Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy:  Understanding a parent’s difficult reactions to a big life transition

“My aging parent is lashing out in unexpected ways following a mutual decision to move into a retirement residence and it is hurting my feelings. What do I do?”

I’ve worked closely with many seniors and their adult children when they were in the midst of making a big life transition. In some cases, my adult children clients have voiced their surprise or sadness when an aging parent has expressed mixed or unexpected reactions during a transition, especially when their parent had been an integral part of the final decision.

I want to assure you that it’s not uncommon for a senior parent to be expressing a mixture of thoughts, feelings and emotions during a time of change and unfamiliarity. This is because what may have been resolved on a practical level when it comes to a life transition may not be finished on an emotional level. The emotional time table is often much longer.

Even after a decision is agreed upon and put into action, there can be a variety of feelings that your parent may still be grappling with. For example, a change in housing.  Your parent may be grieving a loss associated with the choice. Even when they know it is the right time to move, they need time to grieve the loss of the home they will be leaving and work through any apprehension they may have about moving to a new environment and all of the changes that entails. For you, helping your parent make the plan to move may resolve the fear or concern you have had about their living situation—but for your parent, the plan to move may begin their emotional process of grieving. Think of it this way: one person’s emotional process is ending while the other’s is beginning.

Some adult children may find themselves to be the recipient of their parent “lashing out,” a reaction that can sometimes accompany emotional struggles like grief, fear or feelings of loss. This can be very hard if you are an adult child who is devoted to helping your parent have the best quality of life, but they are turning their anger or frustration on you.

Here are some ideas that may help you better manage a parent’s difficult reactions: 

First, do your best not to personalize the reactions. This is often easier said than done. However, if you can step back from the practical aspects of a decision and recognize the myriad of emotions your parent may be experiencing, it will be easier to see that their reactions have little, if anything, to do with you. Remember: you may be the safest person for them and that is why you are seeing these difficult emotions emerge.

Another thing to keep in mind during a transition such as a move is if your parent is in the early stages of dementia. A move can exacerbate the confusion they may be experiencing and also cause them to be more verbally reactive with you. What is difficult for someone who has full cognitive abilities may be significantly harder for someone who does not have these abilities.

Find support for yourself. Other family members may be able to help you through a parent’s reactions, or you may need to seek support from a friend who is not emotionally involved.

Remember that empathy usually wins! People often try to use factual reasoning for issues that have an emotional basis. To the best of your ability, step away from the logic of a decision and simply express empathy about how the decision may be emotionally impacting your parent. I learned this lesson with my own father when he stopped driving. I told him all of the logical reasons why he would still be able to have his transportation needs met without driving himself, but it wasn’t the rational response he needed; he needed me to be empathic about losing the ability to drive and all that meant to him, including his independence. When I finally understood that and responded in an empathic manner, my father’s frustration and irritation faded away. He just needed to be listened to and understood; not told why his feelings were inaccurate because not driving was so much better!

Share your feelings. If possible and appropriate, share with your parent how their reactions are making you feel. This is not done to create guilt, but so that everyone understands these decision points can be challenging for all people involved and every person needs to feel heard and understood. If necessary, consider doing this with a neutral third party who may be able to help each of you better hear what each other is feeling.

It can be disconcerting to have your parent become frustrated or angry with you when you are moving forward on choices that seem to be agreed upon as best. Remembering that the emotional and the logical are on different time tables, and finding positive ways to manage responses from your parent that feel difficult, can make the journey easier for both of you.