Identifying & Dealing with Toxic Behavior in Elderly Parents

We’ve all heard about toxic parents and the influence they exert over their children – whether the kids are tiny, adolescent, or adult. Did you know that some parents remain toxic well into old age, ignoring the life lessons and distancing practices established by their children? Also – and a bit surprisingly – some parents don’t even become toxic until their senior years! Seems odd, doesn’t it?

Toxic parents don’t just outgrow their heinous behavior. If an aging and infirmed parent has always been controlling and manipulating – in another word, toxic – they are not likely to change. An aging parent can also become toxic and extremely difficult to handle.

Signs that your aging parent may be toxic…

Not all grandmothers and grandfathers are the sweet and kind little elderly citizens we imagine.

Sorry, I hate to break this news to you. Some aging parents are toxic and can influence you and their own grandchildren, not to mention anyone else who comes around.

It’s unfortunate, really, because they have reached the winter of their lives, and still they haven’t changed. Here’s what you really need to know:

1. You will be taken on many guilt trips.

Making people feel guilty is extremely toxic behavior. I wanted to let you know this in case you’re doing it too… stop! Aging parents exhibiting toxic behavior will also do this, but it will be a bit more extreme than the little guilt trips we use from time to time.

Toxic older parents try to make their children feel guilty for not taking care of them, or not coming to see them. They may even fake illnesses in order to get their children to come around. They may hurt themselves to force you to spend time with them in the emergency room.

It would be lovely to want to spend time with your elderly or infirmed parent. If they have inspired a relationship based on mutual respect, affection, admiration, and love, this would be very easy. However, you should never be forced to spend time with them by toxic coercion. If you’re being taken on a guilt trip, then you probably have at least one toxic parent.

2. They play the blame game.

When you visit your toxic parent(s) and something happens, it will never be their fault. If they knock over a vase and break it, it’s because you were distracting them and made them bump the vase.

I think you get the picture. The thing is, this blame game can go much farther than this and become serious, causing resentment between child and parent. Watch close for this indicator.

3. You are the object of constant criticism.

When you visit or call, a toxic aging parent will always find something on which to criticize you. If you bring your children, they may complain about the way you dressed them, or they make it clear that your parenting skills aren’t up to par – that is, not up to their standards.

Their toxic behavior will become obvious when nothing you do seems to please them, even if it’s almost perfect. I think this is one of the most hurtful aspects of this type of personality.

4. They still scare you.

If you’re an adult child of any age and are still afraid of your aging parents, there’s definitely a problem. Toxic parents have a way of instilling fear into their children, and sometimes this fear can last long into adulthood.

When you go to visit your parents and something about them still terrifies you, then you’re still dealing with a toxic personality. It seems nothing has changed.

When it comes to parents who’ve only recently started exhibiting toxic behavior in old age, suddenly being afraid of them is alarming. Ask yourself why you’re scared. Sometimes it can be that your aging parent has fallen victim to dementia or mental illness which isn’t their fault. These conditions can also make them become violent, which can also be frightening. Seek advice from your parent’s doctor – this will not only help you protect yourself, but will help you to understand what’s going on with them.

5. They ignore you.

If you’re aging parent is suddenly ignoring you, either for some disagreement or other unknown reason, this is toxic behavior.

Any sort of silent treatment is unhealthy and should be addressed, communicated, and resolved as soon as possible. Aging parents who give their children the silent treatment have a problem with themselves, and maybe even have a hard time dealing with loneliness.

How do we deal with these issues?

Our aging parents have reached the winter of their lives. We need to understand that they may have many regrets. For parents who have always been toxic, a personality disorder is usually the reason. If an elderly parent suddenly becomes toxic, that’s usually a sign of loneliness or unhappiness. As their children, we need to be able to distinguish one from the other.

  • The first step in dealing with the toxic behavior of aging parents is to first understand the origins of the toxocity. Were they always toxic or did this develop suddenly with age?
  • If the manipulation and controlling behavior seems more sudden or urgent, perhaps it will diminish if your parents know you care and still think about them. Make some phone calls just to check in and ask how they’re feeling. If you’ve had a more-healthy-than-not relationship, this could go a long way in removing toxic behaviors.
  • If they blame you for everything, have the discussion about why they blame you. If the reasons seem trivial – and if you feel you can – let it go. However, make it clear that you’re not responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives, and they need to let up if they want a relationship with you.
  • When it comes to their criticism of you, again, have the discussion. Remind them that you are responsible for the direction of your life, and they have no call to criticize you. If it persists, you always have the option to take it or leave it.
  • If your aging parent scares you, then find out why. Search the past and talk to their doctors. Either there’s a root to the fear or they are suffering from something that causes you to fear them.
  • If they’re ignoring you, give them some time. If they ignore you too long, then call them on the phone. During your conversation, you may find that they’re manipulating you to reach out. This could be toxic, but more likely, they’re lonely. Again, have the conversation and remind them that they don’t need to manipulate this way.
  • Remember this – you are not responsible for their happiness. Help them find hobbies or ways to make themselves happy. Kindness and helping others are great ways of cultivating happiness.

It’s not that I’m laying responsibility on you for all the toxic behaviors, it’s just that being kind can sometimes heal things like this. If it doesn’t work, unfortunately, ties may have to be broken for a while. Not all aging parents are easy to help or deal with. I just like to have a little hope before giving up.

If you have an aging toxic parent, try the above strategies first. It’s worth saving your relationship if it’s possible. I promise.

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