How do I explain to my (young adult) children that their grandmother has an extreme Narcissistic Personality Disorder? When they were younger I limited exposure and taught them to just go along, so they still had both my parents in their life. Their grandfather is a gentle, loving man but he will not be with us much longer and my mother is going to be left alone to realize that she has damaged all her relationships. I don’t want to influence them unduly or transfer my issues, but at the same time they are old enough now to understand the explanation of why she was so impossible to please. How do I have these conversations in a loving way so they understand the importance of maintaining strong boundaries if they decide to maintain a relationship with her after he’s gone?
I really feel for you. That’s quite the dilemma you’ve got on your hands. I want to start by commending you for working so hard while your children were growing up to find a balance for them between feeling connected to their grandparents, while also protecting them from the destructive effects of a severe personality disorder. Unfortunately, I have helped many of my clients with this same dilemma over the years. Personality disorders are much more common than we once thought and they cause incredible damage in families, sometimes with devastating consequences.
I’m hoping that as a daughter of a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you have gotten the help you need to overcome that legacy and heal yourself as an adult. I mentioned a good resource in a previous e-zine called Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. that might be helpful. As a multigenerational family systems therapist, I believe very strongly that the way to teach children how to have healthy boundaries and relationships is by leading by example. It sounds like you have done a good job of that already with your kids, but now that they are adults; you may need to step it up a notch.
Basically, what I tell my clients in your situation is to talk with their adult children about how they were parented and the affects it has had on them. I would also encourage open and honest conversations between yourself and your kids about their grandparents. I would ask them about their experience with each of them and how they feel about them. You might be surprised- sometimes people who were not good at parenting do well at grand-parenting and are able to be good to that generation because there is more distance there. I think the important thing here is to work through your own unfinished emotional business with your parents and let that be your guide and allow your children to feel that they can come to you with any relationship issues they may experience- both with family and peers.
I hope that helps. Feel free to write in about how this evolves for the benefit of other readers with similar situations.
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