The Life Transition Blog

When Adult Children and Aging Parents Argue

I am often asked by my coaching clients how to handle heated situations. Sometimes the person doing the asking is the adult child and sometimes it’s the older adult. Nevertheless, the answer is pretty much the same. It helps to take a giant step back and assess the situation, ideally from outside of “the moment.” So, I recommend that you make an attempt to end the conversation (confrontation) politely and take a deep breath rather than allowing it to continue to escalate. Once you have created that breathing room, it is time to determine next steps.

My approach to handling this type of conflict is:
  • Identify the core issue(s)
  • Look at it from the other party’s point of view
  • Generate a list of ways to diffuse the situation from both points of view
  • Formulate at least two solutions that are acceptable to you
  • Reconvene the conversation at an appropriate time (and place)

A recent client situation will help to illustrate the process. My client, Cindy, is the adult daughter of aging parents. Her dad has dementia and her mom is the primary caregiver but has health issues herself. Cindy and her siblings are worried about whether mom is addressing all of dad’s care needs and the recent argument occurred when Cindy tried to discuss this with her mom over the telephone. Cindy’s mom became very angry and accused Cindy of insinuating that she wasn’t taking good enough care of her husband. She told her she was hurt and insulted by this accusation. Cindy tried to explain that she was simply asking questions to clarify dad’s care needs and how they were being managed. The conversation escalated and ended when Cindy’s mom hung up and told her that she was perfectly capable of taking care of her husband without anyone’s help and that she didn’t want to hear from Cindy again. Predictably, Cindy was in tears.

When Cindy and I talked, my first step was to ask her to take a step back and tell me what was really going on. Why had she placed the call to her mom in the first place? Was there a particular trigger? Is this the first time that this topic has been discussed between her and mom? I learned that there was indeed a trigger. Specifically, there had been a call to Cindy from one of her parents’ neighbors to let her know that dad had been found wandering in the neighborhood disoriented and unable to find his way home. The neighbor had the sense that perhaps Cindy’s mom wasn’t telling her children (who live at a distance) what was really going on and felt they needed to know. Naturally, Cindy was worried and called her mom to ask what had happened. So we were able to identify the immediate core issue as safety. However, upon further digging, I learned that Cindy in fact had not called and asked questions. Rather, she had started the conversation by making a statement – “I hear that you let dad wander away and get lost.”

I then asked Cindy to look at that phone conversation from her mom’s point of view. Mom had answered the phone, and without preamble, Cindy had made the statement about the incident with dad. How, I asked Cindy, did she think that made mom feel? Cindy acknowledged that she had probably put her mom on the defensive immediately by jumping right into the conversation, which might have felt more like an accusation to her mom. She could see how her mom might have felt attacked.

We next talked about ways to diffuse the situation. Cindy agreed to call her mom and apologize for the way she handled the last conversation. She would explain that she was very worried after receiving the call from the neighbor and should have started the conversation by asking questions rather than hurling accusations. I warned Cindy to be sure that asking questions didn’t turn into conducting an interrogation. We also talked about the idea that Cindy would be unlikely to get all of the information she was seeking in one conversation. Rather, she should expect that there would be a series of talks over time. As another method for turning down the heat, we agreed that Cindy would reassure her mom that she and her sisters were both comfortable and proud of the care that mom was taking of dad, but that they were worried about the toll it must be taking on mom herself.

I asked Cindy how she would define a successful outcome to this situation. She told me that she first wanted to be able to regain her relationship with her mom and then to assure herself that mom was not in over her head in trying to care for dad, and if she was, to come up with a way to get her the help and support that she needed. I asked her to define two possible tangible solutions she could offer to her mom. She brainstormed with her sisters and came up with three or four ideas.

Cindy then called her mom and said she would like to have a calm conversation with her about dad and asked when would be a good time. At the appointed time, Cindy expressed her apologies and concerns and shared some ideas of possible solutions with her mom.

Give this five step conflict resolution approach a try the next time you find yourself in a heated moment with a loved one.
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