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The Dilemma of Parent Care


Years ago, between writing books on eating and building my therapy practice, I tried my hand at writing novels and screenplays. Although none were published or produced, I see the story line of one script play out over and over in my clinical work: that of adult children taking care of parents who abused or neglected them in childhood. Many of these clients don’t even realize the dilemma such a difficult situation presents to them.

Here's what I’m talking about. In my screenplay an insecure, introverted 20-something, raised by her widowed father who sexually abused her, ends up taking care of him when he develops Alzheimer’s. She’s never processed the rage she feels at him nor her fierce yearning for an apology for the unspeakable harm he did her. In fact, part of her reason for taking care of him is to get the love and caring he failed to give her growing up. The story is about how her dysfunctional relationship with her father distorts her ability to make healthy connections and have a happy life.

I’ve had several clients, usually female, from large families in which Dad was alcoholic while Mom struggled to raise her brood while trying to pacify him. As adults, these clients found themselves taking care of one parent or the other. A common theme was their neglecting themselves while pouring energy into caring for Mom who, overwhelmed with raising children, had failed to protect them from Dad’s verbal, physical or sexual abuse. Oddly, these clients didn’t necessarily feel rage at Mom, but instead experienced a gnawing guilt that they were not doing enough for her. The care many of these clients give their parents is what they really want for themselves.

In some cases, clients decide not to take care of parents who neglected or abused them but feel conflicted: They resent giving parents what they themselves didn’t get, but don’t want to be neglectful or abusive like them. In other cases, clients wish to hurt their parents the way they were hurt and do this by having little or no contact with them as punishment. However, the fact that they talk about the estrangement a great deal (or refuse to discuss it) in therapy tells me that the issue isn’t really resolved within them.

I have no answers for these clients because there’s no right way to handle this thorny situation. Each one is unique, and each person must process all their feelings about how to respond to parents who’ve abused or neglected them and do what’s best for themselves. Sometimes this means doing a lot for a parent in a compassionate or detached way; other times it means doing little or nothing. Rarely it means having no contact at all. Either way, there’s no escaping a host of uncomfortable feelings.