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
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.