An unfortunate side effect of aging that many adult children have noticed in their parents is a greater tendency toward anger. The pleasant adult they have known throughout their life is suddenly sullen, moody, easily frustrated, and prone to angry outbursts. Why are these changes happening, and is there anything that you as a loving and concerned son or daughter do to help?
Consider the Underlying Cause
When trying to understand behavioral changes in older adults, be aware that there is almost always an underlying cause to increased anger or frustration. One way to help dissipate these negative emotions is to find the cause and see what you can do to alleviate it.
“Many different things can cause anger, frustration, and anxiety in older adults,” says Karen Whitehead, a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and trained mindfulness practitioner who has her own private counseling practice, Karen Whitehead Counseling LLC in Norcross, Ga. “Anger and frustration are secondary emotions—that is, they often have their root in fear or sadness. Pain can also be a common cause, and can be physical, emotional, or spiritual.”
Physical pain is easier to assess than emotional or spiritual pain, Whitehead says. However, the pain is often interrelated. In fact, Whitehead points out that emotional or spiritual pain can often make physical pain worse.
Emotional pain comes from the thoughts and feelings that one has about his or her situation. It may be loss of control, fear of dying, fear of increased physical challenges, or pain, to name a few,” she explains. “Spiritual pain can present itself with a change in relationship to religion, or faith beliefs around death or decline.”
As a good first step, Whitehead recommends staying in touch with your parent’s medical team to assess for any physical, mental, or medicine changes that need to be addressed. In her private practice, Whitehead has many clients who have aging parents. She also has gained personal experience from caring for her 84-year-old mother and working closely with the executive director of her assisted living community. From that professional and personal experience, she has found that addressing the thoughts, feelings, or emotions at the root of a behavior can help to dissipate the anger and frustration.
“For example, if you see your parent getting frustrated trying to get dressed or take of basic needs, validate the frustration and sadness that comes with loss of control,” Whitehead advises. You might try saying, “Mom, that must be so frustrating to have trouble with those buttons. It looks like you’ve got it, but I am here to help if you need it.”
This statement accomplishes three objectives, according to Whitehead:
- it validates your parent’s frustration with physical challenges;
- it offers support by suggesting they can accomplish the task;
- if they are unable to accomplish the task, it offers an out if they need help in a way that doesn’t feel degrading or dismissive.
What Triggers These Feelings
Often times, behavioral issues in older adults occur in response to changes in their physical environment, such as a move to assisted living. In some cases, the feeling is one of loss and sadness from leaving their previous home. In other cases, it may be uneasiness or anxiety about their new living circumstances. If they are resistant to the change, Whitehead recommends that you validate the emotion instead of arguing with them and then also let them know you’re there to help.
“Look to the feelings beneath the anger or frustration and avoid getting defensive with your parent,” says Whitehead. “Try to put yourself in their shoes and empathize with the feelings they might be having.”
As an example, the adult child might say, “This must be scary to think about making new friends or learning a new place. How can I help you with that?”
In many cases with such a move, older adults find themselves disconnected from their spiritual or faith community. “If this has happened due to a move or physical challenges, look for ways to help them stay connected,” Whitehead advises.
Handling Hurtful Words
Family members may find it upsetting when an aging parent has an angry outburst and directs hurtful words toward them. In her work as a mindfulness practitioner, Whitehead helps clients learn how to relate to themselves and others in a way that brings a sense of calm and wellbeing.
“Most adult children of aging parents already feel guilty thinking they should be doing more for their parent(s),” Whitehead acknowledges. “When a negative comment is directed at you, it stirs these feelings and you can get defensive as you list all the things you are doing for your parent. When this happens, resentment builds and creates a difficult cycle.”
The way to stop this is to be mindful in the moment, Whitehead stresses. “When your parent directs angry outbursts at you and you feel strong emotions or get defensive, that is a clue that the way you may be thinking about it isn’t accurate or helpful for you. Our thoughts are not always true. Take a deep belly breath, which calms the flight or fight response, and remind yourself that your mom or dad is likely more angry at their situation than at you. Responding calmly and validating the emotion can diffuse the anger.”
Seek Help as Necessary
In the event that the situation becomes too stressful, remember—you don’t have to go through your struggles alone.
“If your loved one is always angry or frustrated, you’ve exhausted any physical needs or pain with his/her medical team, and these strategies of addressing the underlying feeling or emotion are not working, seeking a professional therapist or counselor trained to work with aging adults can help,” Whitehead suggests. “Companies that provide physical or occupational therapy or hospice can also provide social worker to meet with your loved one. There are also community organizations and private therapists available.
“By implementing these strategies and/or working with a professional, you might discover you develop an even closer relationship with your parent,” Whitehead concludes.
CHIME IN: Has your parent been experienced more negative emotions in later years? How have you dealt with such issues?