When Aging Parents Turn Abusive Towards The Caregiver

There is a population of adult children that are struggling to care for angry parents. In most cases, these caregivers are trying to make the most out of a difficult situation (little or no planning, last minute complications, minimal resources, limited choices, no support system, etc.). Sadly, they wind up being the target of verbal abuse, rejection and blame.  Why is this happening?

Anger is almost never a primary emotion.  Most of the time it is motivated by a desire not to experience guilt, rejection, powerlessness, and insignificance.  The best way to create distance from these painful feelings is to “transfer the burden” to someone else through anger. And this is what aging parents are doing in these abusive situations.  They are using anger as a cover-up for their more vulnerable feelings.

Not surprising, this abuse creates widespread misery for everyone.   It leaves the caregiver feeling hurt, fearful and hostile.  Now what?  Is there a better way to navigate these verbal affronts that are so provocative and painful for adult children?  There is.

As a first line of self-defense, new boundaries are  in order.   In these situations, adult children need to accept the fact that aging is always a messy process and sometimes, despite best intentions and effort, things simply turn our poorly.  As such, they cannot sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.  They need to intervene on their own behalf.

The first boundary is usually verbal, a declaration by the adult child that they are doing “the best they can do” but the current  situation is unacceptable. While an aging parent can choose to be angry, it resolves nothing.  It certainly won’t change the reality of being old.  No one has the power to turn back the clock, make money reappear, or correct all of the wrongs that can haunt a life. What the adult child needs is a more respectful environment to help an aging parent preserve dignity, safety and choices.  This is a wake-up call for the aging partner to consider changing their behavior.

In some cases, this direct approach offers improvement, but it may fall on deaf ears.  If the offer to stop the abuse is rejected, then the second boundary of less time with the abusive parent is put into play. This change in the game may require reinforcements that includes outside help or new living accommodations.  So be it.  What’s critical here is the connection between verbal abuse and less face to face time, a boundary that the adult child needs to be clear and consistent about.  The adult child will honor whatever the aging parent chooses.

These declarations or reductions in contact by an adult child signal a change in the partnership.  They may also trigger a new round of angry accusations.  No matter.  The goal of the strategy is to stay on script in a gentle and firm voice, phase one of a 90-day campaign to reduce the burden and shore up confidence.

Maybe none of this will change the angry tirades.  In that case, the adult child has at least taken a stand about what he or she will and will not accept.  Maybe an aging parent tones down the anger part of the time, a small but significant reprieve. And maybe, just maybe, an aging parents sees the occasion as an opportunity to “test” a new way to work together.  The adult child can’t control the choice, but he or she can control how they want to be treated and, as important, how much time they spend in hostile territory.

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