Aging Parents: Ornery, Difficult, Unappreciative? Part 1

4 tips for Understanding and Dealing With Difficult Aging Parents

Aging parents’ dispositions can be put on a bell curve: pleasure-producing dispositions at one end, pain-producing at the other.

Bell Curve: Parents' Disposition

Click to enlarge

Unfortunately pain-producing is the norm for some aging parents. They are demanding, critical, never satisfied.  Adult children living near-by usually bear the brunt of this no-win situation which seems to offer no easy way out.

4 Important Understandings and (next post) How to Untangle
1.  Back to childhood.
2.  Families cater to the most neurotic member.

3.  Tolerating disrespect, reinforces it.
4.  The family is like a mobile.

Understandings are not excuses, but when combined with one of our key thoughts “People Change not Much,” (right sidebar, bottom) they help explain so we can better deal with the pain-producing.

#1. Back to childhood.  Parents and children establish patterns of behavior way back; it’s difficult to break these old patterns. If children were always expected to do for their parents, the pattern (the game’s rules) has been well established. Indeed it has never changed if the ground rules were never renegotiated. (In a game, when one player changes strategies, the others need to also.)

In addition children, regardless of age, are their parents’ children. It’s common for children to want to please parents.  And they usually feel responsibility if doing for parents was an expectation or a duty early on.

#2. “Families cater to the most neurotic member:” While interviewing a priest for my divorce book, he said he learned this during the social work part of his training. I observed this often during my counseling career. Do we “cater” in order to maintain balance and stability and keep the peace?

#3.  Tolerating disrespect, reinforces it.
Allowing disrespectful behavior helps no one.  We learn this from day one if we’re teachers and have a bully in our classroom. Compare the classroom bully to difficult parents in this analogy: When there’s a bully in the classroom, we must stop the bullying as quickly as possible. Why? If the bully (think parent) is allowed to continue, the bad behavior is reinforced to the point that it becomes part of “normal” behavior.

#4.  The family is like a mobile.
I learned about “family systems” through social workers’ presentations as part of inservice training early in my counseling career. “The family is like a mobile” is a good analogy. Note in Part 2 (next post) how the beautifully-made mobiles hang in perfect balance. Similarly each family member must do his or her part to keep the family functioning in balance.

If one member is aggressive, for example, another must pull back to maintain the balance.  While one is ill, another takes over some of the responsibilities temporarily.  In a divorce, absent one parent, the remaining family members must do extra to make things work. (One of the most respected divorce researchers reported “even 8-year-olds can vacuum.”)

We try to help parents age well. It involves helping them, but not at the expense of running adult children ragged with unrealistic demands and expectations, unappreciated help, and lack of respect. Detaching from a difficult, thankless, possibly/probably manipulative situation is legitimate and can be done.

Next post:  Aging Parents:  Ornery, Difficult, Unappreciative–Part 2  How to use these understandings to change family dynamics–to “change the game” so to speak.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

Related: Parents and Arguments: Who Wins?


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