Parent’s Damaging Behavior – Understanding & Coping

Parent’s damaging behavior may be a new phenomenon, more acute than when they were younger or just their personality complicated by older age and/or illness. stress from parent's damaging behaviorFor family members, especially the primary caregiver spouse, daughter or son it can be overwhelming, unpleasant and very destructive to all involved. If a parent’s damaging behavior has not been part of their personality or character it often can indicate a sudden medical condition (UTI- urinary tract infection), a progression in a disease (Alzheimer, Parkinson, MS, Dementia) or a reaction to the medication.  Any of these can cause changes in personality, usually manifesting as aggression, tantrums, cursing, abuse, and hallucinations or delusions.

Most of us understand that people do not change much from who they are at their core. Aging and illness or disease tend to solidify a person’s personality traits. (Although a silver lining of some dementia is that it softens the edges of some people). Usually, however, someone who is mean, becomes meaner, a negative person becomes more negative. It is hard to be around a parent’s damaging behavior in relatively good times. It is much more difficult when the parent loses some abilities or faculties and family members take on caregiver roles.

Most Common Behaviors Caused by Mental or Physical Changes

Anger. And Yelling – when irritability or impatience becomes rage or demanding

Verbal or Physical Abuse – usually directed to the primary caregiver and immediate family, caused by fear, loss of control, frustration and resentment

Refusing to Bathe or Dress – may be caused by depression, dementia or a way of maintaining some control over themselves. It may also be a result of fear of falling so a safe environment helps.

Profanities and Inappropriate Remarks – This can range from embarrassing to hurtful. If this is new behavior for the person it can be an onset of cognitive disease or just a UTI try to talk them down or distract to another topic or activity.

Hallucinations and Paranoia – These symptoms are very unpleasant and scary to family members.  Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there or accusations of stealing or harming the elder are often experienced and are signs of serious mental or physical issues. Seek professional help quickly.

New Obsessive Behaviors – Saving things, picking at one’s skin, repetition of certain questions or concerns can be difficult for family members. If there is no history of OCD than it is usually a symptom of some emotional disorder – anxiety or depression or related to dementia.

Hoarding – Accumulating things and not discarding items again are symptoms of a medical or psychological condition. It may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease and/or anxiety and a control mechanism.

Prohibiting Caregivers or other Personnel into Their Home – Lots of emotions are triggered when outside help is needed. It is a true sign that the elder is unable to manage some basic things such as personal care, driving, and household chores independently. This brings up fears, resentments, anger, dread a so forth.

Change in Money Management – The elder parent may become frugal or a spendthrift showing a change in their money habits. – Again this is an emotionally charged topic as money often is. This is a direct assault on their independence, decision-making, and control.

Demanding of Your Time and Attention – The adult children of aging parents often are still working and have families of their own so they do not have the time or freedom to spend on their parents, even when the will and desire are to do so.  Some parents who are lonely or fearful may wish to monopolize all of their primary caregiver’s activities by becoming more dependent than they actually are.

Ways to Help Manage these Behaviors

Firstly, recognize that nearly all of a parent’s damaging behavior is a symptom of a medical condition – whether physical, psychological, emotional or cognitive. Something is going on with your older parent and it is producing lots of emotions which trend to the negative. Fear, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, loss of control is enough to change behaviors in most everyone. You must play detective first to find a cause before you can begin to treat a parent’s damaging behavior.

Safety First – Theirs and Yours!

Get medical and neurological workup.

Be caring, concerned, gentle but firm.

Try to identify the cause of the behavior and don’t take it personally.

Try to be positive, reassuring and give yourself breaks either by sharing the care with family or hired help, daycare programs and in extreme circumstances, a hospitalization.

Changes in medications or dosages may be needed.

Express your feelings if the person has the capacity to understand. You may need to call in the police or other professionals in certain dangerous situations.

Depending on the situation, stick to recognized routine/schedule or change routines/schedules. Perhaps daily showers aren’t needed or a bed bath is enough. Try to find the root cause of the behavior.

Start with small steps to desired outcomes. Some behaviors linked to dementia/Alzheimer’s disease are a phase and will go away as another stage is entered.

Be calm and try to redirect to something less confrontational and more inviting like reminiscing or listening to music or a favorite show or snack.

Validate their feelings along with your own. Medication may need to be prescribed or altered.

Try to minimize triggers by observing and recording behavior changes at times of day, task or whatever it may be. Avoidance of unpleasantness is a workable tactic.

Try to negotiate a compromise. Start slowly and build on each victory.

Do your best, whether out of love or obligation while taking care of yourself first so you can be helpful through the long haul. Set boundaries, plan for respite time and care.