Adult children: taking care of an abusive parent.

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When an adult child’s earlier relationship with a parent has been wrought by abuse, how does the child manage to provide care to this parent who reigned verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse upon him/her?

  • Is it possible?  Yes.
  • Is caregiving required of an adult child in this circumstance?  No.
  • Is the child wrong to turn his or her back on a parent requiring care and attention?  Absolutely not.

Every individual’s situation is unique due to the extreme nature of this type of family dysfunction.  There truly is no textbook answer that fits each circumstance.  Not only is the situation unique but we’re talking about emotions – and how one deals with those emotions.  We’re talking about the balance of how the previous harm has been handled and whether or not contact of a caregiving nature may prove newly damaging to the adult child/victim.  For the purposes of this article, we will assume that the adult child has decided to participate in her abusive parent’s caregiving.  CAVEAT: Anything I offer in this article is not based on personal experience, but rather, experiences that have been relayed to me through my work with adults who are also caregivers for their parent.  I’m not an expert, I’m only an observer.  I covet any input that my readers may be able to offer.

The caregiving well is shallow.

More likely than not, the well from which the child can draw may be very shallow.  If the adult child has chosen to keep her distance from the abusive parent for many years, being suddenly thrust into one of the most difficult jobs she will ever perform could be a next to impossible task.   Let’s say that she has decided to give it a try but she has been wise enough to set up an escape route that she will follow when the going gets tough.  I don’t necessarily mean an actual, physical escape route.  Rather, she has established the upper limit that she will bear should matters get out of hand emotionally or physically.  She makes a commitment to herself that sets a comfortable threshold after which she will walk away, guilt free, knowing she made a valiant effort.  She is strong enough to acknowledge that at some point she may need to cease all caregiving efforts.

As I mentioned in a September 2011 Blog entry, “Deathbed promises and how to fulfill them,”  (found in the Caregiving category of this site) even adult children with a fabulous relationship with their parent struggle greatly in their caregiving efforts.  Whether you end up being a hands-on caregiver (providing the care in your parent’s home or yours) or you find yourself as the primary family contact with the staff caring for your parent at a long-term care (LTC) facility, you are pulled into the intimate aspects of a parent’s life and it is not an easy role in which to function.

Feeling obligated vs protecting oneself.

Too often, we do things out of a feeling of obligation rather than heartfelt compassion.  In the situations outlined above, obligation will either be the only thing that places you in the caregiver role, or it will convince you that you’re not emotionally available to walk down that rut-filled path.  I am an advocate for vulnerable adults – I live by that mantra – but in this situation I feel that the person needing the most advocacy is the adult child who still struggles with the effects of a past abusive relationship with a parent.  If you are not able to provide the caregiving, please know that there are others who can do so in your place.  You don’t have to be “it” ‘in this situation, and having someone else step in could very well be the best caregiving scenario for you, and your parent.  If you ever find yourself in this role, please do not act alone.  The community around you: churches, local government health service organizations (such as that found in Washington State), organizations that protect the abused, are an absolute required tool in your toolbox to be an effective caregiver, and an emotionally protected adult child.

Anyone out there who has been in this role or is currently in this role of taking care of an abusive parent?

Your input is very valuable and could very well help those struggling with this scenario.  If you feel strong enough to share your story you have my thanks for opening up on this Blog.

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