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7 Quick & Powerful Tips for Caring for a Difficult Parent And Staying Sane

Do you have a parent who might be considered a “difficult” or “challenging” person? Is it always a challenge to talk about planning for the future? Are they fiercely independent? Are conversations shut down, or do they instantly become emotional? 

Maybe every discussion feels like opening a Pandora’s box of complicated memories, love, uncertainty, guilt, and a collection of Precious Moments figurines gathering dust.

At the same time, you’re deeply concerned about changes in your parent’s health, their living arrangements, or a lack of planning for the future. You want the best for them, but you may not have the closest or healthiest relationship.  

When you bring up talking about their health, does your parent respond with these gems: 

“We’re not talking about my health. I’m fine. It feels like you’re just waiting for me to die.”

“All you need to know is that I’m not going to a nursing home.”

“This is private. My lawyer knows what I want.”

“I’m not old. I’m not going to go live with old people.”

“You have your own life, and I have mine.”

“We’ll talk about it some other time. I’ll let you know.” 

Sound familiar? 🤦

Let’s be honest…our relationships with our parents can be complicated. When you add financial factors, mental health concerns, family dynamics, core values, and emotionally charged topics to the mix, it can feel like a huge weight on your shoulders and a disaster waiting to happen. 

Here are seven tips to help you care for your parent while keeping yourself sane and healthy! 💪

 

1. Reflect on your role in the family and your own emotions

As we grow older, our roles within the family remain familiar in some ways and change in other ways. Considering your role now and in the past creates a helpful context for any difficult conversation.

Are you the perpetual caregiver, or are you the one who moved across the country and “abandoned the family”? Are you seen as the “golden” child who can do no wrong? The “helpful” child? The “selfish” child?

How do you feel about your role(s) within the family? By reflecting on our own roles before the conversation and anticipating how this will come into play, we can manage our own feelings and expectations for these conversations. 

 

2. Focus on the problem, NOT the person. 

When you team up with your parent to discuss the future or the decisions at hand, you create a synergistic alignment, allowing an easier conversation. Rather than resorting to sweeping generalizations or becoming frustrated with your parent, try to stay focused on the problem. 

Sometimes, our parents feel like we’re criticizing them, attacking them, or talking down to them. They may respond with defensiveness or avoidance. Try moving the focus away from them and toward the topic you want to address. 

For example, instead of saying and thinking: “My mother is so difficult. She never listens to me, and she won’t take my advice. This is too stressful to deal with.”

Try: “Mom, we both know that your lease is ending soon, and we need to make sure you have a place to live. What kind of living situation are you open to, and what’s your budget?”

Want more examples of what to try instead? Download your FREE cheat sheet here!

3. Try to see it from their side

This is called “perspective-taking.” Even if it’s hard to relate to our parents, we can try to understand what keeps them going, what makes them happy, what worries them, and what they need most. It may perplex us that they spend all their time going to three different pickleball clubs, watch news channels you dislike or have a particular religious or political view different from yours. 

Remember, we can’t change certain things. We don’t have to agree with them, but we must “live and let live,” so to speak. Consider compartmentalizing (in a healthy way) the things that bother you, and offer them a little generosity of spirit when you can.

 

4. Name the feelings

You can name difficult emotions that might be coming up. Naming the emotions you may both be experiencing (like fear or anxiety) can further the sense of empathy and alignment as a team we’re aiming for. 

Naming the emotions also gives us a way to diffuse them a bit—you can acknowledge them and move forward with the conversation together.  

For example: “Mom, I know this is hard to talk about. I don’t like thinking about it either…”

Download your FREE cheat sheet and get word-for-word scripts on how to “name the feeling” and diffuse the situation.

 

5. Set healthy boundaries and maintain them.

Why do we need boundaries? Imagine crossing a bridge without railings – scary, right? You’d tread cautiously, fearing a misstep. Now, picture that same bridge with sturdy guard rails. Suddenly, you’re walking with confidence. That’s the power of boundaries.

Boundaries set clear expectations: “Yes, I’ll help with the plane ticket,” or “No more politics talk, please.” By defining what you will and won’t do, you give your parent a roadmap. They know what to ask for and where your limits lie.

Moreover, boundaries offer clear checkpoints. If a conversation veers into uncomfortable territory or becomes disrespectful, you can stop it. Politely yet firmly, you assert your limits and suggest moving forward constructively.

Want more examples of how to set boundaries? Download your FREE cheat sheet here!

6. Enlist support

Driving, picking up prescriptions, grocery shopping, appointments, laundry, house cleaning…it can add up! Consider hiring a house cleaning service or setting up a ride service. Connect with the local Council on Aging for resources such as support groups. Find out about local meal services or friendly volunteers. You don’t have to wear yourself thin – do your best to ask for what you need from the community around you.

7. Seek joy (and validation) somewhere else

This is really hard, You’re trying your best. And (as I’ve said to my own family when I’m stressed), sometimes our best is not so great! But that’s where we are. 

You deserve to have the time and space to care for your own needs. Prioritize favorite activities and nourishing experiences – exercise, meditation, walking, music, friends, and whatever makes you feel centered and joyful.

 

Bottom Line

Your difficult parent may never thank you for what you’re doing for them. It may be an emotional roller coaster. You didn’t choose this situation, but you have a choice now. You can live with resentment, or you can do your best and let go of the hurtful pieces, emotionally and spiritually. You can say, “This is hard, AND I know I’m doing the right thing by my Dad. 

Want to dive even deeper? Snag your FREE cheat sheet and imagine how it would feel if your parents didn’t get under your skin! 🔥

Now I’d Love to Hear From You!

1. Which of these tips will you try out?

2. What strategies have you used when caring for a “difficult” parent?

Let me know in the comments below.

Want more?

We totally get it—navigating conversations about how your parents or in-laws want to be cared for as they get older can feel like an emotional rollercoaster!

But fear not—we’ve crafted something special just for you: our online course, Unlock the Conversation. 🚀 Dive in for a step-by-step approach to the conversation, including word-for-word scripts, expert guidance on what to talk about, and how to create a roadmap for the future. Join the waitlist now so you’ll be the first to know when doors open!

And guess what? You’re not alone in this journey! Our dedicated coaches are here to support you every step of the way. Whether you need someone to help you prep for the conversation, support you through the conversation, or facilitate the conversation, we’ve got your back. You deserve peace of mind; we’re here to help you achieve it. Click here to learn how caregiver coaching can help you!

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Sarah Byrne-Martelli, DMin BCC-PCHAC, is a Caregiver Coach at EpioneMD, palliative care chaplain, and author of Memory Eternal: Living with Grief as Orthodox Christians. She supports family caregivers in navigating complicated relationships as they care for aging parents or in-laws.

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