Tempted to throw Momma from a train? Looking forward to the annual blaring of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer?” If you have a difficult relative who is aging anything but gracefully, you might benefit from Nina W. Brown’s practical new handbook, Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed: A Guide to Coping with Difficult, Narcissistic Parents & Grandparents.
Brown, a counselor with a specialty in narcissism, begins by describing four primary types of self-absorbed parents: clingy, suspicious/defensive, arrogant, and belligerent. Each type has characteristic behaviors, issues, and potentially negative impacts on their grown children. Brown engages her reader right from the start with straightforward exercises designed to identify the type — or combination of types — that best represents their parent. Thus armed, the reader can begin to make sense of the demands and expectations of the parent as well as recognize the impact these have had on their relationship.
Brown’s goal is to help the reader develop and implement more appropriate responses that deflect and diffuse the negative behaviors of the narcissistic parent. While she clearly does show compassion and understanding in her depictions of the aging self-absorbed person, her unwavering focus is on the adult child/reader.
The book is full of useful tips and concrete illustrations of what to do — and, equally important, what not to. Seemingly ordinary and even innocuous, these coping maneuvers, drawn from Brown’s years of experience, are effective because of their inoffensive nature: changing the topic of conversation, utilizing a neutral phrase, not maintaining eye contact.
With each subtle victory comes an increased ability to protect the vulnerable self. Beyond these behavioral strategies, Brown offers readers an opportunity to examine and resolve — or at least mitigate — their feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and sadness through directed exercises. These include journaling, list work, self-affirmations, and developing personal resources. Her emphasis on trying out different tactics is both collaborative and success-oriented as she suggests adapting her ideas and letting go of any that do not work.
For some, just the act of identifying as the adult child of a narcissist who is then “put in their place” in Brown’s typology could have a positive impact.
Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed is well-written and highly readable, with short chapters characterized by judicious use of section headings and set-apart text. This makes it especially attractive to readers who have busy lives and only minimal interest in psychological theory, though counselors and other mental health professionals would also find Brown’s techniques valuable.
Using the book to sort through the jumble of one’s feelings could provide important insights and remove longstanding stumbling blocks. But the book does not need to be read in its entirety to be helpful — why fret about a belligerent parent when your own is clingy? — nor does the reader have to commit to emotional self-reflection to benefit from utilizing Brown’s coping strategies. Even random leafing through the pages can uncover useful gems, such as the chart offering interventions to verbal action (page 173), which provides protective tools against sarcasm, complaining, contempt, yelling, and teasing.
Brown often draws the reader into imagining real-life scenarios, and provides such outwardly easy advice as “provide sympathy, not empathy” and “refuse to react with shame or guilt.” Although she acknowledges the unique issues arising from aging — such as physical and cognitive changes — there is room for further treatment of this complex topic. The book would have helped a wider audience had it better acknowledged situations where the adult child cannot avoid interactions with their self-absorbed parent, or may be under increased pressure to prioritize the parent’s needs in making difficult decisions. Likewise, some attention to end-of-life changes, or lack of changes, in the adult child–self-absorbed relationship would have been welcome.
For these reasons, the best audience for this book may be those adult children whose self-absorbed parents and grandparents are still relatively independent, especially those who still live apart.
That said, Brown leaves the reader with a strong sense of having someone in their corner who can dispense wise and practical advice. And again, for some, the mere act of identifying as the child of someone self-absorbed will be a big help.
Children of the Aging Self-Absorbed: A Guide to Coping with Difficult, Narcissistic Parents & Grandparents
New Harbinger Publications, September 2015
Paperback, 216 pages