Perhaps your parents have always been difficult to get along with and have usually offered more criticism than love. Now that they’re older, they aren’t even polite anymore. They may be demanding, harsh, and unpleasant to be around. Is it possible to make things better, or will you have to put up with this toxic behavior for years to come?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s Toxic or Difficult Behavior in Aging Parents?
- Tips for Setting Boundaries (and Keeping Them) With Your Aging Parents
Nobody deserves emotional abuse. Period. You may feel mixed emotions about pulling away from or saying “no.” However, you are not obligated to put up with behavior that hurts you, even from your parents. In this guide, you’ll learn tips for detaching and setting boundaries with negative older parents, and how to take care of yourself during the process.
What’s Toxic or Difficult Behavior in Aging Parents?
If you’ve coped with difficult or toxic behavior from your parents over the years, you know how painful your relationship can be. Whether they blame and criticize you or reject you with stony silence, the result is the same: dealing with your demanding aging parents can be painful.
You may recognize these common examples of toxic behavior:
- Public shaming or embarrassment
- Yelling and arguing
- Calling you names or cursing at you
- Passive-aggressive behavior like the “silent treatment,” sulking, or sharp sarcasm
- Emotional manipulation with guilt trips
- Being intrusive and ignoring privacy or personal boundaries
- Being demanding of others
To separate yourself from these emotional traps, make clear and important changes in the way you interact with your parents. The process of setting boundaries is deceptively simple and only takes two steps.
- Decide what behaviors you will and won’t tolerate.
- Follow through with action and decisions that enforce your standard of behavior.
Making decisions is the easy part. Following through in the face of rejection or anger can be tough, even when you’re committed to change. Even with a calm and respectful approach, your parents may feel stung by your change of behavior.
If your parents have been difficult to work with through their adult life, they’re likely to remain that way as they age. Their toxic traits may become sharper and more intense as their mental and physical health declines. In the end, it’ll be up to you to draw the line with behavior you won’t deal with anymore.
Tips for Setting Boundaries (and Keeping Them) With Your Aging Parents
Setting boundaries is essential in a relationship with a difficult person, especially so if they’re your parent. Emotions can blur your judgment and impact your decisions. These tips will help you stay on track and well-supported by people who understand.
1. Make changes now — you don’t need anyone’s permission
When you change how you interact with your parents, be prepared for an emotional reaction. Your changes will likely make your parents feel threatened and off-balance. As soon as you try to grow and become empowered, your parents will do everything possible to make you doubt yourself. You’ll likely hear a lot more criticism and negativity, or they might turn away and ignore you.
This reaction is normal and not a sign that you’ve made the wrong choice. You know that setting boundaries is the right thing to do and their emotional outburst is part of the process. When you know it’s coming, you’ll be less likely to take their reactions personally.
2. Have some reliable support people ready to back you up
If you’ve been coping with hurtful or manipulative behavior from your parents for years, stepping back is going to take some strength. You don’t have to slog your way through it on your own. Now is the time to rely on loving and dependable people to support you. Needing others isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. Instead, it means that you value caring relationships and have a trusted circle of people in your life.
You may need to have these conversations with your parents alone, but your support network can encourage you before and after. With their support, you can take the steps you need to make important changes without second-guessing yourself.
3. Consider working with a counselor for guidance and support
A mental health counselor can give you emotional support and guidance as you set boundaries with your parents. Going against the grain with difficult people can be a tough task. You need to be emotionally prepared to take decisive action under fire. Your personal support network is essential, but sometimes it helps to have a professional in your corner.
When you push back against decades of control, manipulation, or criticism, you’re rattling the cage. Your parents may argue and try to push your buttons, or they may reject you with the silent treatment. Working with a counselor can give you a chance to reprocess those painful moments so you can continue setting good boundaries.
4. Focus and define your boundaries
When you are calm, set aside some time to identify the most significant boundary problems with your parents. Narrow down the problem to a chain of events and actions that can be named so you can reframe the situation in a better way. It’s tempting to label these issues in vague emotional ways, so here are a few examples of getting more specific.
A. Stop coming over so often.
B. We can have you over Thursdays and Sundays, and the rest of the week we won’t be available.
A. Stop calling me all the time.
B. I can come see you after work, but I can’t pick up my phone until after 5 p.m. You can also call your nurse during the day to help you, too.
A. You always try to argue with me.
B. I want to talk with you, but if you raise your voice or talk disrespectfully to me, the conversation is over.
5. Say “no” like a broken record
Be repetitive, even if it sounds weird to say the same thing again and again. First, your parents may ignore your statement and assume they can still manipulate you. Second, you may need to hear yourself say it many times before you feel confident or truly believe it. Third, when you back up your statement with action a few times, your words will have some weight behind them.
Your parents choose their behavior with you because it works. To break the cycle, someone needs to do something different, and in this case that can be you. When you refuse to budge on your new boundary, many repetitions later, your parents may eventually find it a waste of time to keep pushing on it.
6. Have a few canned phrases to say in tough moments
When you get emotionally rattled, it’s easy to trip over your words and sound frazzled. A toxic or difficult parent may see those moments as opportunities to get the upper hand. They also know how to hook you in with certain words and their tone of voice, allowing them to keep their control. If you think about it, you can probably predict many of the hurtful things they say to you and when they might happen.
The key to getting through these moments is to appear as if their comments have no effect on you. Instead of absorbing your parents’ hurtful words and trying to respond, repeat one of a few phrases you’ve practiced ahead of time. This tactic can help you stand your ground when faced with probing questions, criticism, or demands.
Practice saying some of these phrases in a way that sounds conversational and mildly interested. This will give you something to say without having to think too hard.
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- “Hmm, interesting.”
- “That’s something to think about.”
- “That’s disappointing.”
- “If you yell at me again, I’ll leave the room.”
- “I’d like to talk, but I won’t argue with you.”
- “Thanks for your input.”
- “Thanks for your idea, but that’s not going to work for me.”
7. Keep your tone positive
To go along with canned phrases, a positive tone of voice can help lift your mindset above your parents’ critical outlook. Doing so could help you in three specific ways.
First, speaking and acting in positive ways can keep your mood up. Act as if you feel confident, even if your parents want to start arguing. Use your positivity as a way to ignore what your parents are doing and saying.
Second, your positive tone may catch your parents off-guard. It may be a curveball that throws them off their game for a few moments. You may not necessarily cheer them up, but if they see their usual tactics aren’t engaging you they may give up and back off a little.
Third, being cheerful as you draw your line in the sand can sound less confrontational. A toxic or difficult person is often ready for a fight, and getting defensive or emotionally upset is an easy invitation for conflict. When you stay cheerful and somewhat detached from the issue, you make it harder to start an argument.
Changing Your Relationship with Difficult Elderly Parents
Setting healthy boundaries can be tough when your parents bring toxic behavior into the mix. When you try to make changes, you’re likely to stir up old sore spots and conflicts. You're likely to feel hurt, rejected, and unsure how things will play out with your parents. It’s easy to get discouraged when this happens, but you can get through it. You deserve healthy relationships, so be courageous and do what’s right for you.
- “Understanding Unhealthy Relationship Patterns in Your Family.” Counseling Center, Illinois University, counselingcenter.illinois.edu/brochures/understanding-unhealthy-relationship-patterns-your-family