Getting On Better With Difficult Older Parents - Free Self-Help

By Diana Holbourn

Article Summary


This article describes several types of parents who make life difficult, for instance by being very critical and controlling or very dependent or selfish, and it gives advice on how to cope with them. There are several stories in it about people with parents who made life difficult for them and how they learned to cope with them. Part of it discusses ways to try to persuade a difficult parent to get therapy if it's thought necessary.

The Main Contents

Background Information About This Article

The Self-Help Information in the Article

  1. Over-Dependent Parents
  2. Hyper-Critical Parents Who Think A Child's All Good or All Bad
  3. Very Self-Centred Parents
  4. Over-Controlling Parents
  5. Depressed, Self-Abusive and Fearful Parents
  6. Grieving Parents

Part One
Over-Dependent Parents


Chloe thinks:

This book's called Coping With Your Difficult Older Parent.

The first chapter starts off by describing the problems two men had with two aggravatingly dependent mothers, one who'd complain and criticise him even if he simply didn't phone her until half an hour after she was expecting him to, and she expected him to phone her every evening, apart from the ones where he visited her in person; and the other whose mother would say she was becoming ill whenever he wanted to spend a little bit of time away, which either meant he'd go but feel guilty, or cancel his plans for her but feel angry.

The Mother Who Always Complained Angrily When Her Son Wasn't There the Minute She Expected Him to Be


The mother who expected her son to speak to her every evening was usually unhappy. She'd been a complainer for as long as he could remember, and with her health failing in her old age she was just getting worse. She didn't have any friends and had been very dependent on her husband when he was alive, always complaining that he was late and ought to come home from work earlier when he came in every day at exactly 7 o'clock. Now her husband had died, she'd become very dependent on her son, expecting him to be there whenever she wanted, sometimes getting upset and critical when he was just a little bit late.

He wasn't sure how to cope with it. Getting angry just made her angry and nothing ever came out of it. Trying to reason with her just made her complain he was being unfair. She couldn't be reasoned with, because all she could think about was how worried she was when he wasn't there the minute she expected him to be.

So he tried to do exactly what she wanted, seeing her a few times a week, speaking to her every day, making sure to remember every special occasion, and so on. While this certainly didn't stop her being angry, it at least meant her anger didn't get out of hand. But he was getting worn out with all her criticism and with always feeling he had to do what she wanted. So he went for counselling to see if he could discover better ways of coping with the situation.

The people who wrote the book counselled him and his wife to do things differently from then on:

They advised that he didn't get angry, since that would only make his mother annoyed with him. And since she couldn't be reasoned with, arguments would never get anywhere. But there were things that might:

They told him it was very unlikely that he'd ever be able to get his mother to change, since she'd been like that all her life, and didn't think she needed to change because she blamed him for everything. But they said changing his own behaviour could bring him more peace of mind:

Limiting the Amount of Time You Spend With a Clingy, Critical Parent

Saying goodbye

The authors recommended he didn't see his mother anymore often than he was comfortable with, despite what she thought. The idea was that if he authoritatively but gently told her how often he was going to visit her from then on, and wasn't open to being nagged into changing, once she realised her usual complaints and anger weren't going to get her what she wanted, she'd put up with the idea better. He could reassure her that he would be seeing her sometimes, reminding her when he'd scheduled the time to see her, but being firm about not changing his mind.

(It sounds to me like the kind of thing childcare experts tell people to do on television - being firm with their children about new rules, and not changing their minds no matter how the children protest, till the children realise making a fuss won't work and make do with what their parents want.)

The authors say even if the parents never get used to the new rules and keep complaining, it's best to remain firm and only do what you can do without it becoming a strain on you. That way, you might actually strengthen your relationship with your parents or at least stop it deteriorating further, because seeing them less will probably mean arguing with them less, so you'll be in a better mood with them.

You don't have to go into long explanations as to why you've started being firm about your new rules. In fact, it's best not to, since the more you say, the more opportunity they have to find things in what you say to argue with. Perhaps when they complain repeatedly after the first time you've explained yourself, even just saying in a friendly way, "That's just the way it is now. Come on, let's just enjoy the time we have together", and then distracting them with a change of subject to something you know interests them, might work sometimes.

Introducing Your Parent to New Things

Art gallery

You might feel guilty about not seeing your parent as often as they'd like, but long-term, it might actually be good for them. Sometimes, introducing people with that kind of difficulty to new people they'll hopefully make friends with, and new hobbies, can give them new things to think about so they don't brood and worry over little things so much, like whether you were half an hour late ringing them yesterday. Their enjoyment of life can be increased by the new variety, even if they're reluctant to change their old routines at first.

It's unlikely they'll take the initiative and go to new places on their own, because new challenges might well make them fearful. Perhaps if you go with them to introduce them to new things though, if they grow to like them, they can be persuaded to stick with them when you stop going. Or you could try persuading them to phone old acquaintances, or find them creative things to do in their own home that'll occupy them and give them a sense of achievement.

Sticking to Your New Resolve to Spend Less Time With Your Parent

On the phone

The authors recommend that if a person's parents phone them a lot more often than they'd like them to, they get an answering machine and put it on sometimes to take some calls.

Sometimes, you might need something to remind you of your new routine, and to increase your resolve to stick to it. Sometimes a wall chart or calendar with the days marked down when you'll visit your parents can help.

The authors give an example of a phone conversation where the mother nags and complains as usual, but the son both manages not to become irritated as he would have done before, and to stick to his resolve not to see her any more than he said he would. It goes something like this:

Son: Hello Mum, how are you?

Mother: How do you expect me to be? I'm sitting here worried and anxious and waiting for my devoted [said sarcastically] son to come and see me.

Son: [Usually he'd respond with irritation to a comment like that, but not this time; he changes the subject instead] You'll enjoy looking at the picture your granddaughter drew in school the other day. I've kept it with me to show you.

Mother: That's sweet. It's been a long time since I saw her. I miss her. It's about time you brought her here to see me.

Son: We'll all be here this Sunday. Remember that's our day together. We'll have a nice lunch.

Mother: Oh yes, that's all I get, isn't it; one day a week!

Son: I'll look forward to Sunday Mum. Bye.

Throughout the conversation, he made an effort to remain cheerful and not be provoked into a row. He must have ended up feeling better for it. Even if sometimes he thought she deserved a good talking to, he would have known from experience that it never made her see things from his point of view and just made her respond with more anger, so he was the one who suffered more for it in the end. Keeping cheerful and responding in a friendly way was best for his own peace of mind. He kept the focus on what the family could do together, rather than talking about what he was no longer prepared to do, so the conversation had an optimistic tone and didn't descend into accusation and argument.

It might take a while for you to get out of the habit of responding with anger when your difficult parent nags and criticises you, since what they say is bound to be irritating and you might be so used to getting angry it just comes naturally. But the more you try not getting angry, the better you might become at it. You could try practising with someone else if there's anyone willing to do a role-play with you. They could pretend to be your parent, and you could pretend you're talking to them. They could say the kinds of things your parent says when they complain and belittle you, and you could practise responding in a calm cheerful way instead of being annoyed. The more you practise, either with someone else or rehearsing things in your mind, the easier it might come when you try it for real.

Trying to Understand the Feelings Your Parent Has That are Triggering Off Their Difficult Behaviour


The authors say that often, when a grown-up child tries to understand the feelings a parent has that are making them behave in an aggravating way, it can reduce their anger with them. For instance, if, rather than just thinking of a dependent mother as irritating, their son or daughter comes to recognise that it's quite possibly insecurity and misery that are motivating their complaints, not a wish to annoy, then they can become more understanding. It doesn't mean they have to feel guilty about not rushing to obey their parent, but the tone of their conversations can become more reassuring than irritable.

One thing that can help grown-up children understand annoying parents is if they think back to anything they can recall hearing about the parent's childhood that could have made them like that. Or they could ask the parent more about their childhood. For instance, it might turn out that an aggravatingly dependent mother was neglected as a little girl and felt abandoned, so she developed a fear of abandonment. Or she might have had a relative she was really close to who died, or a brother or sister who died and a mother who went into a prolonged period of grief and depression that meant she didn't give her daughter much attention just at the age when she most needed it, and from then on she became scared of losing people or not being taken care of. And so on.

Those aren't good reasons for them to behave the way they do, especially when their grown-up children treat them well, but feelings often aren't rational. Think of how lots of people are afraid of little spiders that can't do them any harm, for example. They can't help their feelings. So your parent might be making you feel miserable, but they may well feel worse. If you think of it that way, some of your anger might turn to sympathy. You might think they're being unreasonable because you've always taken good care of them; but lifelong fears aren't going to disappear easily; their emotions will be a far bigger influence on them than any thoughts you try to put into their mind, as emotions often are; so if they still treat you as if you might desert them at any minute, even if their behaviour annoys you, try to recognise any feelings of fear that are underneath any critical hostility or other annoying behaviour they display. Then you can be more sympathetic, and you'll end up less stressed yourself, because all the arguments that never get anywhere must stress you out, so if you have less of them, you'll feel calmer so you'll be happier.

If you understand a bit about what made your parents the way they are, then in conversations with them where they're saying things that would once have made you angry, you might be able to hold your temper and even not feel irritated if you remember each time that underneath their complaining and nagging might well be a feeling of insecurity and misery. Then if you focus on cheering them up, rather than on the annoying words they're actually saying, you can keep calmer and be more reassuring and optimistic, and you yourself will probably come away feeling more cheerful, because you haven't had the angry conversation you would have had in the past that would have left you with feelings of annoyance, possibly long after the conversation had finished.

At first, you might feel more stressed because of the fuss they make when you limit the amount of time you see them, and because it might feel irritating not to vent any angry feelings that flare up in you when they say the things that normally make you angry, and because the new technique won't come naturally at first so it might take a bit of discipline to stick to it, and everyone's likely to make mistakes and forget to stick to it sometimes before they're used to it. But if you find that after the first bout of hysteria your parent feels at your new rules, conflict is actually reduced, you'll hopefully become confident you're doing the right thing and feel better for it.

Other Ways of Reducing Your Stress


The authors advise people to do things that'll increase enjoyment of life and so reduce stress, such as trying to find humour in things or using humour yourself, and looking out for other sources of humour. Perhaps there are some comedy programmes on television you enjoy or comedy films you could watch from time to time? I heard it once said that watching little children, perhaps in the park, can be amusing. You might be able to think of other humorous things you could do, or amusing ways you could look at some annoying things in your life.

Maybe go on trips away if you can, to nice places.

The Man Whose Mother Kept Getting Ill Whenever He Wanted to Go Away


A man and his wife came for counselling with the authors because the man's mother was so emotionally dependent on him it was a real burden. She had a whole list of ailments, some undoubtedly brought on by worry and tension, and they would always get a whole lot worse before he wanted to go away with the family, and then clear up if he cancelled his plans. If he went away despite her complaining about being so ill, he'd feel very guilty. But he was angry at having given in to her when he cancelled his plans, sometimes at very short notice.

She didn't make friends easily and was lonely and depressed, so she relied on him for companionship and support. Because she was so dependent on him, asking her to go and make new friends instead of relying on him for support wasn't likely to work; He was the one she felt she needed to care for her.

He'd lived a thousand miles away from her, but when her health deteriorated with age to the point where he felt sure she couldn't live alone anymore, he persuaded her to come and live near him. He knew it would be a nightmare if she actually lived with him and his wife, but they got out of that because their bedrooms were all upstairs and she couldn't cope with stairs. So they found her a place in a retirement home near them and visited often. She just got more and more dependent on their visits for comfort though, and couldn't stand them going away even for a short time.

He got more and more frustrated by her behaviour and the way he couldn't cope with it well, till he went for help.

He had tried to cope. He'd tried giving his mother more and more preparation time before he went away, telling her earlier and earlier, in the hope it would give her a chance to get used to the idea and calm down. But it had the opposite effect, making her more and more anxious as the time drew nearer to when he wanted to depart. So she became just as sick as ever or more so.

He realised that getting ill had always been the way she responded to stress. And she was prone to great bouts of depression and anger when she was unhappy about something.

Feeling sick

One thing that made him angry was that it seemed she was faking some of her illnesses, since they always got better when she got what she wanted, such as if he cancelled the trip he'd been going to take with his family. But he came to understand how tension and stress can actually cause physical symptoms, like stomach aches and headaches, and aches and pains in other areas because of muscle tension; and some anxious people instinctively pick up on any little pain sensation their body has and worry about it so it feels worse and worse. That's how his mother could feel ill when she was scared he was going to leave her but get better when she relaxed after he decided not to go after all. She was so anxious that would even happen when he only wanted to go away for the weekend.

It may also have been that she had a fear of losing him forever, and that even if she knew it was irrational, she couldn't help it. So whenever he went away, she panicked because she was scared he wouldn't come back, and the severe worry made her very tense till her head and stomach hurt as much as they might have done if the cause had been entirely physical.

Once he understood her behaviour better, he was able to work out what to do that would be the best for both of them, easing her fears while getting away when he wanted to.

Once he understood that, he could sympathise with her more, so that reduced the amount of anger he felt with her, and stopped him blaming her for disrupting his plans.

That didn't make him more likely to give in to her though. In fact, he stopped doing that, so he stopped being angry with himself for doing it.

At the same time, he started talking to her in a more supportive and encouraging way, since he began to understand better what made her behave the way she did, how fearful she was all the time. So he came to understand that things genuinely were more difficult for her than for other people because of her dependent personality, and He was advised to show sympathy, reassuring and soothing her by saying he understood she was feeling very lonely, and that he recognised it must have been difficult for her getting used to a new home and a new city at the same time, expressing the hope that gradually she would feel like making new friends and get used to her new surroundings.

Instead of giving her lots of preparation time to get used to the idea of him going away, he started giving her virtually none, so she wouldn't have any time to work herself up into a bad state with worry. The counsellor he saw advised him that if it was only a short trip he was going on, he didn't have to even tell her he was going. He could phone her from where he'd gone, but not say he was there; he could simply say he wouldn't be able to come to see her that evening because he was so busy, or say he was tired or something, but say he would come to see her in a couple of days' time. That would be hiding the truth so it might feel awkward; but it would at least spare her the panicky fear she'd get if she started being scared he'd never come back.

If he was going away for longer, so far away he wouldn't be able to get back quickly if he had to, he'd have to tell her; but he'd tell her not long before they left, perhaps just the day before, and be reassuring, telling her what support he'd arranged others to give her and saying he'd phone regularly. Here's how a conversation might go:

Son: Mum, Tomorrow morning me and the wife are going to France for two weeks. We ...

Mother: [Interrupts her son, takes a big sigh and puts her head down] I don't know what I'm going to do!

Son: I know it's going to be hard for you. You've counted on my visits every week, and now I'm not going to be here in person for the next fortnight. I've thought about how we can still keep in touch. We'll call you from France and we'll also send you postcards.

Mother: [Sighs again and puts her hand over her heart] Darling, I'm not feeling very well. I'm getting ill again.

Son: I'm sorry you're not feeling well. [He stops and waits. He's quiet so as to convey a message of concern for her feelings. If he rushed on with what he wanted to say, it would sound as if he was brushing her feelings aside.]

Mother: [Doesn't say anything. Stays sitting with her head down, not looking at her son.]

[The son doesn't say any more straightaway, but waits for a minute and then goes in the kitchen to de-stress and fix in his mind what he's going to say next. He makes himself and his mother a cup of coffee. He brings them out and puts hers on the table beside her before saying more.]

Son: Mum, here's a cup of coffee. [The mother raises her head.] Lucy and the baby are going to visit you tomorrow. And during the week, my friend Melanie's mum Daisy's going to drop in. She'd love to join you for lunch, actually, because she's looking for a retirement residence herself and is wondering whether to move here.

Mother: She won't like it here. The people are cold.

Son: Well, you can tell her what it's like. She wants to hear everything about the place.

Mother: I don't feel well!

Son: I feel bad for you. [He goes and gets her calendar, and writes down which places he'll be at and when, and also the dates of the visits he's arranged for people to make to his mother, and shows it to her.]

Mother: [Puts it on her lap and looks up at her son with a very sad face.]

Son: [Takes her hand] Mum, I'll phone you when we land so you'll know we arrived safely.

There were quite a few things in that conversation that could have triggered off arguments or guilt in the son which would have meant he went away feeling bad. He used to get annoyed with her for getting sick every time he wanted to go away. But being angry or trying to convince her she was being unreasonable never changed anything. Now though, he was sympathetic and soothing, but firm. He knew he was providing for her so he didn't need to feel guilty about going; and he gave her sympathy and comfort because he understood her feelings better. He knew it wouldn't make her complaints go away; but being kind might pacify her to some extent, along with showing no signs of giving in.

Importantly, he told her he was going away less than a day before he was due to go, so she wouldn't have so much time to work herself up into a state with worry. Then he showed her where he would be and when, so it wouldn't seem to her as if he'd just disappeared to who knows where. He told her he'd keep in touch, and he arranged for other visitors to come in while he was away. He didn't tell her, but he also arranged for the people at the home to give her more attention while he was away.

The book says that naturally it was more than just the problem with the son's times away that bothered his mother. She seemed to be finding it hard to adjust to her new environment, and very much missed her old one, being the kind of person whose thoughts were excessively focused on what she thought was going wrong in her life. Sometimes, she would deeply regret having moved, and then she'd blame her son's family for persuading her to move. She was of a personality type that would always blame others for everything that went wrong in her life.

Being Dependent and Critical Can Be Like a Habit


For people with parents like that, again, the temptation would be to get angry with them. But trying to identify with the underlying feelings of misery such people are feeling and soothe them can be less stressful, for you.

If you have a dependent parent and can think back to earlier memories you have of them, they might not have been so bad in earlier years, but if you remember them being like it to some extent, then you'll realise how it's just a part of their personality, so trying to reason with them isn't likely to work, because it'll be like thinking you can change the habit of a lifetime in a few minutes. Everything you say might make perfect sense, but it's difficult to break habits, especially where strong emotions are involved, and especially where the person doesn't actually want to break them. That's why adjusting your own behaviour's more likely to reduce the stress of the relationship, even if you don't see why you should have to.

Your parent's difficult personality will likely be causing them more misery than it causes you. Try not to take what they say personally, even if they're blaming you unfairly for something. If they've always blamed others for their problems, it'll be just the way they are, not anything to do with you.

Some parents might well show clinging dependence in other ways. You might have to think up your own strategy for dealing with it; but it might help to know they're not likely to be deliberately trying to annoy you, but may very well be driven by irrational fears they can't do anything about. Once you understand that, you might be more willing to change your behaviour, and that may well cause a knock-on effect, with them being calmer with you, even if you do give them less of what they want.

Parents Who Have Only Recently Become Clinging and Dependent

Old man

Some parents might act the same way as the ones who've been clinging and needy and fretful all their lives, but they might only recently have become like that as their abilities deteriorate with age. Since it won't be an ingrained part of their personality, it may sometimes be possible to get them to change. Their dependence might sometimes go away anyway if they've got a condition where their health could improve or they could do things to substitute for the things they've had to give up.

If their dependence has been brought on by a currently incurable condition like Alzheimer's or severe diabetes, then it probably won't go away, so using the techniques you'd use for someone who'd been dependent all their life to improve your relationship with them would be best. But other techniques can be used if their dependence might decrease over time as their condition improves, for instance if it came on after a mild-to-moderate stroke, heart surgery, grief after the death of a husband or wife or another close relative, or some other kind of loss, for instance a move away from familiar places and old friends to a new city, or even a new retirement home.

Since their dependency isn't an ingrained part of their personality as part of their basic emotional make-up, as it can be for people who've been dependent just about all their lives, it might well be possible to reason with them.

The book gives three examples:

A Woman Who Was Miserable After Having to Give Up Her Business and Move Away From Home


An old woman had run a small business for years. She'd enjoyed interacting with customers. But the business began to fail, and at about the same time, she started finding it difficult to walk because she got bad arthritis in her knees.

Her daughter persuaded her to move miles and miles to be near her, to a retirement home.

She did move, but she wasn't happy. She really missed the business. Though she'd loved talking to customers, she didn't make friends easily, so she was lonely in the retirement home. She was also bored. Because she was unhappy, she started complaining all the time to her daughter about boredom and loneliness, criticising others in the retirement home, phoning her daughter several times a day while her daughter was in business meetings, and trying to interfere in her personal life as well. She blamed her daughter for persuading her to move.

Her daughter felt guilty, and helpless about what to do.

Since the mother's behaviour wasn't being caused by an emotional dependence on her daughter, but by distress at what she couldn't do any more, there was a good chance her behaviour would change if she was found things that would occupy her and give her the same feelings of enjoyment she used to have. So, for instance, she might feel better if she could be allowed to work as a receptionist in the retirement home sometimes, or doing some other voluntary work, such as working for a charity for old people, perhaps being trained by them and then providing advice to help old people with problems over the telephone. Mother and daughter could investigate what might be available together.

An Old Woman Who Lost Her Confidence After She Had Heart Surgery


Another woman became dependent on her daughter after she had heart bypass surgery and became scared that doing anything energetic might kill her. She became very demanding, asking her daughter to do everything for her. This was difficult for her daughter, since she had her own family commitments and work to take care of as well.

The mother was actually recovering well, and the doctor had said she could go back to doing the things she'd done before the operation. But she was too scared to. She didn't even want to shower, dress or prepare meals for herself. She hadn't had a problem doing those things before; but now, she wanted her daughter to help her with almost everything and demanded almost continuous attention.

This was beginning to become tiresome for her daughter. The daughter was puzzled by her mother's new dependence and found it difficult to cope with looking after her and taking care of her own family as well. She began to lose patience and decided things had to change. She came up with a solution that suited everyone so it solved the problem.

She told her mother she was becoming worn out trying to juggle looking after her with caring for her family and working, and suggested they get someone in from outside to help till her mother felt like her old self again.

Her mother was likely to be far more open to agreeing to that idea than the mothers who felt they needed a close relative for comfort. And she was more likely to be able to take her daughter's point of view into consideration, because she wasn't scared of abandonment by a close relative, but just scared of what might happen if she did more for herself, so someone coming in from outside to help would be acceptable.

She said, "Honey, I didn't realise you were getting so tired. I suppose I have been relying on you a lot. I'm not used to relying on anyone, but since my operation, my whole world has changed."

The daughter sympathised, saying she knew, and that it might be a good idea to get her some help for the next few weeks. She suggested someone, a woman who'd helped a friend of her mother's after some surgery she'd had. She said she wondered if the woman was available.

It turned out that the woman was available, and that she was a trained nurse's aide who could help her mother become more independent in her daily living skills, like bathing, dressing and preparing meals for herself. With her daughter's encouragement and the support of the nurse's aide, the woman was able to regain her confidence and start doing things for herself again.

A Man Who Became Miserable and Didn't Want to Do Anything After His Wife Died


A man lost his independent spirit after his wife died. It had been a very loving marriage and they'd been best friends, so the loss was clearly difficult to take. After she died of cancer, for months and months, he just sat around doing nothing. Yet before, they'd both been confident people. He refused all invitations to go out with friends, and wanted only his daughters and son to visit.

Even more disturbing for them was the fact that he didn't seem to be able to make even the simplest decisions for himself any more. He'd ask what they thought he should do, even down to things like what day his house cleaner should come in and which charity to donate money to. But if they gave him advice, he criticised their ideas. They were angry and felt rejected. They'd like to have just left him alone, but they knew he needed them.

Taking a different approach might have worked better though. No one likes to be told what to do. A Parent won't like being told what to do by children any more than a teenager likes to be told what to do by their parents, even if they've actually asked for advice! But exploring ideas with them can work. For instance, if they ask for advice, you could ask them if they'll tell you their ideas on the subject, suggesting you can both discuss the pros and cons of each one. Or if they say they've got no ideas, you could suggest a few things, and then suggest you both discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each one. Let them feel as if they're making quite a contribution to the discussion.

Also, trying to tell a grieving person to get back in touch with their friends or let them come around and visit might feel to them like nagging, and might just make them feel pressured and more depressed. But making tentative suggestions to try to encourage them to do the kind of things you know they used to enjoy might eventually start to work.

What might work best is being ready to listen, just being there, perhaps giving them a hug and saying you understand how badly they must miss the one they've lost.

The authors say when older people suffer losses of functioning or they're grieving other people and so on, it can sometimes take quite some time for them to get back to being their old selves, even over a year sometimes, because those losses can be quite distressing. But their dependence will often wear off after a while.

The authors say smaller problems like a brief illness or the death of a pet can cause temporary dependence, and you might think the person relying on you is making far more fuss than is sensible. But it may be that a series of small things happened that decreased their confidence more and more, and the latest one was the last straw.

It's Important to Look After Your Own Needs and Not Wear Yourself Out Caring For Your Parent

Soaking in the bath

You can actually do a better job of caring if you look after your own needs so you're refreshed when you meet your difficult parent instead of worn out. If you're feeling emotionally or physically drained because of their demands on you, do your best to take time for yourself. And try not to take on more than you can comfortably handle.

If your parent has only recently become dependent, they'll probably be easier to reason with than one with a long-term deep emotional reason to be clingy. So discussing your need for spending time apart from them with them might often be easier.

The authors recommend that anyone with difficult parents joins a support group for people with similar problems, since it's likely to be a relief for people knowing they're not the only ones with the problem, and they can let off steam about their feelings and maybe get quite a bit of good practical advice from others who've found ways of coping.

Part Two
Hyper-Critical Parents Who Think A Child's All Good or All Bad

Another kind of emotional problem some parents can have is the inability to see things in a reasonable way, so if a child does one thing they don't like, even if it was a good thing really like going away to college, but it means they leave them, instead of just being unhappy that they did that, the child becomes a bad child! The parent might go on to criticise them unfairly at every opportunity they get after that, calling them selfish, no good and so on. It's as if they're immersed in resentment. A child might have diligently sat with them for hours and hours each week, run errands for them, done much of their housework and so on, and the parent might have boasted to neighbours about what a good child they are, even if all they did in front of the child was complain and criticise, never showing any gratitude. But if the child wants to do something else with their life and leaves, the child might suddenly become selfish and no good in the mind of the parent. The parent won't balance what the child's done with everything they did for them in the past and have a realistic impression of the child, partly good, even though sometimes they disappoint. Suddenly, that child will become a bad seed, someone who doesn't care about anyone else but themselves. They might reject them and refuse to talk to them. Or if the child can't stand to be around them any more, the parent might complain bitterly to other people about the way they behave .

Such a parent doesn't seem to realise their own behaviour drives people away. Their behaviour will often get worse in response to the threat of separation, often caused because a child wants to move away from home or spend time doing other things. But of course, such off-putting behaviour on the part of a parent will mean their children are even less likely to want to come and see them.

Angrily accusing

They can decide a child, or any other close friend or relative or person they're relying on for that matter, is all bad when they used to think they were all good, in response to much more minor things than them leaving home or deciding they can't bear to see them any more, and it doesn't matter how good the person's reason is for not living up to the supposed standards of perfection expected of them. The parent could be filled with resentment and complaints about how terrible the person is after a child merely phones to say they can't come round for dinner after all because a business meeting's running late, or if a grandchild forgets to send a card or phone up on Mother's Day; or if a daughter strains her back and is in pain so she has to postpone a visit for a day; or if a home helper takes the weekend off, and the agency sends in a replacement; or if a son goes away for a week on business. It can be something as little and as unreasonable as that. Each of those little things might seem like a mini-abandonment to the emotionally-primitive parent, and that might make them feel fearful and insecure underneath, and it might come out in the form of hostility.

Still, they have to live with themselves and their miserable personalities for more of the time than you do. They might not seem to be suffering, but they might well be miserable underneath all the complaints and criticism. After all, would you want to live with the burden of a personality like that?

You might have tried to explain to them why their behaviour is so irrational and hurtful. But such people will often not be open to reason. They won't change just because something like that is explained to them. Their behaviour is part of their personality so it would be a very hard habit to break even if they wanted to. Since they're likely to blame others for their problems and not recognise their own part in them even when it's pointed out to them, they can't be expected to decide they want to change.


Their behaviour will be a bit easier to tolerate if you try not to take it personally. This has to do with their primitive emotional expression, not your own failings. If they think one of their children is all good while the other's all bad, but the all good one suddenly becomes all bad when they want a life on their own or even something far more trivial, they're obviously not thinking realistically. The authors have a theory that toddlers think of their mother as all good when they do something they like and all bad when they tell them off or tell them to do something they don't want to do, and that usually, people get a more realistic perspective of people as they grow older, but something interrupts the emotional development of some people so they never get past the primitive emotional stage where they think of people as sometimes all good and sometimes all bad.

It's certainly an unsophisticated way of thinking. When anyone's stressed, they start to think in more black-and-white ways, that is, in more simplistic ways, not being able to see a whole range of possibilities and grey areas in something, but thinking of it as entirely one thing or entirely the other. It seems some people are stuck in that way of thinking all the time.

If you try to remember it's their primitive emotions talking when they say something insulting, you won't take it personally so much. They probably have those kinds of unreasonable attitudes to lots of people anyway, not just you.

Calming The Anger of a Difficult Parent by Showing Sympathy For Their Troubled Emotions


Your parent's behaviour might be aggravating. But there are ways of interacting with them where you can come away less annoyed. It'll mean sympathising with their troubled emotions. You might not think they deserve it; but getting angry with them won't make them see reason; it'll probably just make them defensive and blame you for the problems. So taking a different approach will make you happier as well as them.

Another reason to sympathise with the emotions that are driving their behaviour is that deep down, these people will be miserable, quite possibly more miserable than they're making you. In more rational moments, they might recognise that they're their own worst enemy, making problems for themselves by their behaviour; but because it's such a part of their personality, they don't know how to behave any other way; their behaviour's automatic. You might not think that's a good reason for them to get away with it; but since you're stuck with it, brooding on how annoying and unfair it is won't get you anywhere, but your life will be made easier if you react differently to it so you can calm it instead of unwittingly aggravating it by getting angry.

But actually, if you change your behaviour, they will behave differently from the way they used to, simply because the old triggers for their behaviour to get worse aren't there any more. For instance, if they tell you you're no good because you forgot to send a Mother's Day card or something, and before, you'd have got angry and told them how ridiculous they were being, and an angry reaction just made them angry and you ended up shouting at each other and you left feeling unhappy, changing your behaviour to a more sympathetic one will mean they have to do something different, because the things that used to be their signals to get angry aren't there any more.

It may be that when something you do upsets them, even when it's something little, or something you couldn't help, like postponing a visit to them because one of your children needed help at short notice, the kind of primitive thoughts that go around their head are something like this: "I'm being let down! I feel bad about that. I'll show them how it feels to feel bad!" If you don't show any signs of feeling bad, they'll have lost their power to control your feelings. When you get angry with them, you give them the opportunity and excuse to say more horrible things to you. If you show that what they say isn't affecting you, they'll learn they can't manipulate you. That might not change their behaviour in itself; but if you show them sympathy because it really must be difficult for them to live with themselves when they're tormenting themselves all the time, and if you try to stay positive, changing the subject when they just become their usual angry selves complaining about nothing, trying to interest them in something, you might still have to keep your contact with them as brief as you possibly can, but it maybe that you do enjoy the time you have together more.

Toddler having a tantrum

Having said they might want to make you feel bad, the thoughts that drive their behaviour towards you are unlikely to be malicious, so much as a primitive emotional reaction, the kind of thing a toddler might feel when another toddler takes their toy away. They might want to punish the other toddler, but it isn't a coldly calculated thought-through response, but simply a gut reaction, an emotional desire, driven not by a wish to attack the other toddler but just unreasoning anger at having their toy taken away. Even adults tend to respond instinctively that way when someone does something they don't like. For some people though, it's such a habit that it just comes naturally all the time, whatever the provocation, and no matter how unreasonable the reaction is. Their emotions will over-ride their reasoning abilities. What they're really trying to do is protect themselves from what their emotions tell them is a threat of abandonment. So when they say horrible things to you, no matter how unpleasant you find it, it might make more sense if you think of it as a primitive hostile reaction to the irrational fear of abandonment, rather than an attack on you.

That's why sympathy for their emotional torment makes sense; telling them you know they're all upset and you're sorry they're upset can reassure them you care. Don't say you're sorry for the way you behaved if you're not at fault. Don't give them the impression you're accepting the blame. But you can be sorry that they're feeling bad, even if you have no intention of changing your ways.

You might sometimes have absolutely no idea what you did to provoke them. They might suddenly turn against you for no apparent reason at all, and then perhaps just as suddenly switch back to really liking you again. You might be completely puzzled as to what's going on in their brain to make them do that. It might often be best not to try to find out, because it'll probably be something completely unreasonable, so you'll be tempted to reason with them about how irrational they're being, and they'll just get angry and you'll get into a senseless argument and just come away feeling angry and upset.

An approach that might work better is to focus on their emotions, trying to ignore what they're actually saying. Don't take it personally, because you know it's just a primitive emotional response with no rational thinking behind it. Try to think of it as them being pushed around by emotions that are making them miserable. Then you can genuinely say you feel sorry about how tormented they are, for instance, "I'm sorry you're feeling upset today Mum"; "I'm sorry you're feeling angry today Mum; can I get you a cup of tea?"; "I'm sorry you don't feel too good today Mum; this might cheer you up: I saw a funny thing down town today; someone in the supermarket in front of me bought one single grape" and so on.

If they don't laugh at anything funny you tell them, at least you might have successfully changed the subject.

You might have to experiment a bit before you find something that really works. For instance, if you sympathetically say you're sorry they're upset, they might indignantly say they're not upset and start pouring out more criticism. But they might still stop very quickly if you change the subject to something they find more interesting.

If they're criticising someone else, don't defend that person unless it's absolutely necessary, or someone with emotions that primitive will just think you're taking their side and decide you must be bad as well. They might refuse to accept they're doing anything wrong at all. For instance, if you comment that they're angry or shouting, they might take it as a criticism and disagree, for instance responding with the classic "I'M NOT SHOUTING", said at the top of their voice. They'll probably display other awkward behaviours as well.

Don't try to analyse them in front of them, for instance by actually telling them they're not acting thoughtfully but in a primitive emotional way and maybe it had something to do with their upbringing. That'll probably just make them more angry and defensive.

An approach that has more chance of allowing you to avoid angry arguments is simply letting them know you're there for them, for instance the technique used in this conversation, which is roughly based on one the book says was used as practice by someone with a difficult mother who was rehearsing with someone, to get used to the idea of not responding angrily to the irritating things her mother said, practising for when she spoke to her for real again:

Daughter: I met John yesterday. He's just got his pilot's licence. He'll probably be flying to all kinds of interesting places. He certainly seems to be making something of his life, that brother of mine.

Mother: What did I ever do to deserve such treatment, after all I did for him? You're always on his side. I suppose you think it was my fault that he and his wife moved out of my house.

In the past, after a few responses like that, the daughter would often have been provoked into getting irritable, or defending her brother, or asking her mother why she was always so angry, or trying to reason with her mother about how she just wasn't being sensible; and her mother would always just get more angry, and the daughter would find it difficult to tolerate talking to her. But now she tried just sympathising with her mother's feelings.

Daughter: No; I only know it was difficult for you when he moved out.

Mother: You don't know the half of it. John has been awful to me.

Daughter: [refusing to take sides] This has been terrible for you, Mum.

Mother: What did I do to deserve this?

Daughter: [probably being able to think of at least a dozen ways in which her mother drove her son away but instead of answering her mother's question, being sympathetic] I'm sorry this is bothering you so much. You don't need this upset.

She didn't agree with anything her mother said. She was simply sympathetic towards her mother's feelings.

The daughter with the difficult mother who practised the conversation that that one's based on used the sympathy technique with her mother in real life a few days after she rehearsed it, and she was very pleased with the way things went. The conversation didn't get more and more angry as it usually did. In fact, it went so well that instead of having to put the phone down because she couldn't stand the conversation any more, they even had lunch together, and managed to change the subject to talk about something more enjoyable. The daughter felt better about herself afterwards as well. Usually she'd criticise herself for having shouted at her mother. But this time she hadn't shouted, and she was able to feel for her mother a bit, because she recognised the miserable emotions driving her behaviour.

Perhaps you could rehearse conversations with someone where you try to respond sympathetically to your parent who's being obnoxious, keeping yourself from responding to the provocation all the time. Maybe there are friends or family members who'd pretend to be your parent, saying the kind of things they say, while you practice sympathising with their tormented emotions instead of letting what they say get to you. Naturally, it'll have to be someone who isn't likely to tell your parent what's going on. It may be that the more you practice, the more naturally sympathy and not getting provoked will come to you when you're talking to your parent for real.


Sometimes, the sympathy technique won't work. In fact, with some difficult parents, perhaps nothing will work. If what you do isn't working, try not to get discouraged and blame yourself. Even if you realise you've made mistakes after some conversations, you don't have to feel too bad about it; everyone makes mistakes, and you will probably have the opportunity in future conversations to try and improve.

Try not to blame your parent either if things don't seem to be working, since they'll be governed by their emotions, responding according to lifelong habit.

If a Parent Suddenly Turns Against a Good Helper For a Bad Reason


A person who thinks in extremes will think like that with more people than just her children. It can be particularly stressful if their health's deteriorating so they need a professional carer to come out and help them, but they turn against the helper for even little let-downs they couldn't help, such as if they're a bit late because they were stuck in traffic.

The book gives the example of a woman who'd interviewed several people to come in to help her mother and found a helper she really liked, and her mother really liked her. She would sit worrying about her every morning till she arrived. But one day, a traffic accident meant the helper was stuck in a traffic jam so she was late, and the old woman panicked, shouted at the helper when she came in the door that she was no good at all if she couldn't come on time, and simply fired her on the spot. The daughter was stressed because she had to go through the process of interviewing and finding another helper, and it wasn't easy to find a well-trained person who'd be patient and sympathetic to old people. She did find one. But it wasn't long before that helper came late one day and was fired as well. Eventually, there didn't seem to be many good helpers left.

So the mother wanted the daughter to be there every day helping her. Her daughter didn't like giving up her other commitments to be there, but worried about what would happen if she didn't and her mother was left alone, since she did need someone to help her.

The counsellors gave her some advice that anyone in her position could use:

They recommended she let her mother interview some potential helpers, so she realised she had responsibility for them and came to think of them as hers, rather than her daughter's concern.

If the old person has dementia so they can't interview helpers themselves and be expected to make sensible decisions, then their son or daughter could interview most of them themselves, choosing the two people they believe to be the best, and then giving their parent a choice of the two, both of whom they'll interview themselves.

If they then dismiss their helper for no good reason, the authors recommend that you could leave them to cope on their own for a while, so they'll come to appreciate what the helper did for them and how much a helper's needed. You won't need to say a thing about how you're trying to teach them to appreciate helpers - that might just make them angry. But if you find some reason why you can't go to help them, just for a matter of days even, then they might start to realise they need to value their helpers more.

Mopping unhappily

When you hire a helper, make sure to tell them the person they're caring for might love them one minute and hate them the next, and like them again soon afterwards. Let them know they might praise them one minute and severely scold them the next, for no good reason, but that they should try not to take it personally, because it's just an irrational part of the person's personality that's such a habit they can't help it. They're like that with most people.

Most importantly, explain to the helper that the person they'll be caring for might get so angry over little things sometimes that they might fire them; but the next day, they might want them back again; so it's best if the helper phones up the next day to find out if she's suddenly in the person's good books again.

Do your best to give the helper emotional support. Talk to them often so you can discuss any problems they have and see if they want to let off steam; and be willing to listen and sympathise if your parent's had a particularly miserable day and taken it out on them. Tell them they're free to phone you if they need emotional support.

But don't let your parent know that's going on. If they find out, they'll likely leap to the conclusion that you're both allied against them, and they'll decide you're both bad.

Getting a Doctor's Help

You could try to get your parent's doctor's help: They might agree to write a prescription for your parent saying they must not be without a helper, as well as firmly explaining to them why they need one. If you can persuade your parent to go to their doctor, They might be more likely to listen to an authority figure than a family member. Then the doctor can write on a prescription pad that they must have a helper, and you could stick it on the wall right near where they most like to sit. Then whenever you're around and they seem about to sack their helper, you could take it off the wall and give it to them to read, to remind them they need one.

If they still keep dismissing their helpers, you could maybe discuss with their doctor whether they'd be willing to have another talk with them, where they tell them that if they can't keep their helpers, they'll prescribe that they be sent to live in an assisted living facility.

For all this to work, you have to be firm about not being able to stand in for the helpers who've been dismissed. So if they fire a helper, don't be too quick to try to hire another one or to substitute your own help for that of a professional helper.

When Parents Become Very Negative and Critical of What You Try to Do For Them

Being verbally abusive

Sometimes, parents can be so critical, complaining and negative that helping them becomes very difficult. But trying to reason with them and argue them into seeing sense only makes them dig their heals in so they oppose you even more. Empathising with their feelings can encourage them to think about things more, because you're not opposing them so they don't have to be on the defensive, and because they feel reassured that you take their feelings into consideration.

Here's an example conversation, based on one in the book. There was a woman who'd complained and complained all her life, even when things were all going her way. When her husband got ill and died in his mid 80s, she blamed him for having worked too hard, saying he wouldn't have died if he'd taken more breaks! Since she found taking care of herself a bit difficult, her daughter wanted her to move into a retirement home. She didn't want to, and there were some angry arguments about it. The daughter found herself spending more and more time taking care of her mother instead of being with her own family, until she felt she couldn't cope any more. But then she tried a different technique, and to her surprise, it worked better.

Instead of arguing, she sympathised with her mother's feelings so her mother felt validated instead of going onto the defensive and getting angry, and she just made suggestions, rather than giving advice. Naturally the technique probably wouldn't work with everyone, but it might be worth trying, if other techniques haven't worked. Here's the kind of conversation they had, with the mother raising objections to going into a home, and the daughter soothing her rather than arguing:

Mother: That home's too far from the shops.

Daughter: I know you're used to convenient shopping.

Mother: I know someone who lives at that place and I don't like her.

Daughter: Hmmmm. (said in a soothing way)

Mother: What am I supposed to do with all my things if I move into a small place?

Daughter: I think it's bound to be hard not taking everything with you. But if you want, I'll help you sort out what to take.

To the family's surprise, the mother decided to move into the retirement home after all, though continually saying she was making a big mistake. The daughter carried on taking the approach where she didn't argue but sympathised with her mother's feelings. That way, both of them ended up feeling better than they would have done if they'd argued. Here's the kind of thing that was said:

Mother: I'm going to regret this decision for the rest of my life.

Daughter: I'm sorry you feel that way.

Mother: I don't have a family like others have. You and your brother don't visit me as a family.

Daughter: I know it's a disappointment.

This style of communication might well be unfamiliar to you and will probably take practice. You might be in such a habit of arguing with your parent when they're aggravating that it comes instinctively so it'll take effort to change the way you talk to them, especially if you're angry. But recognising that they're tormenting themselves as much as they're making you miserable and they're unhappy can help you feel a bit more compassion for them.

You might have tried to get them to think more positively and look on the bright side. After all, such constant negativity is unreasonable. But someone whose negativity is part of their personality won't be able to start looking on the bright side overnight, and never will if they don't feel like trying. Sympathising with them can pacify them though.


Think about whether it's possible that underneath their horrible hyper-critical exterior, they might feel inadequate. Perhaps they criticise so much to reassure themselves that at least they're not the only ones with failings. After all, they can feel better about themselves if they can think of other people as being worse than them. Or perhaps they complain about being badly treated because deep down they're scared you don't think much of them because of their inadequacy and are treating other people better. Even if you treat them well, it might not make their instinctive fear and insecurity go away, because it might be so much a part of their personality.

If you're too angry with them to say anything sympathetic, often, just saying in a friendly way, "Let's not fuss over this" and perhaps sometimes changing the subject, can relieve the tension because it can make them decide to stop complaining about it for the time being.

Sometimes, some people will complain about the same old thing till something more interesting comes up, as if they're only doing it because their mind's going round and round thinking about the same thing because they can't think of anything more interesting. Once they get a more interesting thought, they'll gladly change the subject to talk about that.

Sometimes when you're becoming really annoyed by the critical unpleasant things your parent says, it might help to take a minute to remind yourself of reasons you shouldn't take it personally but can think of them more sympathetically than would come naturally, by thinking things such as:

"I'm getting really annoyed by this, but I need to remember not to take it personally; she's like this with everyone. Most people haven't put up with it so they stay away and she's hardly got any friends. And I know that makes her miserable. She's her own worst enemy. Instead of getting involved in a shouting match with her, I'll think of this conversation with her as a challenge, like a game where I have to see how good I am at resisting the temptation to be provoked and instead respond in a nice way. If I manage it throughout the conversation, I score top marks, say 20, but I lose marks every time I get annoyed. Let's see how often I can get top marks. And maybe the practice will help me improve my skill at dealing with other difficult people."

You might find resisting the temptation to respond with the anger you might well feel they deserve is worth it, since the pay-off will be that your relationship with them might well improve.

One thing that might help is rehearsing talking to them, by imagining you're having conversations with them, where you imagine they're saying things that annoy you, and you think of nice calm responses. If you do that, nice responses will be easier to think of when you're talking to your parent for real.

Here's one kind of scene you could take inspiration from, to think of calming ways of responding to irritating unreasonable provocation. Imagine you've just gone over to visit your hyper-critical father:

Father: The least you could have done is to get some milk for me as you were passing the shops.

Daughter: Dad, we both arranged for it to be delivered from now on, remember?

Father: You could still have brought some. You have time for everyone except me. I suppose you're going to run errands for yourself today.

Daughter: [Just listens.]

Father: What's the matter? I suppose you don't like to hear the truth.

Daughter: I'm listening to what you're saying and trying to put myself in your place.

The daughter resisted the temptation to be provoked into an argument. If she'd started making excuses as to why she didn't bring him any milk, saying she had other things to do, other people to meet, it could have made her father more angry and critical because it might have made his feelings of unimportance worse. He might have said something like, "Oh, so I'm not even as important as a bit of housework you just felt you had to do before you came here?" Or whatever it was she told him she'd done. Sometimes, the less that's said in a situation where conflict could be about to erupt the better. And sympathising with the person's underlying emotions can help to pacify them.

It isn't easy to resist responding to them angrily. Anger just comes naturally to people, and you might not think they deserve to be sympathised with or allowed to get away with what they say. That's understandable. But if it's important to you that you get on with them, so getting on with them will make your own life easier in the long run, perhaps because they're beginning to need help and you think it's your duty to help them, then pacifying them and sympathising with their underlying feelings of misery, inadequacy, self-torment and whatever else they're putting themselves through, might be the better option, because you yourself will be less stressed if the relationship is less stormy.

Doing Things Together That Help you Avoid Conflict, and Avoiding Things That Trigger it Off

Mowing the lawn

Unless you have to do essential chores for your parent, it's best not to do anything for them that always ends in them complaining. You could try making other arrangements. If they can really do some things for themselves that you do for them, it's best if they carry on doing them, because if they stop, with some things, there's a risk they'll lose their ability to do them or become less confident they'll be able to do them if they have to, and that can make them anxious so they might become irritable. If you've been doing things for them they can really do for themselves, don't feel guilty about stopping. And there are ways you can make other arrangements to help them so you don't have to be together so much, although some of them might cost a bit:

You could get taxis to transport them to places, or see if there are any volunteer drivers, for instance charities exist in some places to provide transport to people who aren't as able as others. Maybe you could find information on the Internet about what's available in your local area.

Also, you could see if any reputable charities for old people near you have schemes where they recruit volunteers to provide companionship and other services for old people.

Some local teenagers might be willing to run errands for the person if you pay them a bit.

Also, shopping can be delivered to people's doors nowadays. You might be able to make use of online shopping. And social services might be able to put you in touch with other organisations that can help, such as services that bring hot meals to the homes of old and disabled people who are finding it difficult to cook for themselves.

Watching a film

On the other hand, if there are activities you both enjoy where you usually manage to do them together without arguing, you could try to do more of those instead of the ones you're giving up, if you think it would be a good idea. Whenever you go to see your parent, you could have a specific activity in mind for you to do together, so you'll be occupied with that and not just sitting talking, which might mean there would be more and more likelihood of arguments starting as they said more, not having anything better to occupy their minds. Such activities might include:

You might be able to think of other things that would occupy you both or other places you could both go and have a nice time.

Some ideas might not work, but you could try different things till you find what does.

Don't Forget to Look After Your Own Needs


Don't be so concerned with making your difficult parent happy that you become emotionally or physically drained because you aren't paying enough attention to your own needs.

Letting off steam to friends or other relatives can sometimes help, especially if you know they'll cheer you up; or doing something you'll know you'll find entertaining for a while can help; or getting your feelings out of your system by writing in a journal, or getting rid of nervous tension and having a break by going for a brisk walk or doing other exercise, or relaxing in front of something you enjoy on television, or something else you know you'll like doing.

Also, don't feel you have to spend a long time with your parent when you visit. Short visits can actually be best for both of you. You might be surprised to hear they can be best for your difficult parent, but spending longer with them can sometimes just make it more emotionally painful for them when you go.

So if you've come some way to visit them, it might well be best not to spend all your time with them, but if you can, to sleep in a hotel or in the house of someone else you know rather than in their house, and to do some activities on your own.

It's especially important to look after your own needs if you find yourself becoming depressed and despairing like them, thinking nothing will help. If you take a bit of time out to recharge your batteries if you can, you can regain a more optimistic perspective.

Joining a support group for people caring for difficult people can help. They can be valuable sources of advice and emotional support and friendship.

When to Get Your Parents Help Despite Their Wishes

Calling for help

Sometimes, you might know your parent needs help when they don't want it. You might not want to intervene because of all the nastiness that'll come your way if you do. But you might feel you ought to really.

You might feel unsure as to when a situation's got to the stage where you'd better intervene. Sometimes, someone from social services might be able to help you make the decision as to whether your parent needs help, if you think your strong emotions are getting in the way of you being able to make a good judgment.

If your parent is forgetting to eat or to take medication, if they're burning things and there's a risk they'll injure themselves or cause a house fire, or if they're doing anything else that could put themselves or others in danger, then get the support of any other people you think would be willing to help, because you'll need to get them help or to move them to a home whether they like it or not. It might be possible to get them help with meals and housework in their own home. A paid carer might also be able to make sure they take their medication. You could tell social services about your concerns.

As for persuading the parent to accept outside help, you could try asking other family members to talk to them as well as you, one at a time, so they get several people trying to persuade them to get help. Or the family could all meet together with the parent and try to persuade them all at once, or ask them if they can come up with a better arrangement for their care. You could try both.

If you're sure neither will work, sometimes just bringing in a helper without consulting the parent works, if the family all stay united in telling them that's what they need. It might only work for a while though. Sometimes, it may be that after a few weeks or so, the parent will refuse to have the helper anymore. They might get angry with the family for insisting they need one and dismiss the helper and refuse to see them again.

If the family can't agree on how much help the parent needs, or the parent refuses all help, the best thing to do might well be to call in social services. If your parent talks over their options with someone official, they might be persuaded to accept help where your attempts at persuasion failed.

If Your Parent Needs to Give Up Driving

Road rage

Sometimes the doctor can help. For instance, if your parent refuses to give up driving even though they're becoming dangerous, you could ask their doctor if they'll write a prescription that says they're not allowed to drive any more. If that fails, the doctor can write to the people who issue driving licences, and they might take your parent's licence away.

If that happens, you can show you care about their feelings. They'll be bound to be upset. Though it wouldn't be a good idea to pretend you think they should be allowed to carry on driving, you can certainly say you recognise it must be hard for them, say you're sorry they're upset, and so on. Showing you care about their feelings might help soften the blow of having to give up.

It might not come to such drastic measures. If you empathise with your parent at first rather than arguing with them, saying you know it'll be really hard to give up driving but asking if they recognise that their eyesight's going, perhaps, or their reaction times are getting slower and so on, they might respond to gentle persuasion. You can sympathise with them over the loss of their right to drive. After all, losing it's a big thing. They might be scared because of the other abilities they're losing, and not being able to drive any more might seem like a worrying sign that their abilities are really going downhill.

At least if they can get to some of the places they used to enjoy going to, if other transport arrangements can be made, then they've still got those things.

If It's Difficult to be Sure If Your Parent's at Risk

On crutches

If your parent's health and safety isn't at definite risk but it just might be, then doing what they're willing to put up with can sometimes be best. For instance, a man who's keeping mouldy food in the house and sometimes eating it, and sometimes going without food because he's stopped going shopping so much and it sometimes runs out, might refuse to have a housekeeper to help him, but you might be able to go in every now and then just to re-stock his fridge with fresh food.

When you're trying to persuade your parents to accept something, first it can help to ask yourself whether it's really necessary or whether they can actually manage without it if they don't want it. If you decide they really need it, you could see if you can persuade them by making suggestions, and trying to entice them to accept help by stressing the advantages of having it, while being willing to talk over disadvantages and ways around them with them. Don't tell them what to do, because that might immediately set off their angry juices and they might not listen to you, because they won't like being told what to do. After all, if you were old and your own children told you what to do, you might not like it. So that might be how your parent feels. So you could try making suggestions rather than telling them they need something.

Techniques of Responding Calmly to Criticism

Shouting match

It's natural when we're criticised to respond in anger by saying harsh words of our own. The trouble is that doing that makes the other person angry and defensive in return, so they'll respond with more anger, which will make us more angry, so we'll say something that ends up making them more angry, and it goes on, and the argument just makes one or both sides end up feeling more hurt or angry.

So although it might not feel right, because it means not defending yourself when you've been criticised unfairly, responding in another way can stop arguments happening and improve the relationship.

It might be especially difficult to respond to your parent's criticisms in a non-critical way if you've been used to responding in an angry way for years, but thinking of their behaviour in a new way might help a bit. It may be that they're criticising because they feel very inadequate themselves, so their criticism is like a kind of defence against their feelings of inadequacy; if they're belittling others, they can feel as if they can't be all that bad really if other people have so many faults.

So responding with criticism will just make them feel more inadequate so they'll feel the need to criticise more. Feeling pity for them because of the tormented feelings they might have might help. You might find that if you're not criticising back, they'll be less critical of you, because they won't feel so bad about themselves.

It's worth a try. Still, whenever you go to see them, it can help you if you expect the worst, and plan a strategy for deflecting criticism when it comes, so you're not so likely to automatically respond with harsh words in anger.

You can think of non-critical comeback lines to the kinds of critical things they typically say or have said in the past, and rehearse saying them before you see them, so when they do say something critical, doing that will come more naturally.

For instance, if they often say things like, "I don't think much of your jumper, but then you always did have terrible taste in clothing" as soon as you walk in the door, in the past, you might have disputed the idea that your taste in clothing's bad. You might not even have done it impolitely; you might simply have said something like, "I think my jumper looks allright, and I don't think there's anything wrong with my taste in clothes." But if they're a hyper-critical person, that will just have encouraged them to criticise more, justifying what they said. So it can sometimes be best not to disagree with them, but to say non-committal things with a shrug like "maybe", or "Perhaps you're right", and so on. That doesn't mean agreeing with them. It just means you're prepared to let them have their opinion while you hold on to yours, but acknowledge that there is just a possibility they're right.

Another method is to compliment them in response to their criticism, or use their words as inspiration to change the subject in an interesting way.

The book gives an example, saying there was one person who went to visit her parents, expecting to be greeted with the usual criticism, but resolved to deal with it differently this time instead of getting angry as usual.

Sure enough, as soon as her mother opened the door to let her in, she said she didn't like her shoes and asked where on earth she'd got them from. The daughter said, "Oh, I don't know. I like your shoes. Where did you get them?"

The mother was very pleased that her daughter should say she liked her shoes, and started talking merrily about the time when she got them.

One way you could practice responding cleverly or mildly to criticism is if you know someone who'd be willing to pretend to be your difficult parent criticising you, and you try out answers on them till you can think of good ones to the kinds of things they normally say and they come more naturally.

If Your Parent Needs a Helper But Criticises Them All the Time

Fiery criticism

It's likely to be worrying for you if the critical parent needs a helper to keep them safe, but they're always criticising them unfairly or over trivial things.

If your parent's been critical for as long as you can remember, it's unlikely you'll be able to persuade them to stop criticising the helper by urging them to think of the helper's feelings, since if they've never cared about anyone else's feelings, they're unlikely to start thinking of someone's now. It might well be that they simply lack the ability to imagine what impact their criticism could be having on the helper; they can't put themselves in the helper's place even if you suggest ways the criticism might be affecting the helper, such as saying they might be upset by it.

If you come across as defending the helper, your parent might well think you're siding with them and feel provoked to start criticising you, so it's best not to defend the helper in any way.

What might work better is appealing to your parent's self-interest, suggesting to them that if they criticise the helper too much, the helper might leave, and then they won't get their housework done for them, or whatever the helper does. but you could say that on the other hand, if they're nice to the helper, the helper might go out of their way to do nice things for them.


To try to prevent the helper leaving, try explaining to the helper that your parent's just a very critical person in general so they could try not to take it personally if they criticise them. Perhaps you could explain that your parent might be feeling very inadequate deep down so they feel the need to belittle other people so they can think that at least they're not as bad as them so they'll feel better about themselves. Maybe you could confide in the helper that your parent's their own worst enemy and has lost friends because of their critical personality, if that's the case. You could perhaps explain that they haven't got the control over their thoughts that most people have; they think a thought and it pops straight out of their mouth, rather than it being assessed for fairness and accuracy and advisability of broadcasting it first. The helper might even end up sympathising with them a bit instead of feeling antagonised.

If you try a technique of deflecting your parent's criticisms and it turns out to work, you can perhaps tell the helper so they can use it too.

Also, it might be good to praise the helper whenever you have the opportunity, so they don't get to feel too discouraged. You could offer to listen to them if they need to let off steam about how difficult it is to work for such a critical boss, and try to support them, although without letting your parent know, so they don't get paranoid about you conspiring against them with the helper behind their back or something.

If Your Parent's Becoming Paranoid


Some parents who've been suspicious all their lives can go over the edge into downright paranoia when they become fearful with worry when their memory goes a bit and they're losing control of some of their other faculties. Their fear of bad things happening might make them leap to the conclusion that bad things have happened, at the slightest hint of evidence.

So, for instance, they might accuse a relative or a helper of stealing something from them, even if such a thing has never happened before in all the years they've been around them. The reality might simply be that they put the thing in a different place from usual and then forgot they'd done it.

If you try to persuade them they're being silly, they'll only become antagonised and stick to their beliefs about things being stolen from them. Focusing on their underlying fear of things being stolen and losing control of things can help you calm their fears better. And instead of directly contradicting them and saying it's very unlikely the person they're accusing would do such a thing, you could try a more subtle approach:

When they accuse someone of stealing something from them, you could empathise with the emotion they're feeling, while not agreeing with them that it happened, by saying something like, "You must be feeling upset."

You could perhaps say other things that show you care that they're upset without agreeing that something of theirs was stolen, like, "I'd be upset if something was stolen from me", and "I can understand you being worried". You might feel awkward about saying things like that in case it sounds like you believe something really was stolen; but whether or not it sounds as if you do will depend quite a bit on the way you say such things. They can sound calming and comforting, which is what your parent will need, without necessarily sounding as if you believe them.

They might ask you to go to the police with them or round to the house of the person they're accusing to get what they think was stolen back. You could perhaps tell them there's something you have to do beforehand, or offer to go over the details of what happened with them so you would both be able to give a clear account of what happened when if you did go. You could then ask them questions that might help you or your parent work out what really happened, such as:

You could maybe say you'd like to check everything else is where it should be. When you're looking, you might find what was misplaced.

You could perhaps move on to talking with them about any fear of crime they have in general. There might be things you can do to calm their fears by increasing their sense of security.

If they're so suspicious you don't feel you can cope, you could perhaps mention it to their doctor to see what they recommend, whether that be therapy or something else.

If a Parent Becomes Critical in Later Life


If a parent's personality changes in later life and they become critical, it might be that there's something wrong with them that's causing them discomfort, annoyance, pain or fear, physical or emotional, and that if the problem's solved, or ways can be found of coping with it, their personality will go back to the way it was.

There are several things worth considering when trying to work out why your parent's turned critical:

If it seems after investigation that something emotional's causing them to behave the way they do, it might be worth having a serious talk with them, telling them they've become critical recently and how you're worried it'll affect people, such as making carers unwilling to work with them, and asking them if they can tell you why they've become critical recently. See if you can think together of ways you can sort out what's bothering them.

If they're not helpful when you try to have that conversation with them, it might be necessary to spell out what behaviours will and won't be acceptable and why, especially around people paid to help them. If they won't listen, getting someone in from outside to talk to them, such as the person in charge of the paid helpers, might help.

It might be that a person like that will evaluate whether they're getting the right amount of help as well. It might be that they're getting more than they need. That might irritate them. It might be that you were worried about them and managed to get them more than they need, while they're still capable enough to do some things for themselves. Or they might not be getting as much as they need.

Part Three
Very Self-Centred Parents

What Selfish Parents Can Be Like

Insisting on living the high life

Some parents are very self-centred; they might think of themselves as special, only ever think of the way things that happen will affect them, not giving a thought to the way they affect anyone else; they might never concern themselves with the needs of anyone else, while at the same time thinking of themselves as generous; and they might be jealous of any attention or favour anyone else gets. They might constantly dwell on physical problems they have, real or imagined.

They might be vain, very concerned about what other people think of them, spending a long time over their physical appearance, and finding it especially difficult to tolerate it if they develop physical imperfections. For instance, if they begin to lose their eyesight, they might refuse to wear glasses because of what people might think, but demand one of their children gives up their time to read their post to them.

They might demand and demand attention from their children but never be satisfied. They might be so hungry for praise that not only do they boast about their own achievements, but they take the credit for their children's as well.

They might find it very difficult to adjust to failing health, for instance especially disliking the idea of moving into an old people's home because they highly prize a self-image as young and healthy; but at the same time they might get more and more demanding towards their children, asking them to drive them to places, to be with them to stop them getting lonely, and so on.

It can be emotionally draining for children, and a big drain on their valuable time, especially so if the parent's always finding fault with them.

Yet the parent might find it difficult to come to terms with their child giving a lot of attention to others, for instance when they want to marry. So they might feel hostile towards the person they want to marry, as if they're taking the person away who's supposed to be giving them attention.

Emotional Difficulties a Very Self-Centred Parent Might Have


Although a very self-centred person might seem to have a massive ego and think they're far better and more worthy of attention than anyone else in the neighbourhood, it could actually be that inside, they feel so emotionally fragile and vulnerable that they feel they'd get depressed and feel terrible about themselves if it wasn't for the attention and care of others, or if they felt they were at risk of being belittled in some way, such as if they had to use a walking stick and wouldn't go out of the house for fear people would think less of them, or if they were at a social function but people seemed to be ignoring them, or if they get criticised.

It may be that when they've achieved something, unlike others, they can't feel proud of it unless they're praised by others, and that's partly why they crave the praise of others so much.

Coping With the Demands of a Self-Centred Parent While Caring For Your Own Needs

Fed up

If your parent's been very self-centred for a long time, it'll be such an ingrained part of their personality that no matter how much you try to reason with them, it's unlikely you'll get them to change. What can help, though, is if you change the way you behave towards them in certain ways. There are ways you can stop exhausting yourself by giving in to all their demands, while at least keeping them reasonably happy. You might feel awkward about not giving in to them all the time any more if that's what you've been used to doing, but you might have noticed that no matter how much you do for them, they're never satisfied. So you can ask yourself, if they're not going to be satisfied anyway, is it really going to be so much worse if you do less for them? If you help make alternative arrangements for them, they might end up liking them after all, so you won't really have made them less happy.

It's best not to try to force them to accept arrangements they really don't want to accept though, for instance if you feel sure they need to move into an old people's home and they refuse. Trying to force them to go could cause a lot of family strife, when there might actually be alternatives they'd be happier with that would be just as safe for them, such as if social services would be willing to send carers in to help them a few times a day, and they could go to a day centre a few times a week for activity and companionship. Whether you'd be able to get that kind of care from social services is open to question, but it might be worth trying. Part of it will depend on how severe your parent's needs are. Social services might assess them to see how much help they need.

If they don't need such serious help but they need some, there are things you could try to do to take the burden off yourself. In fact, they're things you could also do if they demand you do certain things for them that always end up causing conflict, for instance if they insist you give up a day of your valuable time each week to help them, and part of it involves something that always ends up in an argument. Here are a few ideas for getting other help for them:

You might be able to think of other things. Getting them might be easier said than done; but it might be worth a try.

Telling Your Parent About the Changes You're Planning to Make in a Way That's Less Likely to Result in an Argument


When you're telling your parent about the changes you're planning to make, there are ways of doing it that will reduce the chances of the whole thing turning into an argument where they resist what you want. It might be possible to be very straightforward about what you feel you can still do for them and what you're no longer prepared to do for them, while at the same time telling them in a way where they'll feel less able or willing to argue.

One thing to avoid is getting angry with them, because they'll automatically respond to that with anger and opposition and you're unlikely to get anywhere.

You'll increase your chances of succeeding if you time your announcement well, waiting till they're in a good mood and more open to reason than they are sometimes.

Don't ask them whether it'll be allright if someone comes to help if you think there's a high likelihood they'll say no. Present it as if it's something you've already firmly decided on; but present it in an attractive way that might make them think there might be benefits for them in it, and as if it'll make a nice change for them. Try to tell them in a reassuring way, to reduce the risk of the idea alarming them.

If you possibly can, delegate to other people the things that cause most conflict between you and your parent, and then you can sell the idea to your parent of seeing them less and getting them help for the things you'll no longer be doing in a more attractive way by saying that now the two of you can focus on doing things you enjoy together and will have less arguments.

Here's an example of the way you could put the idea to them:

"Mum, I know you're used to me coming and doing your housework every Saturday morning. I'm going to have Catherine, that friendly woman from the church help you from now on. I'll still be visiting every Saturday, but with Catherine's help, we can spend more fun time together visiting or going out. I'll see you next Saturday."

The parent might be at least reassured you're still coming to see them if you end like that.

Ending like that also means you're trying to close the conversation before an argument starts, though that might not work. It may be that they will agree with you, though, if you explain to them one or two of the reasons for the change, and they come to think the arrangement would be better than losing you altogether. For instance, a conversation could maybe, in some circumstances, go something like this:

Mother: Don't forget to come at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. I've got a dentist's appointment and then several errands I want to run.

Daughter: Mum, I won't be able to take you. I'm coming over at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning to introduce you to Kate, who'll drive you to where you need to go and bring you back. She'll make your lunch and leave at about midday.

Mother: [not waiting to hear anything else] That isn't going to work. No one else is going to sit around the house watching soaps and eating lunch with me.

Daughter: I'm going to have to ask you to try it. I'm feeling tired a lot nowadays and I know I need more rest. And last time I went to the doctor he said my blood pressure's high and I need to look after myself better. What I'd like to do is to have more relaxing time with you. So I'll see you tomorrow morning to introduce you to Kate, and then I'll see you on Sunday afternoon for our usual walk in the park.

Mother: Who is this Kate?

If you'd feel guilty about delegating some of the care of your self-centred parent to someone else because you feel that since they were there for you while you were growing up, you should be there for them now, consider that for one thing, their demands on you might be way out of proportion to what they actually need, and you don't have to feel selfish for not sacrificing yourself for what they merely want. If they're that selfish, their wants will never be satisfied anyway, so trying won't solve the problem. Also, you have to look after your own needs, and if the care they're going to get won't actually be worse than what you'd be giving them, you don't have to feel guilty that someone else will be giving it and not you. After all, they might get to like it that way.

Putting Off a Self-Centred Parent Who Wants to Come and Live With You

A house

It can be a real worry for some children of difficult parents when their parent asks to move in with them, perhaps when their health's beginning to fail or they're lonely. They anticipate a life of arguments and having to put up with unreasonable demands and criticism all day.

There are things you can say that can help keep a conversation calm while you're telling a difficult parent they can't move in with you.

The book I've got this information from gives a few guidelines to bear in mind during your conversations with them:

This is one way a conversation might go:

Daughter: I think it'll be good that you're living near the family now your health's not as good as it was. We'll be relieved to know you'll be near enough that we can care for you if you need it. And I appreciate your offer to help around the house if you move in. But I don't think you living here would work out. You know how you and me irritate each other. There are just so many things we don't agree about. It'll be better for both of us if there's some space between us.

Mother: We could turn your garage into a nice little room I could stay in. So you could have your privacy, and I could help with the children sometimes.

Daughter: Me and the family have thought this through carefully, and really, it would be best if you live nearby.

The shorter you can make the explanation the better, because the more you say, the more they'll be able to take issue with. Being supportive of their desire to live nearby, while remaining firm about not letting them actually live in your house even if they become insistent, and trying to focus on the positive aspects of them being nearby, will hopefully mean the conversation ends in a more satisfactory way for both of you than it might otherwise. It might not be easy, since they might argue and say provocative things that make you angry. But there are still ways you can be firm and yet calm. Here are a few examples of things based on ones from the book that difficult parents might say, with calm yet firm answers you could use as inspiration to think up ones of your own:

Mother: Other, good daughters open their homes to their mothers.
Daughter: I'd like to be like some of the daughters around here, but you and I know I'm not like them. I tend to get irritable and short-tempered when I don't have my privacy or my way. It's never worked when we're together for too long. We'll both be happier if we're living in different places.

[For a couple whose last child has just left home] Mum, as you know, our last kid's just left home. It's important for the two of us to enjoy spending time alone now. But we'd both like having you living nearby.

[For someone living alone] Mum, you know how we rub each other the wrong way when we're together too much. If I have my own home and you have yours, but we go out together often, we'll have the best of both worlds.

[For parents of teenagers] Mum, you know how difficult kids can be at this age. It would be hard for us all to live together.

[If a parent's offering to ease the financial burden you're in by paying you rent] Dad, it's more important for us to stay good friends by living separately and close by. You know how we do better when we aren't under the same roof. It'll be nice to have you nearby.

When a Self-Centred Parent Comes to Visit

Banging head against the wall

It can be the experience of some people with self-centred parents that their parents will ask if they can visit at a difficult time, such as just after the birth of a new baby, offering to help. It turns out they don't help at all and expect to be waited on, complaining if they aren't. This kind of behaviour's very likely to make their children angry. Limiting such visits can be good.

But it may be that you won't get so angry, so you'll be able to get along with them better, so you'll be able to tolerate them more when they make demands and criticise, only thinking about themselves, if you think that sometimes, such behaviour can be rooted in fear of rejection and abandonment. It certainly makes abandonment more likely to happen. But the thing is that some people might be so emotionally needy that they're all wrapped up in their fears of rejection, so they haven't got any emotional capacity left to care for anyone else. They might seem mean-spirited and critical, but it may be because even trivial incidents where they feel slighted stir up their fears and insecurities, so they want to protest. Even if there's absolutely no reason for them to feel fearful and insecure, if it's just been part of their personality for years and years, it'll be like a habit. They won't need a reason; it'll just be automatic. Perhaps something in their childhood made them fearful of not being paid attention to.

That's not to make excuses for them. It's just that if you know you have no choice but to spend time with them because their health's beginning to fail or because you accepted their offer of help and then regretted it when they visited and didn't do a thing, or for some other reason, if you can understand a little of what might make them behave the way they do, you can be more tolerant of them, and so the relationship will be easier on you as well as them.


You might be disappointed if you think that their behaviour is so much a part of their personality that they're unlikely to ever change and become more caring for others. But at least if you do, you won't be tormented by thinking they might change if only you can make enough effort to help them or find out what would work. That way, you can be at peace about that and try to make the best of things by finding ways to cope with their behaviour.

Whatever the case, there are things that can make their visits to you easier. These are the examples the book gives:

Even if they offer to help, don't get your hopes up if they have never helped around your house before. They probably won't have changed. So don't give them jobs to do or expect them to help. If they offer to do something, it'll be a nice bonus.

Arrange for them to be entertained by family or friends. That'll satisfy their need for attention. If your parent happens to offer to take you out to dinner or something, you can be pleased; but don't expect them to do anything like that.

One woman the book talks about was fed up of her mother's behaviour at family parties, where she would always intrude into conversations or sulk in the corner or seek attention in other ways. Her daughter hit on a plan. When the next family gathering was coming up, she decided it would solve the problem if her mother had a rolled-up manuscript of her life history that she could put together before the party, that would be all about what the family did in the past and what her mother in particular had done with her life. She would have several copies, one for each member of the family that she'd give them as a gift. Throughout the evening, she would speak to members of the family one by one, go over parts of the life history with them, and then give them a copy.

The mother and daughter enjoyed putting the life history together before the party. They had fun and felt they were doing something meaningful together for weeks beforehand.

Maybe you could think of some good ideas to turn problems into opportunities for good things to happen.

Becoming More Selfish With Age


Self-centred people can become yet more selfish with old age, when a lot of the people who fulfilled their great need for attention have died or moved away, or got so fed up with them they don't want to be with them any more, and they've become unable to do the things that gave them meaning in life and occupied their time when they were younger, so they've become dissatisfied with life, perhaps depressed, and they have more time to be yet more preoccupied with their thoughts of their need for attention and how their life isn't what they'd like it to be. Meaningful activity can often help an old person who feels that way, so getting them involved in something they find fulfilling can help keep depression away. But some people are so set in their ways it's difficult to interest them in anything. The loss of ability that tends to come with age can make self-centred people feel even more worthless deep down than they perhaps did before, so they become even more emotionally needy.

Some people can become ill as a result of emotional upset, as if the illness represents it, for instance a headache appearing as a result of anxious thoughts going around in their head. Tension can have physical affects. They might even talk as if the actions of others are having physical effects on them. If their emotions seem to be quite overwhelming for them, it'll be worth speaking to the doctor about it. Your parent might refuse to see the doctor for anything psychological, but they might go if they think the doctor might give them something to relieve their physical complaints, and the doctor will hopefully ask how they are and make an assessment of what's wrong with them partly based on that.

Whatever you do, don't sacrifice your own needs trying to make your parent happy. If you've never managed it for long in the past no matter what you've done, you're very unlikely to succeed now. That won't be your fault; it'll be to do with their never-ending thirst for attention. Do for them what you can without sacrificing your own well-being, but no more.

Part Four
Over-Controlling Parents

There are a variety of ways parents can be over-controlling. Some will try and manipulate their children and other people by saying things to make them feel guilty, or cajole them into doing favours for them by flattering them. Some can be passive-aggressive, not openly hostile, but, for instance, making it more difficult for others to get things done by wasting time and not getting on and doing their share, or not giving them information that would help them, or making life more uncomfortable for others by sulking. Or they might be openly hostile and angry, disapproving of even trivial things their children do that are different from the way they think those things ought to be done. They might make so many demands they just drive their children away, until those children think it's their duty to look after them in their old age.

Feeling hopeless

The underlying problem with people who behave like that can be the same with all the other ones mentioned so far, according to the book: if it's to be believed, they may very well have a deep-seated unhealthy fear of being abandoned and not having as much control over their lives as they'd like, of being rejected or left helpless to fend for themselves. The fear won't be based in current reality, but will have often come on because of some kind of separation anxiety or trauma in early life where that kind of thing did happen and left them emotionally geared up to do their best to never let that happen again. Even minor differences of opinion can seem like a kind of rejection of them as a person. They don't do what they do deliberately to be annoying. It's just such a habit because it's part of their personality that they do it without thinking. Deep down they may well be tormenting themselves with anxiety about being abandoned altogether; so no matter how unhappy they make you feel, they may well be feeling worse. They may be trying to control you because if they didn't, they fear they would feel helpless to do anything to protect themselves against being abandoned, and that would bring on depression.

It's an unreasonable way of thinking, certainly; but thinking unreasonably is easy to do in some circumstances.

That doesn't mean you've got no hope of changing the way they behave around you. But directly asking them to change will probably just make them defensive.

Perhaps asking your parents if they had any distressing experiences in early life could help you understand them better.

A Woman Whose Mother Wouldn't Leave Her Alone and Then Rejected Her When She Wanted Some Independence

Shaking head

As for how to cope with them, the book gives an example of a way that you could perhaps adapt to work for you sometimes:

A woman had become exasperated with her mother when she first moved away from home, because she would keep dropping in unannounced, and she sometimes called at inconvenient times, but it didn't occur to her that that might be bothering the daughter. She moved further away from her mother, but her mother would often phone her. The mother came to expect the daughter to phone every morning, first thing. If she hadn't phoned by 9 o'clock, she had a lot of explaining to do. The mother tried to keep her very close to her in lots of other little ways too.

The daughter found all this difficult, and went to see a counsellor, who encouraged her to try to come to an arrangement with her mother about phoning less often. She found the counselling helpful. But when she tried talking to her mother about them speaking less often, her mother was so angry and upset that she said that if her daughter wanted less of her in her life, she would have nothing. She made her husband and other daughter have nothing to do with her also. This carried on for twenty years.

Her daughter wanted to get back in contact, but the mother refused several times. She returned any flowers sent for Mother's Day. The daughter found her father wouldn't speak to her any more for fear of what her mother would say, and her sister wouldn't see her either. Her father had always tolerated being treated badly by her mother, doing whatever she wanted. And her sister was like her mother. They were dependent on each other.

But twenty years after her mother stopped speaking to her and made her father and sister do the same, her sister phoned her, saying she had to help with their mother, because the health of both the parents was failing, and the sister couldn't manage on her own. The father was getting Alzheimer's disease, and the mother was getting heart problems. Her sister blamed her for staying away from the family, even though they'd rejected her and she was unhappy about that.

Biting nails

She didn't know what to do. Her parents lived some way away. She wondered whether to travel to see them, but didn't know if her mother would even speak to her if she did. She worried that if she did, she might latch onto her like she had done before. And she didn't know how to put her own feelings of rejection into the background so she could speak to her parents again happily.

She told all this to one of the authors of the book. They decided a good plan would be if she first made some rules with her sister about what they were going to do, since it was important that the mother wasn't allowed to turn them against each other again. The book advises anyone wanting to reconcile with parents to do it with the support of close relatives.

They agreed that the sister of the woman would contact the mother first to say she'd contacted her to help with their dad, and that the woman was going to contact her mother herself. The sister did phone, and her mother didn't seem antagonistic to the idea of being with the daughter she'd rejected.

The daughter was still a bit concerned. The authors advised her not to bring up the 20-year rejection when she phoned her mother up, since it might start an awkward conversation, though the mother might bring it up herself.

They did some role-playing to help the daughter get more confident about the conversation.

Here are the kinds of things that were said in the end, when she phoned her mother up for real:

Daughter: Mum, I know it's been a long time.

Mother: Yes, it certainly has. What's on your mind? [sounding a bit hostile]

Daughter: Betsy [her sister] says Dad isn't well and maybe I could help out a bit.

Mother: So she's fed up with me and wants someone to replace her, is that it? [Her underlying fear of rejection's coming out]

Daughter: Betsy wants my support, and we both want to be here for you. I know Dad's having memory problems and your heart isn't as good as it was. We both want to be there for you.

Mother: Well, don't tell your sister, but she hasn't been keeping up her end of the phone calls lately. We might as well not have a family! [using guilt as a form of control over the sister and trying to cause antagonism between the daughters.]

Daughter: [not getting irritated or defensive or taking the complaint seriously] I've just been talking to her. You're right. She hasn't been in contact so much lately because she's exhausted and upset about you and Dad. She needs my support. I need hers. And together we can be there for you and Dad. How about if I call you next week? [She emphasises that her and her sister are united and willing to be supportive to them. She doesn't react to anything that sounds antagonistic.]

Mother: I'll be here. I'm not going anywhere.

The daughter does phone her mother back the following week:

Daughter: Hello Mum.

Mother: I still can't work out why after all these years you're phoning. We've been sick before and you didn't call. I've been resigned to never hearing from you again. And then now out of the blue ... [She seems to imagine her daughter was the one who cut off contact.]

Daughter: There have been a lot of hurts between us over the years. I want to put all that behind us. I'd like to make peace with you. Do you think that's possible? [Getting into an argument about who did what to whom would just have caused bad feeling and might have led to more rejection, so the daughter focuses on the future.]

Mother: We'll see about that.

Daughter: How's Dad?

Mother: He's impossible. He likes to get into everything and then hides things. I tell him to stop but he won't. He likes to drive me crazy. I might have to put him in a home. [She interprets her husband's confused behaviour as disobedience and wilful mischief.

Daughter: [not educating her mother about how Alzheimer's makes people confused so her husband won't be able to help his behaviour and risking an argument, but sticking to the topic] I can imagine how hard this must be. I've got a week off from work next month. How about I come down and stay with you for a few days?

Mother: It's up to you.

The daughter kept reassuring herself that she was grown-up enough to cope now and not to let herself get dominated by her mother again. She went to see her and managed to organise for some outside help to come in to supervise her father while her mother went out with friends a couple of times a week, which she'd missed doing since her husband became unable to care for himself. The main reason the daughter organised that was because her and her sister were hoping it would shift some of their parents' dependence on them to outside helpers, and also relieve their worry about their well-being, since they were quite far away and it would be nice for people nearby to be looking in on them.

Helping Elderly People Feel More Useful and Important


Sometimes even old people in nursing homes will dominate other residents, always bossing them around. Sometimes, giving them something that makes them feel important can have a mellowing effect on them, since if they're in control of something that matters, they might not be so enthusiastic to turn their need for control on others. The book suggests a few ways some people like that can be helped to feel important. These ways could help other old people feel important as well, perhaps those suffering mild depression and so on:

You could make a "This is Your Life" poster with photos of and stories about the person, and put it on the door of their room or some other place where it'll get noticed, where other people in the home don't mind it being, so people can admire it. The admiration and the reminder of their achievements in life will hopefully make them feel better about themselves. I heard it's been found that old people can get depressed if they don't feel like useful members of society any more. Being constantly reminded of useful and successful things they've done in the past might be the next best thing for some. But then, there still might be useful things they can do, or at least active ones where they feel their life is more fulfilling:

A plant

I heard about an experiment that was done that found that just giving old people in a home plants that they had the responsibility of watering stopped them feeling so depressed. Perhaps it would help with other states of mind as well. It might be worth asking the staff in the home if your parent could have a special job if your parent likes the idea, like putting any flowers they have on the dining-room tables.

Giving them a bit of responsibility might help satisfy their need for control. If the home ever has meetings about activities that might be started for patients and other patient care issues, perhaps you could ask the staff if they could be allowed to participate and give their opinion, perhaps collecting opinions from others and acting as a spokesman. If there's anything about the home your parent's unhappy with, the idea might especially appeal to them.

Some Reasons Controlling Parents Might Criticise a Lot

Heated criticism

You might find you get criticised a lot by a controlling person, especially since they tend to respond in the same way to trivial things they disapprove of as to serious ones. The book suggests ways you could deflect the criticisms.

You might be more willing to brush them off rather than becoming indignant and arguing if you have some insight into what's wrong with your parent that makes them criticise over even silly little things the way they do. There are several possible reasons they might do it:

Some might be threatened by anything that diverges from what they personally believe to be the right way to dress, the right way to behave and so on, because they feel that any difference is a rejection of their own views, which they might think are facts. So they feel they're being rejected as a person. Of course, that's an irrational way to think; but addressing the matter in a sympathetic and light-hearted way might be far more productive than arguing with them, which will only make them feel more threatened and insecure so they'll get more angry.

They might actually be scared they'll be criticised themselves if they or someone close to them does anything different from what they view as the norm. They might not have the confidence to branch out and do something different, and worry that anyone who else does is doing something so bad that others are bound to disapprove. So their own criticisms can be an attempt to get people doing what others will think it's OK to do. Or they themselves might feel bad because they worry they're wrong when family members behave differently, and their bad feelings turn into criticism. They haven't got the confidence to enjoy doing different things themselves. When they can get others to do what they want, they feel as if they're in the right and that their opinions are good and respected enough to be obeyed, so that gives them a sense of pride in themselves they'll like and which will keep them wanting to try to make others do what they want, to get the feeling again. Getting it from other things instead might lessen the need they feel to get it from trying to make other people conform to what they want. It may be that people like that got a strong message when they were young that it's bad to be different.

But just because they might have deep emotional reasons for behaving the way they do, it doesn't mean you have to sympathise so much that you'll try to appease them by doing everything they want. You need to retain the freedom to do your own thing, rather than feeling harassed and bossed into burying your own wishes and conforming to every little whim of someone else.

So you can instead try to use techniques of brushing off their criticisms in a kind, friendly way, one which might start to prompt them to think they don't really need to make a fuss after all. Here are some suggested ways:

Ways of Responding to Criticism


Humour can sometimes work, although you have to be careful with it, because if the person thinks you're making fun of them, they won't like it. But sometimes it might take the tension out of the situation, for instance this example:

Mother: That sausage and mash you're serving really doesn't go with those fancy plates you're putting it on.

Daughter: You're right! Should I dress up the food or dress down the plates?

Jokes like that won't work with everyone, since some people will think such matters are too serious to be joked about and might think of your joke as a challenge to their authority. You might have to experiment to find out what works.

Another way of deflecting criticism can be to say something light-hearted. An example of that kind of approach could be:

Mother: You shouldn't be wearing those white shoes. This is a solemn occasion. You should be all in black.

Daughter: You're right Mum. How did you ever raise such a non-conformist as me?

Responding in a light-hearted way can keep both your tempers cool. Getting angry with your parent will just give them the excuse to say worse things to you, and giving into them will allow them to control you after all. Taking an easy-going confident approach while not allowing their words to dictate what you do can ease the tension of the relationship for both of you.

It might not work. If not, it might be best to be straightforward about your feelings, but telling them what you think in a friendly reassuring way, to increase the chances of them accepting what you say and seeing reason rather than getting angry and criticising you more. Here's an example the book gives:

Mother: Darling, I know your wife likes the way you brush your hair, but I think it makes you look old. [She may be trying to compete with her daughter-in-law for influence over her son.]

Son: I know you'd like me to comb it your way. And I don't want to make you unhappy, but I like my hair the way it is.

Mother: [shrugs her shoulders as if to say, "Well who'd want to take notice of me anyway!"

Son: Mum, your opinions are important to me. But I like my hair how it is. It doesn't have to do with my feelings about you.

If Your Parent Agrees it Would Be Nice to Have Less Conflict Between You

Cooling anger

If your parent realises they can be over-controlling and thinks they shouldn't be really but it's a bad habit that's hard to break, you could agree together that you'd prefer less conflict in your relationship, and then whenever they say something unnecessarily critical, you could have various things you could say that remind you both to change the subject or stop talking in a negative way. You could even perhaps make a friendly agreement together that whenever one of you says one of those things, it means conflict's at risk of breaking out and it's time to stop talking like that. They could be phrases like:

I'm me, and you are you.
It's happening again. Let's change the subject.
You and I each have our own special ways.
You know what they say: Different strokes for different folks.

Some parents wouldn't like that kind of thing because it reminds them that there's a divide between them and their children. But some parents won't mind and might like the idea, because some of them perhaps won't like conflict really any more than you do.

Don't try to force them to accept your point of view though, in effect trying to control them. Try to be easy-going about them having their opinion, even if you don't like it.

When it Seems Your Parent's Trying to Manipulate You

Having a meal

Some parents seem to be really manipulative, for instance by taking their children out for meals or buying the grandchildren expensive gifts, and then expecting favours, without actually having said beforehand that they were wanting favours in return for the meal or presents. Some children get angry, thinking the parents are making cold, calculated attempts to manipulate them. But the parents' behaviour might not really be cold and calculated at all. You might not be that angry with them any more if you look at it another way. What if, for instance, your parents' behaviour really means they don't believe they're worthy of favours except in return for something special. So they won't ask you without giving you something first.

Other things children can see as manipulation might be prompted by the same kinds of insecurities. In that case, the parents won't be deliberately trying to manipulate, and might be genuinely shocked and will understandably deny it if they're accused of manipulation.

A Parent Who Would Always Get Her Son to Do Her Shopping For Her

The book gives an example of someone who was angry with his mother because he thought she was manipulating him. Whenever he'd phone her and ask if she wanted something from the shops, she'd say she was out of everything and would ask him to go to her house and help her make a shopping list. Or sometimes she'd phone him and sheepishly ask if he'd do that.

He knew she was perfectly capable of making a shopping list herself. So he was angry with her, thinking that all she was really trying to do was to get his attention.

But he was relieved and his anger evaporated when one of the authors of the book explained to him that his mother was in all likelihood feeling scared and lacking in confidence, and all she really needed was a bit of reassurance from him. His changed attitude towards her helped her feel cared for. He persuaded her she could make shopping lists herself. He told her he'd shop for her once a week, and if she needed anything else in between times, the local shop could be asked to deliver it.

Once his attitude changed, he felt better, because he was no longer annoyed at feeling manipulated.

If Your Parent Plays the Martyr


Some parents seem to want to play the martyr all the time, and that can seem like manipulation also. They might sulk and protest they'll be fine if things don't go their way, even though you know it'll really just make them sulk more.

You might feel as if they're manipulating you, but they might not realise that's how it's coming across. Still, if the behaviour's bothering you, sometimes it's best to take a firm line, standing up for yourself and not letting yourself be persuaded out of your decision by the same unhappy protest that you can feel free to do what you want if you really feel you must.


Take the example of a mother living with her son and daughter-in-law, who feels hurt about not being invited to stay with another of her children over Christmas, and is invited to visit friends of the son she's staying with along with him and his wife, but she feels too miserable to go because she's hyper-sensitive to having been ignored by the child she was hoping to stay with. But she refuses to have anyone stay with her while her son and his wife are away, even though they know she's fearful of being alone. Here's the kind of thing her son might say to her a few weeks later when he's thought about it:

"Mum, the tension in this house around Christmas made me realise we need to come to some kind of routine arrangement about what to do when we want to go out. We all found it difficult. I know you didn't want us to leave you alone when we went to visit our friends, but you didn't want to come with us and you didn't want someone here to keep you company. There will be times when me and my wife will want to go out for the evening alone. I want to make a deal with you that when this happens, we're going to call a neighbour to be with you. Let's agree on this."

If you say that kind of thing in a firm, authoritative yet friendly way, rather than a voice with an uncertain tone or one with anger in it, then they might be more likely not to argue.

Do reassure them that you're not going to abandon them and that you still care about them. But try to be assertive about telling them you're going to live your life. It might be difficult for you if they seem pitiful or they're implying you're to blame for leaving them, but if their greatest fear is rejection, then reassuring them you'll always be there for them might be what they most need really, rather than you giving in on any individual occasion. And if you realise their fears of abandonment or of feeling worthless are irrational, because they fear those things out of all proportion to their likelihood of happening, then you'll know that if you give in to them, you won't be simply doing what any dutiful child should do; you'll be pandering to an unhealthy irrational fear.

So if you make an agreement with them about what's going to happen when you go out or something, don't be afraid to remind them of it if they play the martyr again.

With Some People Reasoning Can Work

A conversation

If you've found your parent is able to accept criticism, even if it's just when they're in a good mood, then sometimes, telling them how their behaviour makes you feel and asking them to change could help. But be polite, so instead of saying things like, "you really irritate me when you do that. Get out of my business!", things that'll just make them angry and want to argue so things end up worse, you might instead say something like, "When you did that, I felt annoyed, because I prefer to take responsibility for my own life. Please do this in future instead ...".

Sometimes, parents become controlling in later life when they weren't before. One or more of their life circumstances change for the worse, and they try to cope with new stresses by being controlling. Since a controlling nature won't be an ever-present part of their personality, they can change back to the way they were again if something is done to help them cope with their stressful life circumstances as far as possible.

Also, reasoning calmly with them, however unreasonable their behaviour seems to you and however annoyed you are about it, might help.

Part Five
Depressed, Self-Abusive and Fearful Parents

It might be especially worrying for you if you have parents who are alcoholics, have eating disorders - either refusing to eat or eating excessively, won't do much because they're so depressed, talk of suicide, and other such things.

The book says depression can underlie a lot of self-abusive behaviour. Things like over-eating can be like a defence to try to keep it at bay. So getting the possibility that they're depressed looked into can help, as well as getting them help for their self-abusive behaviour.

Writing Them a Letter to Try and Persuade Them to Get Professional Help

Trying to write a letter

If they refuse to get help, sometimes, writing them a letter can help persuade them. It can sometimes be better than talking to them, because while talking to them can put them on the defensive so they'll be so preoccupied with thinking of what to say in response to what you're saying they won't really take it in, reading a letter in the quiet of their own room and having the time to think over it can have more effect, especially if you express to them how much you care for them and want the best for them. You can think carefully about what you want to say and say it all, since you won't be interrupted and possibly end up not saying all you wanted to say.

It's important the letter doesn't come across as attacking and critical, since if it makes them angry, they won't be in any mood to think about what you said. If it makes them feel cared-for and helps them see things from your point of view by helping them identify with your feelings, then they might be moved to get help.

What to Put in the Letter

So, for instance, the first part of the letter could be all about what your parent means to you: You could think of several things they've done in the past that made you feel close to them, and tell them how they made you feel and what you thought of them when they did those things, for instance if they made you feel cared-for or loved, or if you were really touched by what they did, or if you admired them for being able to do what they did.

The second section of the letter can be about how distressed you are by their current behaviour, and maybe about anything you know about their personality that you think they'd be able to use to help them over their problems, such as if they've successfully overcome difficult things before so you're confident they could again.

The third section can be about how you'd like your relationship with them to change and what you know you could have if they'd get help and change. For instance, if you'd like to meet up and chat with them like you used to; if you'd like them to be around to advise you about your own children and be with you to admire their successes and help them through their difficulties; if you'd like to admire them again; if you'd feel happier if you knew they weren't putting their health in danger; if you'd like to feel they loved you again, or whatever.

In the last section, you could suggest steps they could take to get back to being their old selves again or recover from whatever problems they've had for a while, perhaps asking if they'll see a doctor. You could say you realise it'll be hard for them, but perhaps say that you hope your relationship with them is important enough for them to get well again for you. If you know of a therapist with a good reputation, you could perhaps even recommend them.

Sometimes, letters like that from more than one person who cares about them in the family might increase the chances of them being motivated to change more than a letter from one will.

Even then, it might not work, and you might have to consult with a doctor or other professional person about what to do next. But it might well be worth a try first.

Symptoms of Depression in Old People Can be Mistaken For Those of Dementia


Stress and depression can cause mild memory problems sometimes. So if your parent seems to be getting them, don't automatically assume they must have gone down with Alzheimer's disease; it could be an emotional problem or something else that might be very treatable if you tell the doctor. So try and get them checked out before coming to any conclusion.

One thing some serious depression and Alzheimer's have in common is that people with both conditions can get paranoid. Some old people can have bouts of paranoia because as their sight and hearing begin to fail and they perhaps start misinterpreting things they half-hear or half-see, they can become more fearful, and their imagination can start running wild trying to work out what's really going on. It may be that the more alarmed they are by not being able to cope with things around the house or worries about the security of their house, the more likely they'll be to latch on to paranoid thoughts and then start to believe them. So they might start accusing you or others of stealing their things, for example.

If their paranoid thoughts don't go away after you try to reason with your parent and reassure them, and after you sympathise with and talk through with them their emotions of fear about not being able to cope with any bad things that happen in their surroundings that may be making them paranoid, it might be best to seek professional help. But you may be able to calm them yourself.

An Older Parent With Fears or Phobias


Fear of illness can be a problem for many in older life. Some people will have been scared of being ill all their lives and perhaps become even more fearful in old age when becoming ill is more of a threat; and people who were once healthy might become worried when they begin to suffer illnesses in later life.

It might lead to them being afraid of being alone, afraid of crowds, and afraid of letting others in the family go to places in case they pick up germs and bring them back to the house. It might be exasperating for family members; but you might not feel so angry with them if you remember that they will feel worse. It must be horrible to live with fear all your life.

If they're the kind of person who keeps complaining, a bit of sympathy for their feelings can sometimes stop them. Trying to convince them to look on the bright side, though well-intentioned, can sometimes backfire because they don't think you're taking their complaints seriously. So sometimes, for instance, if they complain they're in pain, saying something like, "It'll probably feel better soon" might antagonise rather than reassure them, but saying something more like, "I'm sorry about the distress it must be causing you", might make them feel as if their problems are being taken seriously so it might help to pacify them.

Running away

Some parents have fears that stem from traumatic childhood experiences that are still plaguing them now. For instance, someone who nearly drowned in a river as a child might have a fear of rivers and streams several decades on. They might know it's irrational, but every time they're near one, it might remind them of what happened and their panicky feelings might come over them quickly and take over before they can do anything about it, so they do their best to get away, and get any young children they have away. They're really trying to stop the panicky feelings. Feelings can be strong and sometimes difficult to control. So telling someone like that they're being silly won't help and will probably just upset them. They know it isn't sensible, but they can't help their feelings. Learning to calm panicky feelings would help them.

So if, for instance, friends have invited a family to go for a picnic with them near a nice river, and the parent who's scared of rivers is also scared of being alone, family members might not know what to do, because if they go without the fearful family member, they'll feel guilty, but they don't want to miss out on the picnic.

Trying to persuade your parent they're being silly won't help, because they won't be able to help their feelings unless they're taught ways of calming them. But you can at least speak to them with reassurance, for instance asking ahead of time if they'd like you to ask a neighbour if they'll drop in for a while to talk to them, giving them a telephone number they can contact you on, and giving them an estimate of when you'll be home.

Not Feeling So Guilty Because of What Parents Say

Feeling bad

It might be that your parent has ways of saying things to you that leave you feeling very guilty if you don't do what they want. There are ways of not letting that kind of talk get to you. Sometimes, the feelings of guilt can come on so quickly that it's difficult to feel any other way. One thing that can help is getting to feel more confident about deflecting comments that make you feel guilty by finding someone you can rehearse conversations with, with them pretending to be your parent and you being you, or vice versa sometimes. They can say things that would normally have you feeling guilty, and you can practice saying things back that stop that kind of talk in its tracks. You could try rehearsing till such things come easily to you, before you try them out for real. Some such conversations might go something like this:

Daughter: We're going to stay with you for two days in June.

Mother: Oh, so I'm a two-day-stay kind of mother. How many days will you be lazing around on the beach for this year?

Daughter: Mum, I'm sorry it doesn't seem enough time for you, but let's try to make our two days together really special.

Mother: I'll take the crumbs. I'm used to crumbs.

Daughter: [in a friendly tone of voice] Oh Mum, come on. [She changes the subject and talks about how much fun their child's birthday party was.]

The daughter avoided feeling guilty, sympathising with her mother's feelings but not giving in to them.

Part Six
Grieving Parents

It's natural for people who've suffered a loss of something important to them, whether a spouse or something to do with their health, and so on, to feel upset for a time. It becomes unhealthy if it's been a long time and they don't seem to be recovering, or sometimes if they don't seem to be grieving at all. That won't always mean they didn't feel strongly about who or what they've lost. It might mean their emotion's coming out in unhealthy ways, such as anger towards everyone around.

The book says parents who've been difficult all their lives are likely to be the most difficult for their grown-up children to cope with when they lose someone, or just something. For instance, a very self-centred mother might complain all the time over the loss of her beauty.

It might be tempting to criticise or stay away from a parent like that, but being sympathetic can help them. You might think it's a trivial thing to lose one's beauty as one ages or something like that, but for some people, it represents a loss of self-worth, if they thought part of what made them acceptable was their looks or something similar.


If your mother who has always been critical does nothing but complain about a nice new place she's moved into nearer the family, don't be too quick to consider her ungrateful and condemn her, because her feelings of loss at her independence, her old friends where she used to live, and other things she used to do there might be coming out as anger. So it can be best to try to respond sympathetically to some extent. You might think you'll be just helping your parent think they've got a good reason to criticise and encouraging their criticism that way, but it may be that if they feel someone cares, they won't feel so angry and unhappy, so they'll stop being so critical and they'll be easier to cope with.

That doesn't mean you have to agree with all the unjustified things they're saying. You can simply say you realise it's difficult for them, by saying things like, "I understand this is hard for you"; "You're feeling a bit upset about all this, aren't you"; "All this is taking its toll on you, isn't it", and so on. Or you could say non-committal things like "Really?" in a sympathetic way.

If a Difficult Parent Doesn't Seem to be Grieving at All


In the case of a critical angry person who loses their spouse and doesn't seem to be grieving at all but carries on as if nothing happened, it's possible they feel angry with the person who's died as if they've deliberately abandoned them rather than died not being able to help it. This might seem silly, but perhaps the loss reminds them of an earlier abandonment by a father or someone when they were little, and it was quite an upsetting experience, feeling worse because of their own other parent's continual criticism of the person for leaving. Now someone they were close to has left them again, their brain might be interpreting the experience as similar to their earlier abandonment and bringing all the old feelings to mind.

Ready for dinner

Feelings govern a lot of what we do. To give an everyday example, if you see someone eating something nice, your feelings might instantly tell you you really want the same thing, so you might go and get some, without stopping to think that you're only doing it because the other person's eating some. Even if someone tells you that's what's happening, it might not stop you wanting some. Also, if you smell food you last had years ago, you might suddenly have a longing for some. So with a much more serious thing like grieving, if being left by the man of the house ended up triggering a lot of anger, then when it happens again years later, even if it's for a completely different reason where it was no one's fault, if the person left behind feels abandoned, the brain might match the situation to the earlier one where they really were abandoned and bring to mind all the old feelings. So they might be angry with the person when it isn't appropriate, rather than thinking of them fondly and grieving their loss.

The reason the brain might bring to mind all the old feelings is because the way it helps us cope with life is by matching things to previous things. For instance, if you see a table, you don't think, "What's this? It's got four legs and a top; let's think. Ah, tables look like that; it must be one of those." You'll know it's a table because your brain quickly matches it to tables you've seen in the past to come up with the answer. That's a shortcut to knowing what it is. It does the same thing with feelings. If someone feels fear in a certain situation, for instance if they're in a park and they see a serious fight going on, the brain will instantly bring on the fear signals in that place again to warn them they need to be wary, whether there's anything to fear in it that time or not. If there is, they might need to get out before they have time to think. That's why the brain does it quickly.

That can happen with other feelings as well.

So the way your parent reacts to losing someone or something might have something to do with old old feelings coming to the surface. Since feelings can have a more powerful influence on people than thoughts, trying to reason with them that their attitude isn't sensible might not help.

What Might Help an Angry Grieving Person

Angry people might be helped to see things more in balance if activities are done with them where good feelings might come out to counteract the bad ones, such as if someone comes in to sit with them several times and goes through old photos of times in their married life, talking them over so they can reminisce. Then over time they can come to see that the person they're so angry with and life with them wasn't all negative. You could even help them to put together a scrapbook of their life with photos of lots of different times in it. It can be a kind of memento of the person who died. You can talk about both good and bad times from earlier years. It'll help them not to feel so lonely if they are lonely, and will focus their thoughts away from their current misery or unjustified anger. If they're happy with the end result, then it can help their emotions heal and help them think about their life in more of a balanced way rather than focusing just on the negative.

Trying to get them to see the positives too quickly might just anger them, because they might think you're invalidating their feelings, as if you think they don't have the right to have them. But if they come to feel more positive through their own bringing up of old memories and so on over time, then they might start to lose their anger.

They might be highly critical of their former spouse for leaving them and it might bring out all the anger they've had with them over the years about other things. So they might be full of criticisms about them. They'll probably only argue with you and get more angry if you contradict them, defending their spouse. But their feelings might become more rational and balanced if they themselves start thinking of good times they had with their spouse while you talk through the old days with them.

If they're very critical of you, that again might be to do with growing up where they were criticised a lot so they learned to do that themselves, or they started criticising as a defence against always being criticised themselves; so you don't have to feel as if it genuinely reflects badly on you. If you know their criticisms have a lot to do with the way they learned to behave as they were growing up, you can try not to take them personally and to feel bad about them.

At the same time, remember that anyone going around in such a negative frame of mind must be unhappy, so as unhappy as their criticisms have been making you, chances are they feel worse.

If you think you'd find it too emotionally draining to go through past memories with them yourself, perhaps someone else could. Or maybe you could try when the loss of your other parent isn't so fresh in your mind.

If it doesn't change the way they view things, perhaps if you could try to get someone in to give them some companionship, it would ease their negativity a bit.

At the same time, try to encourage them to do more things for themselves. They might have got clingy and dependent on you in their grief, constantly demanding you do things for them. Don't feel you have to sacrifice what you want to do in life to try to keep them happy. Reassure them that you're still there for them, though you've got other things you need to do as well as be with them.

If your parent has trouble thinking positively of more than one of their children at a time, so if you visit with another one, they'll view one as the good child and one as the bad child, you could try to arrange with your brothers and sisters to all visit your parent individually at different times.

Your parent might also have developed problems with making decisions, wanting you to make all decisions for them. You could try to get them back into the habit of making decisions themselves by starting by giving them small choices. Decide on what you think are the two or three best options, and then give them the choice of those.

If a Parent Won't Stop Grieving


Some parents grieve and grieve and can still be crying all the time years and years after they lost their spouse. While you might find it exasperating, and that, too, might make you feel like a failure as a person because you aren't managing to cheer them up, don't blame yourself. Their grieving might have just as much to do with feelings about past events such as abandonments as the feelings of someone who won't grieve might.

Something you can try to do to stop your meetings with your parent degenerating into their bouts of crying is to come prepared with something for you both to do to keep you occupied.

One thing that might be helpful is putting together a family album with your grieving parent, collecting photos from relatives of interesting things they've done to put with your own photos, and asking them if they could write little stories about interesting things in their lives they could send you with the photos to add to it. You could think through together with your parent whether there are little stories you could each write yourselves about interesting things you've both done in the past to put in it.

Other things that might help include visiting friends together; going to see fairly cheerful plays or films; showing your parent around places of interest, either historical interest or places like the area where you work and so on; developing new hobbies together, even if it starts with just collecting things or something; and so on. Basically, if you're both occupied doing something they're enjoying, their mind won't be on the thoughts that make them cry so much of the time.

You might find that in doing things like that, you and your parent both find more fulfilment in life and grow closer.

If they do still cry sometimes, if you recognise that past childhood experiences have helped make them the person they are, it might help you be more sympathetic. You could perhaps ask them about their experiences of loss as a child to help you understand them.

Parents Who Marry Soon After They Lost Their Spouse

In love

Some Parents marry soon after they lose a spouse. Some children can get angry when that happens because it seems as if they didn't care about their spouse who's just died.

Try not to be too judgmental if your parent does that, because rather than just not caring, it might be that they just can't cope with not being loved and cared for as their spouse cared for them, and they yearn for attention, so they feel the need to find a replacement.

If they're constantly demanding care and attention from you, and they get angry or try to make you feel guilty if you don't provide enough of it, try not to let them talk you into taking the attitude that it's your duty to do anything they want. There has to be a balance between you taking care of their needs and wants and you looking after your own needs and wants. If you sacrifice yourself too much for them, there may come a time when you can't stand it and stop altogether, and where will they be then? You have to look after your own needs. Your parent might not be as happy as they would be if you devoted yourself entirely to them, but if they're a negative unhappy person, ask yourself whether they'd be truly happy even if you did devote all your time to them.

Making Rules About What you Will and Won't Do for Your Parent


So try not to feel bad about making some kind of compromise and setting limits on what you're willing to do for them. You could perhaps write down the things you're prepared to do and when. Being assertive and explaining that they're your rules might not be easy. But at least if you sound firm and authoritative but friendly when you tell them about them, there won't be as much chance of them arguing as if you sound uncertain and thus more willing to be talked out of what you've decided.

An example of a new set of rules about what a person will and won't do might go something like:

Do Dad's grocery shopping once a week. Stay with him for a couple of hours after bringing it to him.
Talk on the phone to him every Monday and Thursday evening.
Be on call in real emergencies.
Be in touch with his doctors if necessary.
Make sure he gets transport when he needs to visit the doctor.

Try Not to Get Too Upset About the Way Your Parent Is

If you think your feelings of guilt or anger are pushing you around, try to remember again that much of your parent's behaviour may be irrational; they're a product of their past circumstances. You don't have to feel responsible for their happiness. If you need reminding not to take what they say so personally in times of stress, perhaps you could write down what past circumstances you think made them the way they are, and why you think you don't need to be so bothered by what they say, and read it every now and again.

You might find it upsetting if you realise it's very unlikely your parent will change and become the parent you've always wished they were, more considerate and caring and so on. You might want to do a bit of your own grieving for the unrealistic hopes you once had for your relationship with them that you realise probably ought to be abandoned. Still, communicating with them in new ways might at least help you get on better.

You Might Be Able to Persuade Your Parent to Think of Things Differently on Some Issues


Sometimes, a parent might be reluctant to do something because they think of it as being too much like something bad that happened in their past; but they can be helped to think of things differently so the idea seems more attractive after all.

For instance, the son of a woman who'd been in a concentration camp in the Holocaust could no longer care for her at home because she needed so much help, but when he thought of the way she'd reacted to some things in the past, he was worried that being shut in a nursing home would bring back memories of being in a concentration camp. But she'd spent some of the war years in a convent where the nuns had treated her with loving care. So when the idea of going into the nursing home was put to her, she was encouraged by the family to think of it as being like the nunnery where she'd felt secure and loved. She did think of that, and ended up adjusting very well to being in the nursing home.

Being Less Difficult

Sometimes, your parents might benefit from therapy. It could help them think of things differently and so not be so bothered by them. If they don't like the idea of therapy as such, then it's possible that counselling to help them with specific tasks like adjusting to life in a home might have more appeal; or the support of friends might be a great help, such as if there are day centres they can go to to be with people and do activities all day a few days a week.

If you realise you've got some of your difficult parent's traits, such as being very critical of others, and you worry you'll be someone else's difficult parent one day, there might be no need to worry, since if you've learned to relate to your parent more sympathetically and patiently, you'll probably start talking to other people like that as well, so you might well never get that difficult.

After Your Difficult Parent Dies


If you've spent a lot of time caring for your parent, you might be surprised to find that rather than relishing your freedom, you feel a big void when they go. Some people do.

You might find it's best to try to ease yourself gradually back into everyday life rather than trying to do too much at once when you're still feeling emotionally drained from what's been going on. There are several things some people have found useful in helping them begin to enjoy life again, including getting back in touch with old friends, doing voluntary work for a charity, taking time out to relax, getting into shape with changes in diet and exercise routines, taking a good look at their work and time and planning whether to make changes to make their lives more fulfilling, taking up old hobbies and interests again, and so on.

You might find bereavement counselling helps.

The book says one thing a lot of people say they regret is missing out on opportunities to make things better with their parent. At least while your parent's still alive, you can work to improve the relationship as best you can.


This article is written slightly differently to most articles. It comes with a very short story about someone finding out information to help her answer questions asked by people trying to cope with difficult behaviour from older parents, and it's presented as if it's what she's found out. The person isn't real, but typical of others dealing with the same problems.

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The Story

Chloe works for a charity which has started running support groups for people caring for parents and wives and husbands who are becoming less able to look after themselves. They decide to start a support group specifically for grown-up children of parents who are a burden on them because of the way they behave.

They ask Chloe if she'll lead the first dozen or so sessions.


She thinks she ought to learn up quite a bit more about the subject than she knows, in case she's asked a lot of difficult questions.

So she gets a book on the subject and learns what she can. She thinks through it as she's going along, at the same time thinking of things to tell the support group, many of them based on things the book says.

Several people find the information helpful, and things improve for all of them.

The End

Note that if you choose to try out some or all of the recovery techniques described in this article, they may take practice before they begin to work.

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Literature Used in Creating This Article

The articles are written in such a way as to convey the impression that they are not written by an expert, so as to make it clear that the advice should not be followed without question.

The author has a qualification endorsed by the Institute of Psychiatry and has led a group for people recovering from anxiety disorders and done other such things; yet she is not an expert on people's problems, and has simply taken information from books and articles that do come from people more expert in the field.

There is no guarantee that the solutions the people in the articles hope will help them will work for everybody, and you should consider yourself the best judge of whether to follow their example in trying them out.

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