Claire was 15 years old and lived with her mother. Her parents divorced when she was 10 and for the past 5 years, Claire had limited contact with her father. Not that her dad did not want contact, he did, but Claire’s mom made it very difficult. When Claire did visit with her father, she was cold, distant, and indifferent towards him.
Some of Claire’s behavior was normal for her age. Teenagers tend to detach from their parents as part of a healthy developmental stage. But Claire’s treatment of her dad was especially troubling. She would take off when he wasn’t looking, would make harsh remarks, was constantly sarcastic and belittled him. Her dad, in an effort to make his relationship with his daughter better, asked for therapy.
Claire’s mom explained the reason for the distance. When they were married, her ex-husband would become angry and into rages. This terrified the mother and she was often worried about him hurting her and their daughter, Claire. He never did, but mom’s fear was real and even present, 5 years after the marriage ended.
- Observe: On the surface, it seemed as if the father was at fault for the strained relationship. But after the first initial session, Claire’s mother insisted on speaking to the therapist alone. The therapist invited her to sit down, but she refused and insisted on standing. Then came the demands of how the therapy should go, what the therapist should and should not say, and exaggerated comments about what Claire was feeling or thinking. It was clear that the mother did not want the therapy to be successful.
- Understand: So, a closer examination of Claire’s mother began. Claire reported that her mother demanded to know everything that was going on in the session and when she spent time with her dad. If Claire reported that things went well, Claire’s mother would tell her that he or the therapist was manipulating her. Her mother insisted that the only person Claire could ever trust was her. When Claire would protest, her mother would take away her phone and ground her. Claire felt trapped by her mother but was afraid to let anyone know.
- Evaluate: It wasn’t too long before the therapist realized that Claire’s mother was narcissistic. She had made Claire a physical extension of herself and as a result, rejected any individuality that Claire expressed. The more Claire tried to push away from her mother, the worse things got. While the more Claire pushed away from her dad, the better things got with her mother. Claire knew the formula for keeping her mom happy and was willing to do it to survive.
- Recognize: But is this Ok? No. This is a form of mental, emotional, and verbal abuse that Claire has endured. If this is left unchallenged, Claire will most likely end up in a relationship with an abusive person who might not stop at physical abuse. It is important that Claire understands the different types of abuse. Her mom would twist the truth, gaslight, and minimize Claire. Then she would guilt-trip, give her the silent treatment, and isolate Claire. Last, she would be deceptive, belittle Claire and then build her up again, and lash our if Claire disagreed.
- Empathize: This abusive treatment caused Claire to become angry which is why she would take things out on her dad. Ultimately, she was mad at him for not protecting her from her mother. Even though she treated him poorly, she desperately wanted a relationship but was scared. Her dad’s persistence provided comfort even though she rejected him over and over. Instead of being hurt over her rejection, Claire’s dad became empathic, supportive, and patient.
- Wait: It didn’t take too long before Claire’s mother refused to bring Claire into therapy. Fortunately, enough information got through that Claire was able to see what was really happening. A couple of years later, Claire came back into therapy, this time with her dad. Once Claire developed her individuality, her mother rejected her and literally dropped Claire off at her dad’s house to “handle”.
- Normalize: Now back in therapy, Claire began learning more about abusive behavior. She was able to see that she was abusive to her father because she was being abused by her mother. This new awareness helped Claire to stop the behavioral pattern and learn new ways of coping with the stress of having a narcissistic mother. It took a couple of years for Claire to regain a relationship with her mom, but now it has boundaries and Claire is very careful not to mix her dad’s world with her mother’s.
Claire is now doing well, has completed college and is in a healthy relationship. Her contact with her mother is still limited but her relationship with her father has much improved.
If you are in a similar situation, be patient, it can get better.