As an adult, it’s pretty unsettling when you witness your parent having a temper tantrum for the first time. We tend to think of tantrums as only pertaining to small children or teenagers, but the truth is that emotional outbursts can occur at any time in life. Acting out merely boils down to a loss of composure triggered by strong feelings like anger, sadness, fear or any combination of the three.
The thing about watching an aging parent have a temper tantrum is that it just seems so wrong on so many levels. Many family caregivers are mortified and have no idea how to handle their parent lashing out in a way they’ve never experienced before. Understanding the reasons behind an outburst is crucial for determining the best way to handle one without losing your temper, too.
Why Aging Loved Ones Act Out
Seniors throw temper tantrums for a whole host of reasons. Often, it’s a result of the personality changes brought on by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Certain prescription medications can have negative side effects or interact with one another, causing mood swings and irritability. Emotional fits could be the result of anxiety or depression over one’s worsening health. However, the most difficult reason to accept is that the senior in question is misbehaving simply because they are stubborn and want to get their own way.
If you are weathering the emotional ups and downs of an aging loved one who has dementia, there really isn’t much you can do about it. Outbursts are common with many kinds of dementia and at various stages throughout the progression of the condition. As tempting as it is to try to reason with someone who is cognitively impaired, the truth is that this will only make matters worse. You can contact your loved one’s doctor and inquire about medications to help with anxiety and new dementia behaviors like severe emotional outbursts. Otherwise, keeping their surroundings calm, familiar, structured, engaging and upbeat is the best you can do to prevent dementia-related outbursts.
Any sudden changes in a senior’s behavior are a cause for concern. It may point to an adverse reaction to a medication or an underlying medical issue, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), unmanaged pain or poor sleep. Infections like UTIs can cause unusual behavioral symptoms in seniors that are not common in younger individuals. If a loved one begins acting uncharacteristically angry or upset, it’s important to contact their doctor immediately for a check-up.
All these factors can contribute to an elder’s bad behavior, but for the sake of this article, let’s focus on aging loved ones who have temper tantrums for no apparent reason other than wanting to get their way. Some family caregivers have dealt with a parent’s stubbornness and manipulation for their entire lives, while others are seeing an increasingly unflattering new side of their aging Mom or Dad.
Regardless of whether a loved one has never been able to manage their anger or disappointment, or it has been a slow transformation as they’ve grown older, eventually we get fed up with their unkindness and lack of emotional maturity. This breaking point is usually when family caregivers finally make the decision to take a break, hire outside help, stop being at their care recipient’s disposal 24/7 and establish some much-needed boundaries.
It gets dicey when your loved one (often a parent) starts yelling and making demands, or better yet, tells you that you don’t love them or that you are an uncaring person! In my coaching work, I hear about experiences like this all the time and it’s painful. Senior tantrums often escalate even further when you inform them that you’re going to be taking some time away from their needs to focus on your own. So, what do you do?
The bottom line is that even caregivers with the most considerate and easygoing care recipients need to step back from their responsibilities to recharge their batteries. It’s hard, but you absolutely MUST take a break to maintain any kind of balance in your life and prevent your loved one’s persistent negativity from taking a lasting toll on your physical and mental health.
5 Tips for Dealing with Elderly Temper Tantrums
- Schedule an appointment with your loved one’s doctor to confirm that their poor behavior is not being caused by any new or worsening physical or mental health problems.
- The next time your elder throws a temper tantrum, do NOT engage. Give it absolutely no energy. Make it clear that you are not going to listen to their outburst. Say this as calmly as possible and then walk away. Leave the room and give them plenty of time to cool down before you interact again.
- If your loved one tells you that you don’t love them, gently take their hand once they’ve calmed down and say, “I do love you. In fact, I love you so much that I have to take breaks to be able to give you the best possible care.” Leave it at that and don’t get into a discussion. You do not have to justify taking a break from caregiving or drawing the line on your loved one’s unrealistic demands. A popular bit of advice shared on the Caregiver Forum with members who are struggling to set and maintain boundaries with difficult elders is, “No is a complete sentence.”
- Remind yourself that you need and deserve a break, and then make it happen. It doesn’t have to be an all-day event but doing something small for yourself each day will set the standard. Schedule time for respite just like you schedule all other appointments.
Eventually, your loved one will come to be more accepting of your self-care and personal boundaries. If you are consistent and unyielding with your “me time” and limitations, they will realize that you are serious and likely cut back on their attempts at emotional manipulation. If they don’t after some time, then you may have to dig your heels in and set even stricter limits on what you will do for them and when. Unrelenting negativity and criticism is damaging to be around.
- Finally, understand that the first few times you actually follow through with these steps, you’re going to feel guilty. (This is especially true if you don’t have much practice setting boundaries or you aren’t used to standing up for yourself). You’re going to feel like you’ve done something wrong or mean, but you haven’t. Always putting someone else’s needs before your own is not a healthy or happy way to live. Learning to prioritize self-care and banish undeserved guilt are the keys to successful, sustainable caregiving.
Most family caregivers have no idea what kind of emotional challenges await them when they take on this role. How you choose to handle the countless trials that arise will make a big impact on how you feel about your responsibilities, your care recipient and yourself—now and in the future.
Try to be patient with yourself and forgiving if you make mistakes. Even if your aging loved one is never happy and won’t let you live something down, cut yourself some slack. When it comes to those who are prone to temper tantrums and complaining, it often has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own insecurities and shortcomings.
Bruce Webb is a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES) and has an extensive network of senior related referrals.