Question

My oldest daughter (now in her mid-twenties) has always been the in-charge, critical child, bossing around her younger siblings and even me. She’s narcissistic and has a hard time understanding that anyone else has feelings aside from her, and never thinks any of us are good enough for her.

She’s now married and lately has been feeling left out. She’s always wanted to be the center of attention, but confusingly has also recently distanced herself from us, claiming that we don’t communicate well and don’t pay enough attention to her. She’s emailed and called her younger siblings to warn them about our toxic family, which, according to her, they don’t recognize yet. She claims I’m the cause because I don’t pay enough attention to all of them. These siblings then call me to assure that they don’t feel that way.

I used to feel very attacked by this daughter, but now I’m worried that she may be right. When she was a newborn, we didn’t have any skills except from a book. The book told us not to hold her too much, so we didn’t. The book said she wouldn’t smile until two months old, so we didn’t try to encourage that, and were shocked when a friend made her giggle at seven weeks old. It took her father and I about eight months before we felt like we had any connection with her. We didn’t know how to bond and were always stressed about doing the wrong things for her. We did better with her siblings and relaxed a lot more as we gained more experience.

Now I ask myself, “did our early inexperience and inability to connect with this child cause her narcissism and feelings of being neglected?” Her siblings claim we gave her twice as much attention as anyone else. Did we actually mess her up as her therapist says we did?

Answer

It’s normal to second-guess your parenting choices, especially when one of your children is actively leading the charge against you while recruiting siblings to join the blame chorus. Your desire to be accountable to your daughter is commendable, but I would hesitate to blame all of her current struggles on your earnest fumbling during her early months of development. You have a sincere desire to look at your own contributions to this situation, but it’s also important to consider the complexity of human development that include individual traits, outside influences, parenting choices, and biological factors. Instead of singlehandedly attempting to isolate the source of her angst, I recommend you focus on how to respond to her in the present moment.

Even if you were neglectful and clueless parents, no amount of criticism about your past efforts will help anyone feel better. I haven’t met one parent in my twenty-plus years as a marriage and family therapist who didn’t have at least one regret in their parenting journey. We rely on grace from God, ourselves, and our children as we all grow and develop in our family journeys. When we learn that we’ve done something that has hurt our children, most of the time our humble ownership of our mistakes and failures is enough to help them feel validated in their pain. If they need something more from us, it never hurts to listen more closely to better understand what they need from us right now.

Now, please recognize that it’s hard to respond effectively to someone who leads with criticism instead of soft requests. Criticism doesn’t require any real vulnerability on the part of the accuser. Her approach with you and her siblings doesn’t appear to include any specific requests beyond a general observation that you don’t pay attention to anyone. If she needs something specific from you, then she can do the work to visit with you privately and ask for it. Otherwise, it’s not helpful for her to speak for the siblings, especially if they’re directly coming to you to counter her assertions.

When you interact with someone, especially your own child, who only brings criticism instead of specific requests, it’s normal to become self-critical instead of self-aware. Self-criticism doesn’t produce any of the fruits of the Spirit outlined in Galatians 5:22-23. On the other hand, if we hear a request for something that creates more self-awareness, then we will often feel a mixture of discomfort that eventually leads us toward light, truth, and peace. My sweetest parenting moments have come when I’ve discovered a better way to relate to my children through their specific requests and God’s gentle parenting of the parent.

You’re seeking a better way to relate to your daughter. I hope she’s seeking a better way to relate to you as well. Even though you’re her mother, you’re not actively parenting her anymore. Instead, you’re working to build a mutually satisfying relationship with her where both of you take responsibility for the ways you impact each other. If your other children have similar requests of you, then it’s important to study those patterns and learn from them.

However, if her criticism persists, then see if you can encourage her to shift from criticism to asking for something specific in the relationship. You can’t re-parent her, but you can learn what works for her and make adjustments in your relationship. Ask her to share her vision for how she wants to connect with you in your relationship. If she only chooses to be critical and maintains a passive victim stance, then it will be hard to have a mutually satisfying relationship. Instead, you’ll love her and hold space for the day when she can work with you instead of only criticizing you.

Stay open in your heart for any personal tutoring from all of your relationships and the Spirit about how you can show up for those you love. We all have blind spots and areas we can improve in our families and friendships. If she wants to grow with you, she’ll respond to your invitation to build something that blesses both of you.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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