How to Deal With Aging Parents Who Constantly Fight

Updated

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

Dealing with parents who constantly fight can be embarrassing, frustrating, and confusing. Your parents may have always been the arguing type, or they may have recently started to fight. There could be several reasons they argue and situations that contribute to the problem.

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As a child, you probably grew up respecting your parents and their authority. So trying to understand their behavior and how to deal with fighting can be challenging. Your emotions can run high during these fights, and controlling what you say and how you respond is crucial.

It may or may not make a difference in how your parents behave, but you need some peace of mind and a way to deal with this problem. Understanding why parents fight and developing coping strategies will help you both.

Why Do Some Aging Parents Argue All of the Time?

Parents argue for many reasons, and understanding why can help you empathize with their situation. You may have to spend some time noticing and observing your parents in order to understand why they’re arguing and what you can do about it.

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Longstanding conflicts

Not all marriages are the same.  As you grew up with your parents, you may not have noticed that there was conflict. This could be because you didn’t pay attention.  Or, at the time your parents did not fight in front of you so you didn’t realize there was conflict.

If long-standing disputes are not resolved, they typically do not go away and sometimes worsen. As you spend more time with your parents as an adult due to caregiving duties, you may notice the conflict more than you did when you were younger.

Loss of independence and control

As your parents age, you may notice that they need more help. Changes like increasing isolation, loss of friends, and declining physical function can cause anger and frustration. When two people depend on one another for specific roles like finances or cooking, and those roles change, it can contribute to fighting. Generational influences can impact the ability of your parents to adapt to changing responsibilities. 

Disagreements about care

If you and your parents have not gone through pre-planning like the caring for aging parents checklist, you could be faced with significant disagreements about care. Most older adults state they want to age in place, which means at home. When the time comes to make decisions about care in the home, there can be disagreements between your parents about what they want and when they want it.

In particular, if your parents are beginning to require more and more assistance, assisted living may come up. Each of your parents could have very different ideas about whether that is something they want. These disagreements can cause ongoing fighting.

Cognitive impairement

If one of your parents has cognitive impairment due to dementia or some other condition, this can cause resentment, misunderstandings, and conflict. For example, let’s say that your mother is beginning to have memory problems. Your dad could be upset with her because he doesn’t know how to deal with this change in their relationship.

Or, your dad could have a cognitive impairment, and he has always managed the finances. Your mother could be anxious about having to assume more of these responsibilities. Memory loss in a parent can be stressful and the other spouse doesn’t know how to cope.

Unresolved issues

You may not realize that your parents may have unresolved issues that contribute to fighting constantly. Perhaps your mother never had the career or education she wanted due to child-rearing, or your dad never fulfilled his potential. When people get older and haven’t resolved or accepted these disappointments, it can cause fighting between parents because they blame one another. 

When Is It Appropriate to Intervene When Your Aging Parents Fight?

Deciding when it’s appropriate to intervene when your aging parents fight is a very individual and personal choice. You want to avoid inflaming the situation, but at some point, you may feel compelled to intervene because you deem it appropriate, reasonable, and the responsible thing to do.

When the fighting becomes abusive

When parents fight, it can become verbally abusive. Sometimes they don’t even realize that their words are hurting one another or you. You can gently but firmly intervene by calling attention to the fact that the fighting is inappropriate and harmful. 

In public

If your parents fight in public places like restaurants, doctor’s offices, family gatherings, or friends’ houses, you may want to intervene. It can be very embarrassing when your parents fight in public, and it can become so automatic your parents may not even realize they are doing it. You can intervene by changing the subject or gently saying something to make your parents aware they are fighting. 

Pitting siblings against one another

If your parents pit you against your siblings, you may want to intervene. Talk with your sibling about what you see happening and agree on how to deal with it. If necessary, call out what you see happening and let your parents know that you and your sibling want no part of the conflict that tries to interfere with your relationship.

How to Deal With Your Aging Parents Arguments

Dealing with your aging parent’s arguments will take tact and patience. It is possible to shape behavior, and although you may not be able to stop the bickering completely, you might be able to moderate it. 

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Stay calm

Take some deep breaths and try to control your anger. If you yell and get upset, you will only likely make the situation worse, and whatever ideas you have about it are unlikely to be heard.  If you are constantly angry about your parents’ fighting, the stress can cause health problems. 

Address contributing factors

If your parents are losing independence and control, evaluate some interventions that might help. For example, help them get out of the house more to visit friends or grandchildren. Suggest a senior center or help them learn how to use technology to stay connected with friends and family. 

Consider in-home care to provide some support for activities of daily living, shopping, cooking, and companionship. If one of your parents has dementia, get an evaluation from their physician to better understand the trajectory of the disease. Or, perhaps one parent has a mental health problem like depression or anxiety. Suggest a visit to their primary care physician for treatment suggestions. 

Suggest counseling

Couples counseling for your parents could be a hard sell but worth trying. Older adults are not as comfortable with or familiar with therapy, and there could be some stigma attached to the idea.  Virtual therapy is standard practice now, and you can present the idea as someone to talk to about their conflicts and feelings.

Even if one parent agrees and the other doesn’t, it could be worthwhile to pursue. Some people prefer talking with clergy or other religious leaders who can help as well.

Set limits

If your parents fighting is not improving, you may need to set limits. You can do this in a couple of different ways. One is to let your parents know that when they begin fighting you will need to leave the room until they have finished.

If they still haven’t ended their argument when you return, let them know you will go and come back another time when they can be civil to one another. Remind your parents before you visit that you would like them to make every effort not to fight while you are there. If your actions don’t help, you may need to limit the time you spend with your parents.

Consider mediation

Mediation can be a great choice, especially when fighting involves disagreements about care decisions. Mediators charge privately for their services, but they have expertise in dealing with conflict and helping to resolve problems. They are comfortable with fighting families and can help couples reach consensus and cooperation. 

Hire a geriatric care manager

A geriatric care manager can serve several purposes. One is to evaluate the home and personal situation and make suggestions for care, access to activities, and mental health concerns. A geriatric care manager can be a professional replacement for your involvement and might be better received. Sometimes fighting parents will self moderate their behavior in the presence of a professional.

Take care of yourself 

Parents fighting can cause significant stress.  Recognize that continuing stress from your parents fighting can harm your mental and physical health. It is not unlike caregiver burnout. You become burned out by your parents fighting. 

First, talk with someone about the situation. Constant worrying about the situation without an outlet will be harmful.  Find a therapist or another trusted person to discuss your feelings. Focus on self-care principles such as doing things you enjoy, exercising, and good nutrition. Try and get enough sleep. Use humor with your siblings and even your parents to diffuse the situation. 

Acceptance

At some point, despite all your efforts, your parent’s fighting might continue unabated. You may have to accept the situation, but limit the time you spend with your parents due to the stress it causes you. Acceptance will not be easy, but your mental health will improve once you can let go. 

How to Deal with Aging Parents Fighting Constantly

When anyone fights, it is upsetting. It is human nature to want to bring calm and peace to the situation. When your parents fight constantly, it can damage your relationship with them.  Tread lightly but make every effort to help your parents see that it is important to you that they try and fight less. Meanwhile, take care of yourself and step back if you need to.

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