A staggering number of books have been published with some variation on the title, “Dealing with difficult people.” Beside the many books titled exactly that way, there are the dozens which simply change the verb to coping with, managing, handling, or working with, etc., or whose title begins with “How to….” deal with, handle, manage, or cope with difficult people. Clearly, this is a widespread challenge in life, and self-help books provide welcome guidance.
When the difficult person in question is not an acquaintance or coworker, but your own parent, the challenge is even more serious. We can fire a friend or distance ourselves from a difficult coworker. If you are an adult with a difficult older parent, firing your parent is hard. You feel a certain obligation to look after them and to maintain not just contact with them, but also a safety net under them.
How can an adult son or daughter of, for example, a narcissistic mother, an abusive father, a controlling mother, or an alcoholic father, be caring to this parent without risking further emotional damage to themselves?
In my program for CODOPs (children of difficult older parents), I provide concepts that empower their minds, insights that comfort their hearts, and skills that guide their actions. One of the concepts I share deals with selecting appropriate guiding principles for interacting with the difficult parent.
Under normal circumstances, when dealing with any adult we encounter in life, we fully respect their autonomy. We owe them honesty and full disclosure, because they accept full responsibility for their own decisions and will bear the consequences of their actions on their own shoulders. This is true even if we disagree with the wisdom of their choices.
If, however, we view the adult’s unpleasant behavior as due to a personality disorder or to a dementing brain disease, and we therefore see them as impaired rather than intentionally difficult, then our guiding principles for relating to them must change. Since most difficult parents’ ability to accept responsibility for their own actions is impaired by either personality disorder or brain disorder, the CODOP should consider giving less priority to the parent’s autonomy than before. Instead, our guiding principles in relating to the impaired parent should be a commitment to their safety and dignity. This shift has important action implications. Most importantly, it directs the CODOP to prioritize meeting the parent’s needs over meeting the parent’s wants. Loving hard to love parents entails less obeying their wishes and more protecting them from themselves. As any healthy adult recognizes, having one’s needs met is mandatory; having one’s wants met is optional, a luxury.
Concepts like this from my CODOP program are effective in empowering CODOPs to tolerate their difficult parent’s unavoidable distress and promote their parent’s wellbeing despite the parent’s resistance.
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“My passion is ensuring that every adult is mentally ready to succeed in all transitions that comprise the adult years. The meaning in my life comes from helping my patients see themselves, their situation, their future, and the entire world with new eyes and a newly courageous attitude.