- Narcissistic qualities may intensify as a person ages.
- When caregiving for a narcissistic parent, healthy and firm boundaries are essential.
- Tempering your expectations can help prevent frustration and burnout.
In many people, personality defects and negative traits tend to decrease with age. Those with milder cases of narcissism may lose the energy to stir the pot and push people away only to demand their return. Others, however, continue to ramp up their narcissistic game-playing to fill their insatiable and unstoppable narcissistic hunger. Tragically, narcissistic abuse by an older adult parent can create struggles and generate guilt that your younger self likely never imagined.
Four major failings of narcissists directly relate to the disruption and trauma that are experienced by any children in their household. These are the lack of self-awareness, the tendency to play the victim, the penchant for creating drama in their lives, and the startling lack of empathy. Young adults eager to break free from their narcissist-ruled families of origin may be overwhelmed and resentful when their older adult parents reach out for support and assistance as they age.
Unfortunately, older adults who are beginning to experience signs of dementia will likely show exacerbated behaviors that reflect narcissistic tendencies. Older adults who have lost their partners or other important members of their support systems may also exhibit behaviors that may seem narcissistic but are driven by fear, loneliness, and anxiety.
Lack of Self-Awareness
Aging and the changes it brings to the body can be humbling to normal folks, but they are terrifying and ego-shattering for narcissists. Narcissists deny any shortcomings regardless of age, but the insult of age-related failings and loss of abilities is unacceptable even when their compromised functioning is undeniable. Rather than ask for assistance, which would require them to admit vulnerability, they falter forward and risk physical harm in an effort to avoid damage to their ego.
If your older adult parent lacked self-awareness when they were younger, it is unlikely they will have a dramatic awakening and gain a sense of self-awareness now. Accept that they are blind to any of their flaws and know that you will have to put metaphorical, or literal, guardrails in place for their safety.
Playing the Victim
Because narcissists are unable to take an honest look at their behaviors or relationships, they have no “governor” in their efforts to manipulate others. When they are unable to manage situations, rather than take responsibility, they will play the victim and look for others to blame for their own mistakes or poor judgments. They use guilt as a tool to get their needs met at the expense of others.
As their worlds shrink along with their influence, narcissists may amp up the lashing out that they do towards others. As their control over others loosens, they may revel in their opportunities to play the victim. Whether it’s with family or paid caregivers, narcissists tend to find reasons to position their own discomfort or poor choices as the failings of others who should have the narcissist’s best interest at heart.
Stirring Up Drama
Sometimes older adults are idealized as laid-back, low-key, kinder, and gentler folks. Unfortunately, the need for drama doesn’t “go gently into the night” for narcissists. The older they get, the more cantankerous and demanding they can get. They’ll look for reasons to castigate, belittle, and even fool the people who are trying their best to care for them. They’ll gossip about others, lie about their caregivers, and do whatever they can to keep others engaged in trying to sort things out.
Narcissists enjoy keeping people in “reaction mode” and enjoy catching people wrong-footed. As they age, there are fewer opportunities for engagement in the world, so those who are in their orbit may feel the heat even more now than in earlier years.
Empathy is a key ingredient in healthy social engagement. By understanding others’ feelings, we are better able to navigate communication and interactions, and meet needs. Narcissists not only do not empathize with others, they do not have any desire to have their behaviors influenced by others. They don’t see how their demands, complaints, belittling, or disrespect affect others and, by not seeing, they are free to continue their emotional manipulation and wreak psychological damage on others.
For some people, the absence of empathy in their narcissistic parents is the most frustrating aspect of their relationship. Getting used to the martyr/victim standpoint, becoming accepting of the drama creation, and managing the fallout of their parent’s lack of self-awareness can begin to feel like normal tasks. It can be the lack of empathy, though, that cuts the deepest. A parent’s validation of their child contributes to the healthy ego development and self-esteem of their child. Adult children of narcissists may continue to hope that their parents will finally see them and want to know them, even when they know that their parent is incapable of this type of interpersonal relationship.
Caring for Yourself as You Care for an Aging Narcissistic Parent
- Set boundaries. Recognize that narcissists will do whatever they can to get you to give them what they want.
- Recognize your parent’s limits and don’t expect more than they are able to give. Always hoping for what you’ll never see happen can be exhausting and only leaves you disappointed when your hopes are unmet.
- Recognize your own limits and step back before you cross them. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, give yourself permission to go “low contact” or “no contact.” Even if it’s for a very brief period of time, give yourself a respite from the barrage.
- Remind yourself that your narcissistic parent can only take what you are willing to give up.
- Don’t be intentionally provoking or disagreeable. This only adds fuel to the fire of criticism or complaints that they may be waiting to unload.
- Don’t accept their criticism as the truth. Narcissists use words as weapons and tools to get others to bend to their will. Know your own value and spend time with those who hold you in the high esteem you deserve.
- Set rules for how often and how you will communicate with them. Every family is different, and your rules may seem too harsh or too casual to others. That’s okay — you know your family best. Rules might include items such as no phone calls during work hours; no emails being allowed to your work email address; and no drop-in visits that haven’t been okayed first.
- Practice patience. Listen but don’t engage, and remind yourself that fear may be the driving motivation for their unpleasant or intolerable behavior.
- Don’t sacrifice your family of creation in an effort to meet the needs of a narcissist whose desires can never be satisfied.
- Don’t lower yourself to your parent’s level when they try to bait you, guilt you, or attack you. Remember, emotional immaturity is a hallmark of their narcissism.
Balsis, S., Eaton, N. R., Cooper, L. D., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2010) The Presentation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in an Octogenarian: Converging Evidence from Multiple Sources, Clinical Gerontologist, 34:1, 71-87, DOI: 10.1080/07317115.2011.524821