Dealing with negative parents is a challenge whether you are a caregiver or not. No matter what you do, you may feel that your efforts to help are not appreciated, you’re constantly met with complaining or a pessimistic attitude.
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The reasons for negative behavior can’t always be determined, but with a focus on regulating your own emotional responses and trying to understand where this behavior comes from, you may have some success at turning things around.
Examples of Negative Behavior
You may have your own examples of what you consider to be negative behavior. A complaining and a pessimistic attitude might mean you can never do anything right — nothing is good enough.
Here are a few expressions you may have heard more than once:
- “You don’t do enough for me.”
- “You just want to put me in a nursing home.”
- “I can’t do anything anymore.”
- “I’m no good to anyone now.”
- “Stop telling me what to do. I’m not a child.”
- “I have no purpose in life.”
- “Life isn’t worth living.”
Reasons Parents are Negative
Trying to understand why a parent is negative will help you cope better. Having a strategy that addresses possible reasons for a parent’s behavior might also reduce their negativity:
- Physical and/or mental decline: Coping with the loss of physical function or memory is depressing and demoralizing.
- Pain: Consider the possibility that your parent has unrecognized and untreated pain. This could be due to any number of ailments — arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, or neurological problems, to name a few.
- Loss of independence: Older adults endure a cascade of losses such as friends, driving, the ability to take care of themselves, and a lack of purpose.
- Depression and anxiety: Older adults are at greater risk of depression if they have chronic medical conditions. Understanding that depression is not a normal part of aging will help you identify the symptoms and get your parent help. Irritability is one of the symptoms of depression. Anxiety is another mental health problem that can affect up to 20 percent of older adults. If you suspect either of these mental health conditions, talk to your parent and consult his or her physician.
- Boredom: Social connection is a basic human need. If you compare your social life to that of your parent, it might give you some perspective on what he or she is going through. Many older adults have rich, active lives and the community that comes with that. But others don’t have access to social events or don’t know how to make new friends.
- Cognitive problems: Unfortunately, age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Irritability, anger, confusion, and memory problems are common symptoms. If you suspect your parent has memory problems, try to get the symptoms evaluated.
How to Deal With a Negative Parent
Dealing day in and day out with a negative parent can be exhausting and draining. It’s like trying to fill up a leaky cup. You may have feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt. It seems as though your loving care is not recognized or appreciated. Your parent may even refuse help even though it’s desperately needed.
There may be no cure for a negative parent, but we have some tips that can help.
1. Consider whether this is a new problem
If it is, there could be a medical reason for this change in personality. Making an appointment with your parent’s doctor is advisable. Ask for a complete physical to uncover any potential medical problems.
Possibilities include a urinary tract infection, medication side effects, neurological conditions, new onset of dementia, or a mental health problem.
2. Accept that negative behavior is not your fault
It’s tough not to feel responsible when you can’t seem to do anything right. But it isn’t your fault — remind yourself you’re doing the best you can. Some people will not ever be pleased, no matter what you do.
Accept that your efforts have value and that everything you do is with love and compassion. As hard as it may be to trust yourself, doing so will help you cope with negativity.
3. Acknowledge your parent’s concerns
You may have had the experience of trying to talk someone out of their negative thinking only to have them dig in deeper. Try to honor the underlying concern by opening up a dialogue. Suggested phrases:
- “It must be so hard not being able to drive anymore. Let’s look at some ideas on how we can get you out more.”
- “It must be hard not being able to do what you used to.”
- “I can understand how much you must miss your friends.”
These phrases may not work, but you may feel better if you try.
4. Tackle boredom
If you are a busy caregiver, it is easy to overlook the fact that your parent may be bored. Boredom may be the result of social isolation and loneliness. Try and think of activities that bring people together. Consider inviting your parent to your own social gatherings.
Or teach your parent about technology! Maybe you have a child or grandchild who can help. When someone is confined to home, having access to social networking sites can be a lifesaver. It can take some time to teach an older person to become familiar with technology, but more and more older people are using FaceTime, Facebook, and Instagram to stay connected.
Plan short trips outside the home to a park or even a drive with no destination. Elderly parents who are cooped up don’t need much to feel a little bit of freedom from their routine.
5. Set limits (if you can)
If the negativity gets to be too much, try setting limits. Be honest about the fact that your parent’s negativity is adversely affecting your emotional and physical health.
It is possible that your dad or mom doesn’t realize much negativity is in the air. In a kind and caring way, give your mom or dad some examples of their negative expressions. You may understand the power of positive thinking and affirmations, but your mom or dad may not. It can’t hurt to give it a try.
6. Get help
At some point, you may need to think about getting your mom or dad some help. Professional help can take off some of the pressure. This help could be in the form of in-home care with caregivers.
Consider hiring out some household tasks such as house cleaning, yard maintenance, or grocery delivery. The fewer tasks you are responsible for, the less opportunity for criticism.
Another sibling may be willing to take over for a while. Sometimes one child can have better success at handling a negative parent. Whatever you decide, having someone else take over for a while may do you some good.
If the situation reaches a point where you can’t handle it anymore, suggest assisted living as an option. At least discuss the benefits of senior living.
7. Take care of yourself
Even a little negativity can have stressful consequences. Taking care of yourself should be a priority. Deep breathing, exercise, mindfulness training, and yoga can all help to relieve stress. Practicing your own positive affirmations can help as well.
If you find yourself unable to cope with your own negative or angry feelings, think about talking with a therapist. Another idea is to join an online caregiver support group where you are likely to find several people dealing with this same issue. They may have some helpful suggestions on how to manage negativity.
8. Take a break
You might just need to take a break from dealing with a negative parent. This is not abandonment or giving up, it is giving you space to recuperate and re-energize.
Respect your need for time off while realizing that this decision may be met with resistance. Hold firm in your resolve and be honest about your need to take time for yourself.
9. Know when to give up
Giving up doesn't mean you stop trying. It does mean that at some point, your efforts may not be making a difference. Rather than beating yourself up, accept the fact that you’ve tried your best.
Managing Older Negative Parents
As hard as it may be, managing a negative parent is possible. Focusing on the root causes of this behavior is a good start. Beyond that, accepting that change may be incremental and slow will help you manage your own emotions and expectations.
Self-care is the foundation of any loving relationship. Focus on what sustains you to build the strength and confidence to deal with an aging parent.
- “Depression is not a Normal Part of Growing Older.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm
- “Anxiety and Older Adults: Overcoming Worry and Fear.” Geriatric Mental Health Foundation. www.aagponline.org/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=anxiety
- “Causes and Risk Factors.” The Alzheimer’s Association. www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers/causes-and-risk-factors