Handling anger: why is Mom so defensive?
by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief
Handling the Anger: Why Is Mom So Defensive?
I often hear about elders becoming difficult and even abusive toward their adult children just at the time the elders need help. Mom and daughter always got along well, but suddenly Mom is telling her daughter she's too bossy and wants to run her life. Dad and his son had their bad moments, but their relationship as adults has been very good. Then when the adult son offers to help his dad with the yard work, Dad yells at him that he's "not an invalid!"
Understandably, the son is hurt, frustrated and confused. He's jut trying to help. The same goes for the daughter who has offered to help her mother. What's behind this behavior in the elder?
The Driving Force in Behavior Change
Basically, it's fear. People are generally aware when they start losing ground, whether physically, mentally or both. Sure, denial sets in because that's a common way of coping with loss. But underneath the denial, they know the truth. The bloom is not only off the rose, the rose is starting to wilt. This knowledge can hurt and cause fear. How bad will I get? What will happen to me? Will I become a burden on my kids?
Think about it. You don't want to become a "burden" on your kids, right? Well, that's how your folks feel. It's not always easy to communicate vulnerable feelings. Instead of voicing their thoughts directly, or even totally understanding their own feelings and trying to get them across in some fashion, the elders lash out at the very person who is trying to help them--that's you.
Dealing with Behavior Change
I'm not saying you are to take abuse. You shouldn't. If Mom or Dad starts yelling abusive things, say something to the effect that you'll talk to them later when they've cooled off. Let it be known early on that you aren't there to be abused and you will walk away if that is how they treat you.
However, don't be too hasty to take offense. Try to put yourself in their place. If Mom thinks you are being too bossy, maybe your offer really did sound like you were dismissing her ability and you were now taking over her life. You probably only intended to say you'd be happy to help her balance her checkbook, but perhaps you could have said it in a better way. You may be putting efficiency above your mom's feelings.
If Dad is angry because you offered to help with the yard work, think back. Did you really "offer? Or did you imply that their yard was a mess and you supposed you'd better come over and get it set straight?
A New Approach: Respectful Dialogues
Chances are, what you said rests somewhere in the middle. Even then, you may have to back off a bit and approach them later with a different tactic. You could say, "Mom, I know you hate balancing your checkbook and your eyes are giving you trouble. Those lines even bug me. Can I help you get a better system?"
With Dad, you could say, "Dad, I've got a ton of 'creeping Charlie' in my back yard. How did you manage to keep it out of your yard?" Then, when you have a respectful dialogue going, you may be able to tell Dad that you've learned a lot from him and you'd like to pay him back by mowing his lawn.
The bottom line is respect for the dignity of your parents, as well as yourself. Some fine tuning when approaching a topic can go along way toward this goal.