Good 'Ole Days- Sandwich Generation Articles

Handling Difficult Parents

Sage Advice for the Sandwich Generation

By Dr. Paul Chafetz | Contributor

Are you the adult Child of a Difficult Older Parent (CODOP)?  You just might be if you feel that you can never make your senior parent happy, despite your best attempts to make their twilight years their best years.  It’s a delicate balance between honoring the ones who raised you and preserving your commitments to your own family – and your sanity!  I’ve spent decades navigating the geriatric population and can assure you that you’re not alone when it comes to addressing difficult behaviors with an aging parent, and more importantly, I can show you how to put your feelings in perspective.

I arrived in Dallas in 1982 as the city’s first fellowship-trained clinical gero-psychologist and soon found my practice taking me daily into every corner of the local senior care network. The vast majority of older adults are, of course, fine people – capable, connected, content and congenial – and most of my clients were fine people who had simply hit a rough patch in life. But many of the elderly individuals referred for my services were described quite explicitly as very difficult.  These older people treated their own children very rudely, with cruel sarcasm, irrational and selfish demands, constant criticism and undeserved anger.  I found that most of the adult children of these elders were fine people who struggled valiantly to love their parents.  In 2015, after working with many hundreds of such cases, I coined the acronym CODOP, for Children Of Difficult Older Parents, to describe these adult children.

In my experience, difficult parent scenarios fall into two lists of six patterns.  The classic six behaviors are generally shown by long-difficult parents and usually reflect a personality disorder.  The cognitive six behaviors are generally shown by newly-difficult parents and usually reflect a new dementia.  (See sidebar)

To survive, adult children of difficult older parents need:

1 Support from people who really understand the CODOP dilemma

2 Effective tools for understanding their parents

3 Skills for responding constructively to their parents

4 safeguards against becoming a difficult parent to their own children

These needs, unfortunately, usually go unmet. As a result, adult children of difficult older parents are exhausted from contending chronically with many unpleasant emotions. They are demoralized from seeing typical interaction methods, like reasoning, repeatedly fail to keep the peace with their difficult parents. They often feel betrayed and alone due to many disappointing experiences with mental health professionals they have consulted about their difficult parents.

Therefore, my work with these adult children is designed to help them learn how to protect their hearts, how to effectively love their hard-to-love older relatives, and how to create a healthy legacy for their children. The core of my approach consists of essential tools with which they can equip themselves, including learning more about the sources of personality disorder or about dementia, generating realistic expectations, setting boundaries, and avoiding pointless conversation with someone who is irrational.

I believe that the reason people face so many struggles and dilemmas in life, love and loss is so we will have many opportunities to learn from living and to grow from learning.  Yes, even from having a difficult parent, you can move from a sense of victimhood to a recognition that you can leave a better legacy with your own children. In short, life is for learning and growing! I hold that, whether we are in our twenties, forties, sixties or eighties, whatever adjustment life is asking us to make, we can and should grow into it.  My job is to help adults grow into it, using psychological concepts, insights and skills.

My vision is to build a CODOP community in Dallas. I want every adult child of a difficult older parent to know this: you are not alone, the tools for finding success are readily at hand, and you can grow into it!

If you are, or know, an adult child of a difficult older parent, please engage with us via my website www.paulkchafetz.com, our Meetup group, my book, or by attending our free, public, monthly CODOP support group at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at Unity Church of Forest Lane.

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