Caring for those who have hurt you

Susan Donnelly, MSW, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist ( She has earned a reputation for empathy and a sense of humor, and explains that empathy is the ability to walk a bit in someone else's shoes so they might walk further or more easily: "It involves both an aptitude and a commitment. A sense of humor.

Susan is former Chair of the Bergen County Mental Health Board and has held Clinical, Administrative, and Supervisory positions in public and private agencies. In addition to the leadership she has provided to numerous State, County and Regional councils and committees, Susan is a SHARE, INC. volunteer. She welcomes your questions.

For understandable reasons, we don't like to think a lot about the fact that parents can be abusive to their children. Not just lose their tempers occasionally, but a protracted system of denigration and humiliation. The abuse can even persist into their children's adulthood.

Cruelty to children does not appear to curtail one's lifespan. Which means it can happen that abusive parents can live to be very old, sometimes with attendant health and mobility issues. This can then present a personal dilemma for their adult children. "Is it right that I care for someone who was, and continues to be, the person who has hurt me the most?"

I don't think there is a universally correct answer to this question, as it depends on many things. For example, has the adult child been able to overcome the effects of the trauma and live a reasonably normal life? Does the adult child have the resources to be a caretaker? Is the adult child able to set boundaries with the parent that offers him or her some measure of protection? Is there anyone else who might be able to take on this responsibility?

It is generally helpful if the adult child seeks advice and counsel from people they respect. It is important they confide in those who can see this as a moral enigma, and don't just dole out platitudes about honoring one's parents. As adults, abused children continue to struggle with PTSD and shame because as children their only option was to blame the abuse on themselves. So it is important that the adult child take their time making a decision whether or not to serve as a caretaker, and in what capacity. Deciding not to is a valid, and can even be a moral, choice.

Adult children who do decide to care for abusive parents may also do so for what they find to be ethical reasons. Someone who survived an abusive childhood and who has not become a perpetrator themselves is by definition resilient. And the survivor who cares for an abusive parent may do so because they have grown up to be the opposite of their parent. They care because this is who they are.