7 Tips for Dealing With Demanding Aging Parents or In-Laws

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

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A demanding aging parent, mother-in-law, or father-in-law can be very difficult to deal with. The emotional impact for everyone involved can be exhausting and frustrating.

Sometimes, it can be that a demanding parent has simply been the same, and things have worsened as they age. Other times, changes in medical condition, cognition, or impaired function lead to increasing demands on family members.

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It can be hard to understand what constitutes demanding behavior and the possible underlying causes. Negative emotions, although a natural reaction to dealing with negative parents, can have the opposite intended effect. You want to remain caring without being controlling. You may have heavy caregiving duties, or you might have just a few.

Our suggestions will help you get through and find a reasonable and manageable path forward.

Characteristics of Demanding Behavior

It is natural to justify behavior that may be draining your energy and motivation. Your love and care for your parents is the guiding force that drives your desire to help. Some of the behaviors listed below can be typical of a demanding parent.

  • Unending tasks. You know this one well. Multiple shopping trips, pharmacy pick-ups, housecleaning, laundry, etc. And then, after you have dropped off the shopping items you are asked to go back for a few things that your parent forgot to mention. Or, you need to return items that are not wanted.
  • Constant contact. This includes phone calls or texts all day long, asking for help, errands, or just to complain.
  • Complaints. This is everything from how poorly you do things, to the general state of your parent’s life. Complaints from a parent can include a litany of medical problems, how terrible it is to be dependent, or the inability to do things on their own.
  • Never good enough. As hard as you try and as much as you do, it is never good enough. Your efforts are repeatedly rejected and criticized.
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The Motivation for Demanding Behavior

Understanding the possible reasons for demanding behavior may help you be more empathetic and understanding.

  • Family dynamics. If you examine your parent’s behavior in the context of their personalities, it may give you some insight into their current situation. Has your parent always been demanding? If so, that is unlikely to change just because they are older. Or, is this behavior a recent phenomenon? What has changed in their lives?
  • Loss of control. Aging can be punctuated by a series of significant losses. This includes the loss of friends, mobility, independence, and the capacity to make good decisions. The more a parent relies on you, the more apparent their loss of control becomes and they can come to resent you for their dependence.
  • Fear. All of the losses described above can lead to increasing fear not only about death but a continued fear of losing even more control and independence as time goes on. Physical and cognitive decline can be very frightening.
  • The future. If there hasn’t been an open discussion about finances, or future care options and choices, those issues can cause problems later. Having a plan in place is something to refer to when things get complicated. There may come a time when you and your parent need to make hard decisions about care.

While these motivations may not completely excuse your parent for their difficult behavior, they can give you some helpful reminders. With those in mind, here are some tips to help you cope with your parent:

1. Have Empathy

Now that you are perhaps able to better understand why your parent is so demanding, you may be able to listen and comprehend their feelings. Imagine what you would feel like in their shoes.

Even in moments of anger and frustration, try reaching a place of empathy. Take a deep breath and pause before responding to an unreasonable demand by considering what they are going through and how it must feel.

2. Validate the Underlying Concerns

Try if you can, to determine what the real fears or worries are. This can be tricky, but one suggestion is to talk about what is important to your parent during a quiet non-emotional space and time. Discuss advance directives in an open and caring way to acknowledge the right your parent has to make their own decisions about care and future living situations.

Examples of validating expressions include: “Mom, it must be so frustrating not to be able to drive again.” “Dad, I can only imagine how much energy it takes for you to walk now.” Using kindness almost always has a better chance of calming agitated behavior.

3. Set Limits With Care and Concern

Setting limits can be necessary to save your sanity and your relationship. Setting limits might help your parent as well. The fact is, your parent has lived their life and you have a right to live yours too. So, how to best set limits and live with the possible repercussions? Some suggestions are the following:

  • Explain your reasons for setting limits. Be honest about why you need to set limits. It might have to do with time, energy, and your own family, or work obligations. These reasons might not be accepted. Be prepared for that and stick to your plans.
  • Set the emotional tone before you set limits. Try not to be angry and frustrated when you explain what you can and can’t do. Be calm, clear, and confident.
  • Be flexible and realize that your limits may be a moving target. Sometimes circumstances change, either permanently or temporarily, and you may need to adjust accordingly.
  • Abusive behavior should not be tolerated by anyone. If things get out of control to the point where they are unmanageable, remove yourself from the situation and come back another day to set clear limits on what is acceptable to you.

4. Give Choices

Giving someone choices helps them to feel empowered. An example could be “Mom, I have time during the week to do your grocery shopping but not your housekeeping. We can plan for coverage for the one I can’t do. Which one would you like me to tackle?”

Be prepared to offer alternative choices for care or other tasks that you aren’t able to do. Do the things that you feel comfortable doing. This might be healthcare advocacy, setting up medication delivery, or arranging for in-home care.

5. Designate

Consider hiring in-home care for housekeeping, personal care, transportation, shopping, and meal preparation. Qualified professional caregivers can take the pressure off your caregiving duties and are accustomed to dealing with demanding seniors.

Another possibility is to hire a geriatric care manager to manage your parent. This removes you from the day to day decisions. They can also do the hiring and managing of help in the home. Sometimes a professional may get more respect than you will.

Is there another family member that could step in and take over for a while? Another family member might have better success in dealing with demanding behavior. Or, consider a divide and conquer approach. Perhaps a sibling can split responsibilities with you which can lessen the emotional impact.

6. Acknowledge and Respect Your Own Feelings

A demanding parent can bring out a wide range of emotions and feelings. These are legitimate and normal. These are some of the feelings that may come up:

  • Shame. It is not unusual in these situations to feel like you can never do enough. Thoughts such as “what is wrong with me that I can’t please mom?’ or “why am I not doing things right?” are not uncommon.
  • Anger. After a while the constant demands and disappointments can take a toll and anger is a natural response. If possible, remove yourself from the situation until you have calmed down.
  • Responsibility. Responsibility for the care of your parent is valuable and compassionate. But it is easy to slip into becoming overly responsible in light of demanding and difficult behavior. Try and remember that people have the right to make their own decisions and you have other obligations of responsibility—to yourself and other members of your family.

All of this means that sometimes you come first and that is OK. Taking care of yourself and respecting your feelings will give you the strength you need.

7. Accept That Things May Never Change

As difficult as it may be to deal with a demanding aging parent, things may never change. As a matter of fact, despite your best efforts, they may even get worse. Your parents may refuse your help, and may decide to go at it alone. Unfortunately, people can make bad decisions. You may not like or agree with those decisions and they can have a profound effect on you as a family member.

The only thing you can control is how you react and deal with the stress of a demanding aging parent. Your chances of coping with these demands will improve if you can accept that people are very hard to change.

Dealing With a Demanding Aging Parent or Parent-in-Law

Dealing with a demanding aging parent can be very challenging and stressful. Taking care of yourself is a very important part of coping. Things may sometimes feel never-ending, but with our tips, you can regain control of your life while providing loving care to your aging parent.

If you're looking for more help with dealing with difficult parents, read our guides on dealing with overly negative aging parents and if you can refuse to care for an aging parent.

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