November 15, 2018

Dealing With Difficult Parents: What Can I Do?

Not long ago a reader asked for some feedback on the important issue of dealing with a difficult parent. This problem is one that many of us are facing now, or will have to deal with in the future. That person is responsible for bringing us into the world. In the vast majority of cases, he, she, or both did what they thought best. Maybe their parenting fell short (even far short), but there is a connection that can't be erased. Now, that connection is under strain, maybe even tearing. 

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area of human relationships. But, I have a few suggestions that may help you and bring you some peace as you work through a tough time with one or both of your parents.

Don’t expect your family member to change. Whatever you do (or don’t do) accept that the difficult parent may not change. You can change some of the factors under your control that may make the relationship less stressful. But, expecting a difficult parent to become loving and accepting will only make your feeling toward that person worse when change does not occur.

Don't Give Advice Unless It's Asked For. Your parent is probably feeling a loss of control and freedom. If you begin to reverse the parent-child role by offering unsolicited advice on unimportant topics, you are risking problems. Importantly this concerns advice, not critical health and safety issues that must be faced.

Accept Differences of Opinions. After all, your parent is not you. Mom or Dad does not think exactly like you. Respect the opinions of others, don't disregard them. Don’t dismiss, out of hand, an opinion no matter how different from yours.

Listen to What Your Elderly Parent is Saying. Listen completely, really listen. Remember that an older person might take longer to form a response or finish a thought. A period of silence is not a bad thing that you need to fill immediately. Paying attention and listening carefully shows respect. Of course, listening works both ways so try to determine that your loved one is hearing and understanding what you are saying.

Attempt to determine a pattern. Does your parent’s mood worsen the longer he or she is awake? Could it be pain? it a growing feeling of frustration at the inability to perform usual daily tasks or to remember things? Angry outbursts, complaints, and sarcasm may be the result.

Respond to strong emotions with none. The best response is no response at all. Most people who like to argue do so because it tends to evoke a strong emotional reaction from others. Don't take the bait. If you respond to a challenge with a neutral emotional tone, it is likely the combative parent will move on to another subject. Your parent will probably drop the subject pretty quickly.

At all costs, stay calm. When you must deal with criticism and anger keep yourself under control. Yelling back never helps. Your parent’s emotions can be a projection of feelings of isolation and inability to do he or she used to do. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into a battle that is about emotions and not reality.

Protect Yourself. You and your parent cannot afford for you to suffer from burnout. While you can't change your aging parents' condition, you can do things for yourself. Remember that you need a respite for yourself. Your parent may not be happy (so what else is new?), but hire someone for a few hours, or even a full day to recharge your batteries. Taking a break is something that you require. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t accept criticism from others. You know your limits.

There are many quality organizations and web sites with more information and suggestions. Here are a handful that I have visited:

My last thought: remember the good times and when your relationship was good. Once your parent is gone any time for reconnecting is over forever. Do what you can to build a bridge, no matter how difficult it is now.


  1. This so reminds me of how we handled Dave's dad. He was widowed in his sixties and managed to stay in their home in Mass. for quite a while. We were concerned about him because he loved going out with his lady friend and drinking Manhattan's. We were able to convince him to move down to Philly and get an apt. near us. That lasted a couple of years and then we bought a tri-plex and he had his own apt.
    After a while we had to put him in assisted living. It was quite a process, I have to say. But, we managed. I recall the night we were at the beach and he was home alone. We got a call from him saying, 'Don't be alarmed, the fire dept. was here and everything is ok!' HA! That wasn't the first time he set something on fire, which obviously led to the assisted living! Now that we're creeping up there in age, I really hope I 'go' before anyone puts me away!

    1. I receieved calls like your fire department call when my parents were still living independently in a home about an hour south of us. Each time we'd find some problem that they dismissed as unimportant, but it wasn't.

      Moving to a CCRC a few years later was the best thing they could have done for themselves and me. Betty and I are starting to have the "talk" about our move to such a place, sometime in the next 8-10 years (or sooner if health issues require it). Life does pass in a flash.

  2. This is the title of my life. My 85 yr old widowed mother lives down the road from me. She's adamant about staying in her own home and has done so because of the grace of a community that watches out for her. This includes managing her property, driving her to appointments and for groceries (or picking them up for her), food prep, morning/evening phone calls, managing her monthly bills & banking. She's always had a sharp tongue that she saves for those closest to her. Right now, that's me. I would not tolerate that kind of treatment from any other person and I sometimes ask her to take another tone with me. It took ~50 yrs to realize that I was not the cause of her bitterness. I'm fortunate to be part of a community. I have a strong constitution with boundaries and I'm big on self-care. Some days are more difficult than others. I've recently started to attend a caregivers' support group. Some of the handouts come from and Family Caregiver Alliance. Self-care, which includes recognizing my strengths/weaknesses, asking for help and being aware of the normal aging process has been helpful to me.

    1. Thanks, Mona, for sharing your story. Your mother's behavior is distressing. You are right to speak up and seek help from support groups.

      I am interested to learn more about the community that is there for her. Is it a religious group or just those who have known her for a long time and help? I wish that type of involvement with our older population was more common. It certainly doesn't excuse your mother's treatment of you but it is encouraging that others are willing to do what they can.

  3. My MIL has always been a challenge to my husband, and after my FIL passed, she became more so. She never bothered me as much, since we married later in life and I didn't have to deal with her while raising kids. Over time it became clear she was having demential issues, and the majority of her care is done by my SIL (thank God), but she's still a challenge. And as the dementia has worsened, she has really let loose with some choice comments that I know her former self would be shocked by - or maybe that's what she thought all the while and just didn't say them out loud.

    I'm also learning from my hospice volunteer work that family members that are closest are often the ones to take the sharp tongued lashings and the patients save the polite, happy chats for infrequent visitors. It's REALLY hard for the family members who take the brunt of it, and they need support in their caregiving.

    1. Thank you for reminding us that the caregivers closed to the person requiring their help can take the brunt of any simmering problems, deservedly or not. Caregiver respite is a real need.