an extension of herself, and therefore Marie’s achievements became her own. This explains why there could be no real praise for Marie herself, as that would be an admission that Marie was a separate entity to her mother.
Today, Marie is torn between wanting to tend to her ailing mother yet
needing to release herself from her mother’s sticky narcissistic
web. I alluded earlier to Marie’s “weakness” not being
a weakness at all. It was the admirable quality of being humane. Yet
Marie needs to be vigilant, as her mother will use that good characteristic
for her own selfish means.
The Aging Narcissistic Parent (2)
The person who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder finds the aging process more difficult to deal with than the average person. Looks fade, the body no longer responds like that of a young healthy person, and the mind is no longer as sharp as it once was.
All this contributes to an increasing sense of entitlement of the behalf of the narcissist. Entitlement simply means that the person believes that they are entitled to special treatment; in fact, they should get it as a matter of course without having to ask for it. Many teenagers display this trait but happily grow out of it to become mature adults who see that the other person has needs and rights of their own. No so with the narcissist, because in the narcissist’s world, no-one really exists except for them. All others are there to do their biding and those who will not bid accordingly are dismissed, despised and discarded.
It is this latter behavior that is so frightening to a child. The very thought that if they do not go on pleasing the narcissistic parent they will be ignored and therefore unloved is terrifying. Hence the narcissistic parent has a powerful hold on the emotions of their child, even when that child has become an adult with children of their own.
The first step in extricating yourself from the tentacles of an overly demanding narcissistic parent is admitting that your parent suffers from NPD. This is not as easy as it may sound, as many a child of a narcissist will tell you. It is extremely difficult for an adult child to come to grips with the fact that their parent never did, and never will, love them in the way that they needed and wanted to be loved. Of course, this feeling is not exclusive to children of narcissists. It is a process that comes as a by-product of many situations that may be present in childhood.
Once the admission is made and the resultant anger is addressed, practical steps are needed to enable the adult child to successfully live in the same world as their narcissistic parent. You must be aware of your own “hooks”, you must always remember who you are dealing with, and the powerful methods they employ to keep you right where they want you. It is unrealistic to think that you can “be yourself” in the presence of a narcissist and not be engulfed and spat out by them. You need to cultivate psychological armor that you can don each time you have contact with your parent. You must learn a different way of dealing with this person, one that you do not use in dealing with others. Sometimes, it is impossible to adequately do this, and some adult children choose to have no contact at all with their parent.
In coming articles we will look art options for those wishing to remain
in contact with these potentially destructive people.
The Aging Narcissistic Parent (3)
It is tempting to make excuses for the behavior of an aging mother or father who may be living on their own with failing health. But in dealing with the aging narcissist, this normal sense of human compassion will be used as a tool by the narcissist to exploit and manipulate their well-meaning adult child.
The aging narcissist has the same needs for respect and compassion as any elderly person. The problem is that the primary caregiver, often an adult child who has long suffered at the hands of this self-absorbed person, must cope with the increasing levels of narcissistic behaviors that accompany old age.
The adult child must create boundaries to protect themselves from the increasing onslaught of unrealistic demands from their frail narcissistic parent. They must especially protect themselves from the deadliest activity of all: hoping that with increasing age and frailty the lifelong self-absorbed parent will finally see their child for what they are: a real, separate person, who deserves all the love that they were denied for their entire lifetime. This destructive belief, that age and the prospect of death looming like a specter, will suddenly cause Mom or Dad to see reality and let go of all the love they have been withholding from their child is a hopeless one. Surely, everything will be all right now?
This is one of the most harmful, yet extremely common, daydreams of the child of the narcissist. It’s an understandable one: who wouldn’t want a loving parent who, at the end of their life, acknowledges their love and pride and gratefulness for their child. One of the most painful wounds that the child of a narcissist has to overcome is accepting the reality that this will never happen. It’s a very deep pain and a very real one. Coming to grips with it may take months or years; to be stable it must be a gradual process. Yet it is the key to escaping the trap of the narcissistic parent.