How to deal with a hurtful aged father?
June 7, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with a hurtful aged father at an upcoming family event?

Last week, my mom’s elderly sibling visited for a precious few days from a faraway continent, possibly for the last time. I got to visit her last weekend.

During the visit, I got to hear amazing stories about my mom’s side of the family during the German occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. I was riveted. We had a nice dinner.

After dinner, my dad put some music on and we talked a little about how the performer was the father of a now-famous daughter. Dad said it was bluegrass, but my aunt disagreed and I agreed with her; it was country.

This seemingly trivial iota of conversation seemed to set my dad off. He stopped the music and said something like, “Fine, we won’t listen to anything. How’s that? Everyone happy now?” He went to go do the dishes and began muttering in the kitchen. I and my husband heard him call me a “bitch.” I heard my mom trying to quietly remonstrate with him. When he was done he went to his chair and sulked. My aunt, husband, and I were still chatting, now determinedly, at the dinner table. Apropos of nothing, he announced, “I would have liked a birthday card.” When my mom tried to hush him, he barked at her, “I’ll say whatever I want in my own home.” I did not like the manner in which he spoke to my mom.

He had not invited me to his recent birthday party at my sister’s house, which hurt me a lot as birthdays are a big deal in our family. I did not send him anything for his birthday, but should have, and was really down for a week about feeling excluded.

When I heard him talk that way to my mom, I looked at my husband and said, “Well, I think it’s time to go.” My dad said, “The sooner the better.” We left, and my mom and aunt came out to say goodbye.

My sister’s birthday is coming up in a month, and I am not going to tolerate this kind of behavior again. I know you can’t change people. The man is in his 80s, and I’d like us to have a good relationship in his last few years. Can I try to lay some ground rules for normal civil behavior in a family setting, or do I just send my sis some presents and leave it at that? I don’t want to miss the chance to see her or my mom.

One beef my dad has with me is that I am not a believer in his faith. This goes back a long way—in college he and my sis were going to some Christmas concert while I spent the eve chatting to Mom. As they left, my sis asked him, “What does anonymous believe?” He replied, “She doesn’t know what she believes.” This remark hurts to this day, though I should just let it go.

Tl,dr; how to manage an unpleasant elderly father at an upcoming family event?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Please take into account that your Dad's recent actions, if uncharacteristic, may be signs of dementia. If so, there's little you can do but try to ameliorate the situation.
posted by orthogonality at 8:21 AM on June 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

Was alcohol involved?
posted by k8t at 8:22 AM on June 7, 2010

Is this a marked change in personality for your father, or has he always been like this? I think this data could help determine whether answers to your question need to help you deal with an abrasive personality, or advise you how to investigate neurological issues that might cause this (change in) behaviour.

You can contact the mods to post the extra information here for you if you wish.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:23 AM on June 7, 2010

If this marks a change in his personality, you should have a chat with your mom about his current medical care as there may be health issues causing or factoring into this (nasty) development.

If he's always been a bully, I think you should revise your expectations of having a civil relationship in his last years. It's not a failure on your part if your father is unwilling to treat you decently. Plan to say something like, "Dad, I'm not willing to be around you if you speak to me like that" and end conversations as necessary. It's a perfectly civil, appropriate thing to do, although he might react with a temper tantrum. A lot depends on your other family members: some families have unhealthy dynamics that tend to shun or demonize any member who tries to set limits with an elderly bully. Consider talking to your sister and any other sympathetic relatives to prepare for his possible bad behavior--if for some reason you're a special target of his anger, they may be able to run interference for you or otherwise keep an eye on the situation.

I understand that there's a whole lot of guilt that can go into this type of bullying relationship with a parent--even if it's totally legitimate for the child to set limits, he or she often feels tremendously guilty. It's an awful, heart-breaking thing, and I don't want to minimize it, but that guilt isn't a healthy consequence of the child's "bad" behavior, it's yet more fallout from the parent's bullying.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:50 AM on June 7, 2010

I know there will be a lot of people who want to chalk this up to age and illness, but I don't think that you can necessarily chalk it up that way. Not knowing your family dynamic, I see a few things:

1) Was it your father's responsibility to invite you to your sister's house? It seems to me that if I was hosting a party, I'd be the one inviting.

Also, not getting a card or a present for your birthday may have set him off at any age. He may feel that, in his old age, he's being forgotten about or discounted because he's old. The "ganging up" on him might've been a reaction to the same kind of thing.

2) You mention the religion thing; but if your dad is in his 80's and you are talking about a comment in college, is this not like 20+ years ago? If you can't forgive a statement like that after 20 years, you should really think about therapy to try to find ways to let things go.

I'm sure there's a lot more than this which attributes to his disapproval of your religious beliefs but if your prime example is decades old, I really think you need to work on letting things go.

Good luck!
posted by Hiker at 9:04 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you spoken to your mother? it sounds like something set him off about you before his birthday party and he's nursing that grudge. Being overly offended by opposition from you and the dark muttering about the birthday card are all part and parcel of the same current grudge match.

Did you speak to anyone at the time of the birthday party to find out why you weren't invited?

Knowing what triggered this could help you to address it - not that you've necessarily done anything wrong, but if you knew what set him off you could either address it or avoid it.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:18 AM on June 7, 2010

You need to rule out any age or illness related causes, before you do anything else. There's no reason to punish your father for a behavior he can't control.

If it's just him being a bully, then don't coddle his temper tantrums. Go to your sister's party and try to have a civil conversation with your father. If he acts up, then tell him you'll speak again when he's in a less pouty mood. He knows he's behaving badly. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. You don't need to be a jerk or loud about it. Just, "Hey Dad, I see this isn't a good time for us to talk." You don't set boundaries by declaring them; you set boundaries by enforcing them. When he's out of line you cut contact.

Regarding the comment your father made, it's really time to get over it. College is a time when a lot of young adults explore their own beliefs. It's not unreasonable that he didn't think your beliefs were completely decided. I'd have been more pissed that my sister asked someone else what I believed instead of asking me. Hopefully, I wouldn't be nursing that grudge years later.
posted by 26.2 at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2010

Don't sweat the small stuff. Bluegrass? Country? Let stuff like that go.
posted by Carol Anne at 9:34 AM on June 7, 2010

From the original poster:
Thanks to the mods for posting my question--it's really tearing me up inside and I appreciate the responses thus far. I understand that the AskMe rules prohibit chatfilter and respect that rule, but just to answer the questions asked:

k8t: No, my dad likes a beer now and then but is not a problem drinker.

EndsofInvention: No, he has always had a volatile temper, though he has never struck anyone in the family. Overall he has been a good father and a good provider for us, and I love him so much; just so hard to deal with comments like these.

Meg_Murry: Thank you for your compassionate and very helpful response.

You're only hearing my side of the story of course, but I don't think I've been a bad daughter. I earned a Master's degree, bought my own home with my own money 10 years ago, and married the sweetest, most thoughtful man in the world. No drugs, crime, &c. Pretty average Midwestern person. I am strong-willed as is my dad and we've butted heads over the years. Mom and sis are more skilled at going with the flow.

One of the unexpected realizations I had in just making this post is that I was going to add that 'I am not the easiest person to get along with'...I realized perhaps it's just that I've been taught to think I'm not the easiest person to get along with. I am thinking that over and grateful for the realization.
posted by mathowie at 9:37 AM on June 7, 2010

Yeah, my first thought was that the early stages of Alzheimer's can manifest as irritability and really downright jerky behavior.

Your poor mom may be thinking that he's just crabby in his elder years and covering up for him even more than what you've seen. Can you talk to her and find out if he's been to a doctor?

He had not invited me to his recent birthday party at my sister’s house, which hurt me a lot as birthdays are a big deal in our family. I did not send him anything for his birthday, but should have, and was really down for a week about feeling excluded.

Is it known why you were excluded? Was it definitely on purpose? Could this have been a misunderstanding? Did you ask? I feel like I'm missing something here. He's mad that you didn't acknowledge his birthday but he excluded you from his celebration -- is this a typical pattern? I guess I'm unclear as to the "normal" dynamic between you and your father.

As for the remark made in college, I think you should let that go. I bet if he were holding a grudge that long it would be frustrating to you...or is that kind of what's going on, maybe? You're both attached to some old grudges? (Bear in mind, his behavior sounds atrocious, I'm not in any way excusing it.)
posted by desuetude at 9:51 AM on June 7, 2010

Parents have a uniquely powerful effect on their children - that's why they need to be extra careful not to unfairly judge or criticize their children. Unfortunately, it sounds like our dad is passively but deliberately cutting you down and it hurts you greatly. You may never understand it, but you have to protect yourself. You have to find a way to turn off that vulnerable spot that he's smacking. It takes a lot of practice, but with enough repetition you'll be able to ignore him

I'm sure you're no more difficult to get along with than the rest of us. Don't believe the bad press ;)!
posted by MiffyCLB at 9:53 AM on June 7, 2010

So from your update he's always been a miserable crank. That's okay, my father is a miserable crank too. It took me a long time to realize that a) it was really just him that was difficult, as I have many wonderful relationships with people who are not him and b) not everyone gets to have the kind of relationship with their parents that they would like.

In your situation, and given his age, and the fact that your mother has to deal with him on a daily basis, I wouldn't make too many waves, because she's probably going to have to handle the fallout. My advice would be different if you lived with him, or if he was significantly younger, but since you have your own home and he's elderly, I wouldn't confront him.

Be polite to him when you're in his company, which I'm sure you already are. The exception to this is if he insults you or your partner personally. In that case, I would tell him that I was sorry he felt that way, but I wasn't going to stand there and be insulted by him, and then I would leave. I personally would not stand there while any man called me a bitch, even if he was my father.
posted by crankylex at 9:55 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am strong-willed as is my dad and we've butted heads over the years.

My sister and I have this kind of relationship, and we both had it with our (now-deceased) father. For whatever reason, now that she and I are getting older, we find it really hard to have a conversation about pretty much anything without one of us (usually me) getting angry, and it doesn't always make sense.

Family is tough, because there's an entire lifetime of baggage that you may or may not realize is there, and it could be a huge festering emotional wound causing friction...or just something as simple as being annoyed by the sound of the other person's voice or tone. It is really hard to say.

Assuming you're on top of potential causes related to illness, which I (and I am certain everyone else here) very much hope is not the root cause, try to keep this in mind: your father is 80, and there's a great deal of emotional struggle that can come with advanced age. A missed birthday here and there when he was younger may not have meant much -- but perhaps now, at 80 years old, it means a lot to him and he's feeling neglected and ignored and just plain old.

So, if you want to be a good daughter, just take a deep breath, cut him some slack, and realize that his behavior right now (as you describe it) doesn't stand out as particularly hurtful to you directly, but more a general crankiness and unhappiness that you may be neither the cause of nor able to cure. Just ramp up your patience and attention levels a bit, and see what happens.
posted by davejay at 9:59 AM on June 7, 2010

I'm going to second the comments about setting limits. Even in cases where dementia is at the root, setting limits and talking can go a long way, and so much the further when the person in question is in full control of themselves.

I would recommend taking your father aside - before he's thrown a tantrum - and tell him that his behaviour was very hurtful. Tell him that he is loved and that you want to be there for him during his final years, but that in order for that to happen he needs to treat you with civility. Be sure to talk about specific examples of bad behaviour (like you did in your original question), and avoid generalities like 'you always...' This gives space for him not to _identify_ with those behaviours, and leaves room to work on them instead of just being identified as a bad person.

An intervention like this could be really essential for the well being of your mother, who presumably has to live with him.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:02 AM on June 7, 2010

It sounds like the only interaction you had with your father before it all got ugly was to disagree with him about the bluegrass/country issue.

So, if I have this right, you spent a long time riveted by your aunt's fascinating stories, then you Dad puts on music and you two get into an argument, where you (at least in your Dad's eyes) took your aunt's side. And he was heard to mumble that he would have liked a birthday card from you, and call you a bitch (which to me is the really disturbing part and I agree, totally unacceptable).

It sounds to me like your Dad is feeling left out and neglected by you specifically. I don't know why everyone is jumping to dementia and drinking to excuse this. Yes, he acted childishly, but there could be some real hurt here.

So it all comes back to the whole birthday thing. You say you weren't invited and were very hurt. So my question is, why were you not invited? Does this whole argument this last weekend really go back further and you are leaving that out here? Is it possible your Dad thought he invited you but didn't? Did you make any effort to find out why you weren't invited?

It seems like your reaction to that instance was very much like your Dad's here--you felt hurt, you sulked, and then you lashed out; in your case, you didn't bother to get him even a birthday card.

Sorry, but I feel like there is a lot here you are not telling us. I really feel like you need to sit down with your Dad and let him know that despite your disagreements you love him and want to have a relationship with him. I think that will go a long way toward healing this breech.

Oh, and the part about your difference in opinion about religion and how your Dad said (20 years ago! Wow, and your Dad sulking now is bothering you?!) "she doesn't know what she believes" and it hurt you so much. Well, maybe he feels that you don't understand what he believes, either. And it's possible he's just as hurt.

Not to mention that, since you don't share what your actual beliefs are here, it's also possible that he is unclear what you DO believe. So, yeah, you really need to let that go.

I'd like to think that as our parents grow older, we all get a little more tolerant with little disagreements like bluegrass/country and let them slide. Don't sweat the small stuff, like Carol Anne said above. Rather than assuming he has Alzheimer's, I think civil behavior between the two of you starts with trying for a little empathy.
posted by misha at 11:52 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

My suggestion is to get to the root of this birthday thing and try to make amends. Were you really excluded or did something else happen? If you were excluded, that's worth bringing up directly to your father. A simple phone call: "Hey, Dad, I wanted to talk about your last birthday because you sounded really mad about it last time I was there. I felt mad that I was excluded and not invited. How can we fix this?" If you guys can have a conversation about this and come to an understanding, you'll both probably be better off for it. If it results in an angry, rage-filled conversation then I think you keep out of his way. Either miss the party (I wouldn't) or keep your distance and don't engage with him at the event.

If it's a good conversation, show up at her party and give him a belated card and a hug. He'll probably laugh about it.

However, hard to know from your question what the familial relationship is. I also think you should talk to your mom about dementia.
posted by amanda at 11:53 AM on June 7, 2010

Seconding crankylex. My Dad has also been pretty much a miserable crank throughout his life, and over the years we just learned to tread lightly around him and not push any of his hot buttons. He never hit us or abused us or called us nasty names; he was always a good provider and was protective of his family, but he had a bit of Sophia Petrillo syndrome - he couldn't (or wouldn't) censor his thoughts and would sometimes say very hurtful things. Yes, a lot of the things he's said over the years are still stuck in the back of my craw and make me cringe when I think of them, but he's in his 80s now, his time on Earth is limited, and he's our Dad....we tend to humor and tolerate his behavior these days. (Except for Mom, who has been married to him for 51 years and occasionally gets fed up with his attitude. For example, if he complains about what she's made for dinner, she'll simply snap back at him "You're lucky I don't put ground glass in your salad. Now eat it or starve.")
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:47 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding your beliefs anonymous, I hope that you are able to let this go. Sometimes older people can be very set in their own beliefs. Recently, an elderly friend in his 80s who did not know that I gave up Christianity (several years ago) made the remark to me, "that abortion doctor that was murdered certainly got what he deserved," and was sort of trying to get me to agree with him by saying "don't you think?" I was kind of horrified that he felt that way, but eventually managed to say "well, I just hope the murderer sought forgiveness because he took a human life too." This was enough to get him to leave me alone and I really didn't want to get into a long, argumentative debate over Christianity and abortion with an elderly friend. I'm glad I didn't get into that debate, because 2-3 months later he passed away and I was able to remain his friend and not have him angry with me.

I think there comes a time when you have to know when to just let it go and try not to get hurt by things other people say. I think your dad saying "she doesn't know what she believes" is kind of his denial to himself that you would go against his faith, that he presumably raised you in. By denial, I mean he doesn't want to flat-out say to himself "oh, she's a buddhist/atheist/whatever" because then he might have to accept that it's true, rather than saying that you don't know and thinking to himself that you're just questioning your faith right now. (I'm assuming your dad is Christian since you said he went to a Christmas concert.)

I'm sorry if this is a little off-track but there's no way to memail or email you.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:26 PM on June 8, 2010

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