DEALING WITH DIFFICULT OLDER PARENTS
We all know some truly fine people in their twenties to sixties whose older parents treat them really badly, with hurtful sarcasm, irrational demands, constant criticism, and undeserved anger. These frustrated, unappreciated adult sons and daughters simply want to be good to their parents. Perhaps you are one of these people yourself. I call these people “children of difficult older parents,” or simply CODOP.
It is important to learn to protect oneself emotionally, how to effectively love hard-to-love older relatives, and how to create a healthy legacy for our own children. This article is a guide for adult children of difficult older parents, but even if your parents are kind, supportive, and gentle, you may find these insights and tips useful in dealing with other difficult people in your life.
Parental love and the CODOP moment
Dr. Laura Schlessinger is famously credited with having said that PARENTING is spelled s-a-c-r-i-f-i-c-e. Parents sacrifice their own comfort, wealth, and time, because they love their offspring. I define love, especially parental love, in accord with Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled. Peck explains that love is a pattern of behavior that reveals a commitment to work for the healthy development of another human being. Difficult parents often do not grasp this. It is no surprise, therefore, that children of difficult older parents live with a pain in their hearts.
If their parent has only recently become difficult, typically from dementia, the pain is relatively small and mainly consists of grief and compassionate sorrow for their parent’s decline. If, however, the parent has always been difficult, the adult child’s pain goes much deeper. Why? Here are two important reasons.
First, an infant arrives in the world fully equipped and ready to experience love from its caregivers, to receive that love, and to respond lovingly to it. Healthy parents, likewise, greet the baby’s birth with joy, and their behavior toward the child is consistently attentive, caring, available, kind, and helpful. In this environment, the child thrives.
Parents need not be perfect parents; a child with “good enough” parenting will do fine. In fact, no one has perfect parents, and no one has a perfect childhood. No matter how loving, fair, healthy, and attentive your parents were, there were certainly life skills that come in handy but that your particular background somehow failed to provide you. If you were taught self-reliance, were you also taught generosity and sharing? If you were taught compassion, were you also taught self-respect and the ability to say no? If you were taught assertiveness, were you also taught how to observe and listen? If you were taught gratitude, were you also taught ambition? If you were taught forgiveness, were you also taught how to confront an offender?
Conversely, just as each infant is born fully ready to respond to a loving environment, each infant also arrives in the world fully equipped and ready to perceive a tragic lack of love from its caregivers and environment. It is ready to acknowledge a lack of love and to respond with whatever defensive measures are needed to ensure the baby’s daily survival. If, for whatever reason, the parents are not attentive, caring, available, consistent, kind, and helpful, the child will, by trial and error, devise adaptations to maintain a tolerable level of emotional comfort in their less-than-ideal world. This is heroic but tragic, because the adaptations are inevitably not ideal for living among the healthier people the child will meet later in life. These adaptations will persist throughout the child’s life as scars that can distort their perception of the world and their reactions to the world, resulting in less satisfying relationships.
Second, when these unlucky children grow into adulthood, most eventually grasp that their childhood was distinctly harder than a typical one. They realize that their parent did not embody the normal guiding principles that virtually all people know instinctively regarding how to love, how to parent, and how to be a family. This fact is felt as a very deep betrayal of their parent’s basic human duty to their child, thus adding yet another layer of pain for the adult child of a difficult older parent.
We all hold memories of powerful formative moments from our childhoods. Whether they were wonderfully positive or horribly negative, they are moments we will never forget. Every adult child of a difficult older parent has searingly painful memories that I call CODOP moments, because they capture the essence of the difficult traits or habits shown by the difficult parent. For most children, CODOP moments are few and mild. Adult children of difficult older parents share the special burden of frequent and severe CODOP moment memories.
It is an adult duty to be logical and realistic.
Difficult people, including parents, will continue to be difficult. It is unrealistic to think otherwise, and adults have a duty to be realistic. Everyone has thoughts or beliefs as well as feelings. Thoughts and beliefs should obey the rules of logic, while feelings, alas, are usually free from such constraints. To deny or reject reality is to choose emotions over facts. Being realistic includes acknowledging that certain dreams, yearnings, and hopes can never be fulfilled. Children of difficult older parents are often plagued by impossible hopes that their mom or dad will finally become loving, attentive, and appreciative. This hope is unfounded in most cases. The sad truth is that the child’s dream of having healthy, loving parents and a mutually satisfying relationship with them is already dead. The child of a difficult older parent must let such dead dreams die.
Given the impossibility of changing another person, the only rational choice left to the adult child is to let people be who they are. Their parent is going to be who they are no matter what we do, so we may as well accept it. The child of a difficult older parent begins maturing when she stops being surprised at the thousandth replay, begins to let dead dreams die, begins grieving this loss and all the other losses, and begins letting people be who they are. This is realism. This is healthy adulthood.
Avoid pointless confrontation with irrational people.
Difficult people routinely seem to disregard the rules of logic when interpreting the world and interacting with others. If they don’t like something which you consider right and proper in the world, the difficult person might actively criticize and resist it, loudly and often. In dementia, emotions are contagious, and in personality disorders, the actions and words of others are often misperceived. Rational discussion about the matter has no apparent effect on their beliefs, feelings, or actions. This can be extremely frustrating for the child of a difficult older parent.
I teach my clients a powerful two-part strategy for avoiding confrontation with irrational people. The first ingredient is to remain vague and noncommittal about facts. Do not say yes; and do not say no! Say things like, “Oh!” “Interesting!” “You don’t say!” “Isn’t that something?” “Wow! Let me check on that,” and, “I don’t know.” The second ingredient is to use your words to express your empathy for their feelings. “That must be hard,” and “What’s that like for you?”
Therapeutic fibbing can bring ease and peace into a difficult relationship.
Children of difficult older parents should not let a naive commitment to total honesty blind them to the difficult person’s emotional idiosyncrasies. A person with a personality disorder may look like a regular person who will acknowledge the truth, respect facts, and obey the rules of logic. In reality, however, they will not! They cannot, because their internal life is ruled by their emotions, not by truth, facts, and reality. Likewise, dementia sufferers almost universally are impaired in their ability to be logical. Therefore, since they are not constrained by the truth, you also must be free to bend the truth when necessary for their and your well-being.
It is often totally appropriate to bend the truth to reduce the victim’s resistance to necessary care. This is called the “therapeutic fib.”
For example, imagine that your mother with clearly documented dementia insists that you give her the car keys or take her to get her license renewed. Mom wants to have access to driving, but she needs to not have access to driving. It is totally loving and appropriate to tell a small untruth about the car being “in the shop waiting for incredibly expensive repairs,” or “The computer system at the department of motor vehicles is broken, so they can’t process renewals now.” When mom asks, “When will this get fixed?” your answer should be vague. You’ll say, “Soon, I hope.” Or perhaps you’ll say that the doctor says she can’t drive. When mom asks, “For how long?” you’ll answer, “Just for now, until you get better.” “Well, when is that going to be?” You’ll say, “Soon, I hope.”
The therapeutic fibs “for now” and “soon” are very useful answers in many situations because they are comforting and put the difficult person’s mind at ease. You are not ultimately responsible for anyone’s comfort or happiness, but if there is a particularly difficult person in your life, using a therapeutic fib to occasionally make someone comfortable will help you maintain peace in the relationship.
Dr. Paul Chafetz, clinical psychologist, is a full-time private practitioner in Dallas, Texas. Trained at Brown University, the University of Florida, Duke University Medical Center, and the Texas Research Institute for Mental Sciences in Houston, Dr. Chafetz is a dynamic speaker, a prolific blogger, and a former associate professor at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He has twice served as president of the Dallas Psychological Association. Learn more about him at PaulKChafetz.com.