Dealing With Difficult Older Parents?

In his work providing psychological evaluations of geriatric patients, Dr. Paul Chafetz hears frequent complaints.

Every week, adult children tell the North Dallas psychologist some variation of, “My mom is driving me crazy; my dad’s impossible.”

Hurtful sarcasm, irrational demands, constant criticism, and underserved anger can take its toll on children, even adult children, Chafetz said.

But he wants adult children to know they are not alone, and there are ways to protect themselves emotionally while effectively loving their hard-to-love parents and older relatives. Realistic expectations are key.

“Children, no matter the age, crave a healthy, loving parent,” he said. “And when they don’t, they crave to make their parent better. It is irrational for the adult child to expect this to happen.”

Chafetz was raised by two loving parents, but as a grad students he watched his father sink into depression after consecutively losing three siblings, a family business, and a lot of money.

At the time, Chafetz was a brand-new graduate student in clinical psychology and the changes his father went through steered his studies toward geriatric psychology. Thirty years later, Chafetz has taken what he’s learned in the field, the strategies that work — and those that don’t — and compiled them in a book published in July.

In Loving Hard-To-Love Parents: A Handbook for Adult Children of Difficult Older Parents, Chafetz lays out a path for how adult children can care for difficult parents and older relatives and create a healthy legacy for their own children. The book’s core teachings lie in three lists: 10 concepts to empower the mind, 10 insights to comfort the heart, and 10 behavioral skills to guide parents’ actions.

Whether dealing with a parent or an older relative with a history of being onerous, or a parent who’s recently become difficult as they struggle with old age or dementia, Chafetz said the relationship between parent and child can become toxic.

“A difficult person will say or do something that is provocative that often leads to an argument,” he said. “Picture it as a fisherman dropping a hook with a worm into a body of water. I want the adult child to learn not to take that bait and to avoid being hooked into a pointless conversation with a difficult person.

“I want adult children to learn to be smarter fish.”

Bianca R. Montes

Bianca Montes is an award-winning journalist and former Managing Editor of Park Cities People. She currently serves as a Senior Editor with D Magazine's D CEO publication. You can reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @Bianca_TBD. For the latest news, click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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