My Parent is Having Temper Tantrums!

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It's pretty unsettling when you witness your parent having a temper tantrum, isn't it? We tend to reserve tantrums for small children or teenagers, but the truth is that a temper tantrum can occur at any time in life and is simply a loss of mental balance or composure, accompanied by an outburst of anger. The thing about watching your parent have a temper tantrum is that it just seems so wrong on so many levels.

Aging adults experience temper tantrums for a whole host of reasons. Often it's a result of dementia or Alzheimer's and the personality change that accompanies this condition. Certain prescription medications (or the side effects of polypharmacy in the elderly) sometimes alter someone's personality. It could be the result of a chronic condition, or the most common and most difficult reason is that your parent is spoiled and wants to get his/her own way – and this seems almost impossible to cope with.

If you are dealing with an aging loved one who has Alzheimer's or dementia, there really is not much that you can do. You certainly can't fix it. Outbursts happen and they are only exacerbated if you try to engage with your loved one. As tempting as it is to try and reason with your parent, it is a big mistake and will only make it worse. You can contact the doctor and inquire about something to help take "the edge off," but truthfully there isn't much you can do.

If you notice sudden outbursts when a new medication is prescribed, then contact the doctor immediately and alert him/her. Medications present differently with each patient and often they have a negative effect, especially when a lot of medications are being taken. Chances are good the doctor will change the prescription.

But for the sake of this article, let's focus on the parent who has temper tantrums for no apparent reason other than to get his/her own way. Usually this is when you finally make a decision to take a break, hire outside help, stop being at someone's beck and call 24/7, or even say no, but you absolutely MUST take a break and get some help in order to maintain any kind of balance in your life.

It gets dicey when your loved one (who is usually your parent) starts screaming and demanding or better yet, tells you that you don't love them anymore or that you are an uncaring horrible person because you might actually take a little time for you! In my coaching work, I hear this all the time and it's painful. So what do you do?

5 tips for dealing with elderly temper tantrums

  1. As a caregiver you absolutely MUST take a break. It's not optional. It's a must. Remember that nothing changes until your needs become a must!
  2. Do NOT engage in the temper tantrum. Give it absolutely no energy. Leave the room. Walk away. Make it clear that you are not going to listen to the temper tantrum. You can say this calmly, but it has to be said.
  3. If your loved one tells you that you don't love him/her, gently take a hand when the tantrum has calmed down and say, "I do love you. In fact I love you so much and want to be here for you, that I have to take a small break in order 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.
  4. Make time for happiness and practice scheduling time for you every day. It doesn't have to be an all day event, but doing something for you each and every day will set the standard and eventually your loved one will come to be more accepting of your self care and personal boundaries. Schedule your time just like you schedule all other appointments.
  5. Finally…understand that the first few times you actually follow through, you're going to feel guilty. You're going to feel like you've done something wrong. You haven't. This is just the chatter in your head and the only way to quiet it is to practice the art of self care. Learning ways to manage guilt is one of the keys to successful caregiving.

We were never told nor taught all the emotionally challenges that accompany the caregiving journey. Much of this is about how you choose to deal with the twists and turns and the many shifts you will make over the years. Try to be at peace with yourself if you make a mistake. Cut yourself some slack and know that if you have a parent who is prone to temper tantrums, it has almost nothing to do with you.

Cindy Laverty is a Caregiver Coach and Founder of The Care Company, an online support website for family caregivers. Through programs, coaching and products, Cindy is dedicated to empowering family caregivers.

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40 Comments

It's good to read the comments on this, but I think the article is more skewed towards the CARETAKER. Not the Parent.

I keep hearing 'take care of yourself' from everyone. Especially the medical community. But it's the medical community that is not only constantly screwing me OUT of an ability to have any kind of schedule, but also week after week last minute scheduling for dr.s visits with my mom on MY day to have the free caretaking therapy group THEY recommended I attend. I started to go 2 months ago. I have only made it there twice because despite my 'no Thursdays for anything' rule, they continue to ignore it, then look at me like 'you poor thing, we're so sorry'.

And heaven forbid you deny your parent care to tend to yourself after years of playing free slave to them. So the guilt factor is VERY in the mix because everyone tells you to not feel it, then places you precisely in the position that creates it if you choose yourself over your parent.

I have decided I am going away this weekend. After 2 years of putting my life on the back burner, I'm leaving town. And taking my dog. And if my mother burns the place down, so be it. I do deserve 'me time'. And my health is suffering from all this stress. I'm aging so rapidly. My acid reflux is in full swing and I'm having bloody bowel movements. I take Xanax daily. I dislocated my shoulder picking my mother up off the floor after she double dosed herself with ambien, the sleeping pill and fell in the bathroom. I'm done. I either get me time or I open a vein.
I work in the Dementia business as well as have my 78 year old mother living with me. After long days working with Dementia residents and having to come home to a demented parent I often just want to retreet to my bedroom for some peace. My mother sees this as me not wanting to engage with her and she's right most times. I have tried to explain to her that I am tired when I get off work and just some me time and she says "I know" but this just proceeds into her past life and an long babbling conversation about her and her past life. She has become a "me" person everything is about her and her concept of it. She repeats everything over and over and over till I want to scream. And if I tell her she doesn't need to be doing certain things anymore (driving at night) she tells me "I don't appreciate getting my ass chewed out" she perceives any suggestions of what she should or shouldn't be doing as "ass chewing" and proceeds to call my brothers and report to them about the "ass chewing". I have always told my brothers when you think things need to be done differently just say so and she's all yours both refuse to take her.
"wouldn't it help a little to just caress and perhaps hold your loved parent for a moment,"

Help who? My mother who is having a fit because she doesn't want to wear adult diapers? Or me, who is gagging and about to vomit from her nasty smell? No one would be better off with that hug; it's just more sentimental nonsense offered from people with no real understanding of the problem.

My mom has always had a nasty temper and a narcissistic attitude. I understand that she is completely self-centered now--most sick people are self-centered out of sheer necessity. That's how we survive. But it doesn't make it any easier when it comes time for her to shower and she balks, or she doesn't smell the s**t she's tracking into the carpets, or when she urinates on my favorite shawl because she didn't like wearing diapers and used my shawl as a "cushion". I'm supposed to deal with that behavior with a hug and reassurance? One does not reward bad behavior, one rewards good behavior. My mom taught me that herself.