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How to Manage Unruly Parents

by Debbie Mandel

It’s hard enough raising children, guiding and gently nudging them into careers and social relationships, but little did we know that our aging parents would pose the greater challenge. When our parents need help, but refuse it; when they have endless demands, but we never do enough; when they are incapable of activities of daily living, but deny it, we become stressed, unhappy and confused. The whole family becomes afflicted and stuck in this quandary: What power do we have over our parents to compel them to let us do what is good for them?

As our parents age, their negative qualities seem to intensify. They sound more bitter. “How are things today, dad?” “Terrible as usual.” Suspicions increase. “You want me to give you power of attorney, so that you can take all my money and throw me away in some state-run nursing home?” The result is that many of us trudge around weighed down by guilty feelings throughout the day. If we call our parents, we feel as though we were slapped in the face. If we don’t call them, we feel selfish and uncaring. As a result any stressor that comes our way triggers an extremely emotional response. A woman recently confided that her father upset her so much complaining about “the little that she does,” after she goes there daily to cook, clean and do the laundry and then proceeds to her job, that she screamed and cried when speaking to the electric company representative about a mistake on her bill! She knew that she was overreacting, but couldn’t help it. The representative practically gave her the moon to calm her down.

To establish clear boundaries as well as to re-parent yourself because you are old enough, and independent enough to do so, here are some suggestions:

  • Lower your expectations and make peace with the fact that you can never do enough for them.
  • You can’t change your parents, but you can change your own dynamics. By changing your behavior and your attitude, everything changes. You know the pattern, the familiar song and dance, so change your attitude about it. Play it over in your mind ahead of time to rehearse your new response. Be patient.
  • Learn to deflect, change the subject and redirect the conversation. A humorous story or anecdote can work well here. Prepare in advance.
  • Affirm what your parents are doing right. Don’t dwell on what they can no longer do, but focus on what they can do now. Give them back their power. Aging tends to make older adults feel trivialized and noncontributing. Find a way to make them feel more powerful and useful. Ask for advice even if you don’t need it.
  • Stop trying to get your parents to admit that they are insensitive or cold to your emotional needs. Fulfill your needs on your own. Cultivate your happiness through friendships, love relationships and creativity.
  • If your parents absorb too much of your time, schedule fewer visits and taper off. Yes, you will feel guilty, so face it and gradually the guilt will dissipate. Aim for quality visits, instead of many argumentative and miserable visits. You will appreciate your parents and they will appreciate you - quality time.

Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WHLI 1100AM in New York City , produces a weekly wellness newsletter, and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: