Setting boundaries with emotionally difficult elderly parents
February 1, 2020 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I don't mind helping my elderly mother with practical needs, but I really don't want to support her emotionally. How can I navigate the relationship to be helpful in the ways I feel I am able to without putting myself in positions I don't want to be in?

She was emotionally abusive when I was growing up and I was a surrogate spouse and so I had my fill of "filling her emotional cup" before I even graduated from high school. My sister similarly will be there for her in some ways but not emotionally, for similar reasons.

My mother made both of us not want to be around her, and yet she feels like a victim now. She's very demanding and intrusive. She can be impolite. She can be incredibly critical and immature and gets jealous of her kids for having spouses, as well as getting jealous of the spouses for having her kids' attention. As soon as I signed the lease to my new house she was inviting herself over. In discussing this possible move to be closer she was just assuming she'd be coming over all the time. She needs friends.

She also has physical health challenges and wants to move to a senior living facility closer to me. Which is fine, but I don't want her to expect me to be her friend or her therapist. She doesn't hear "no" well. She gives huge guilt trips and manipulates when she isn't given the attention she feels she deserves. But this is all exacerbated by aging, losing friends and others, losing mobility, etc. There's real pain there, but I don't have the capacity to care about it much because of how she's treated me over the years. She talks about coming closer to me "to help," but she can barely walk. She has MS and falls pretty often. I don't feel like she is really able to help with much. I also live somewhere with stairs to enter and no hand rail which she agrees is not likely to work well.

We just had an argument because she is sad that neither myself nor my sister are eager to have her close to us. Her guilt trips are effective because here I am spending energy on my Saturday asking MeFi how to handle this. I cannot support her emotionally, and I don't like her, so it's not like spending time with her is pleasant or meaningful. So if I do, it's for her not me. I tolerate her, and would do more for her if she wasn't so damn needy my whole life.

I don't know how to navigate this relationship in a win/win way. She doesn't hear no without having a tantrum. I don't not want her around at all, but I don't want her inviting herself over all the time either. I've encouraged her to get friends and get a therapist and in the worse moments have basically told her I cannot be either of those things for her. But she persists in expecting it then feeling bad when she doesn't get it.

How do you care for an emotionally difficult older parent? Am I wrong for thinking she can't help me with my preschooler if she falls frequently? I mean she can help if another adult is there but it isn't safe for her to watch him alone. And I don't like being around her so I don't want her visiting all time and leaning on me emotionally. I don't want to abandon her altogether either. I'm not sure what to do here besides be honest. Gray rock was my standard approach but she's not getting it. So do I tell her that I'm happy to help her however I can if she comes closer, but I as one person cannot possibly meet her emotional needs so she needs a social network and then maybe we can spend time together socially? Or what? Ugh. She texted today that she wishes she could die because she hates her life. But she is trying to lean on her adult children who she has drained to solve her problems instead of trying to make some connections elsewhere. We are both over it. I sent her the number to the Friendship Line. She probably won't call it. But she's programmed me to still try to fix her feelings even though I can't. Help?
posted by crunchy potato to Human Relations (11 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Captain Awkward is the expert on setting boundaries with difficult people!! Here is her omnibus page for adults needing to set boundaries with difficult parents while this recent one has some similarities to your situation. She gets the full complexities of this stuff - go there, rummage through the archives and feel supported and empowered in doing what you need to do.
posted by metahawk at 1:45 PM on February 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

Would moving to an assisted living facility provide new friends?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:25 PM on February 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't know how to navigate this relationship in a win/win way.

You can't. Also, I respect that you don't want to abandon her, but if her guilt trips are pushing your buttons to the point that you're doubting the boundaries that keep your child safe, you might need to consider cutting contact altogether, rather than risk that she will overrun your good judgment in this area and that the result will be harmful to your child.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:30 PM on February 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

I probably don't have great advice, since I'm estranged from my family of origin, but first I just want to extend a lot of sympathy and empathy to you (and your sister).

Your mother already knows that she can't really help take care of your small child, and that you can't really meet all her emotional needs, but she doesn't care. She's going to keep reaching, and taking, until you put in place some real boundaries, which includes not letting her drag you into arguments about how bad you make her feel. Grey rocking is a great method of dealing with emotionally-illiterate/unstable/abusive folks but I've found that it rarely works all by itself.

I strongly support you not answering the door if she pops in uninvited.
posted by sm1tten at 2:34 PM on February 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Like sm1tten, I've purposively been estranged from my family for years. Also, my parents have been dead for decades, so maybe I'm a jaundiced source of advice.

Your post has all the reasons you should say no to your mother. Especially since her emotional manipulation and abuse is not a new aspect of your mother's mental state. Anyone not related to you and her would write so. Blood relations are supposed to be sacred, but not when those relationships are toxic. You should protect yourself and your family.

You may want to see a therapist to help clarify this, both in your rational and feeling self.
posted by tmdonahue at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is she financially independent or do you need to support her there? If you do, offload your emotional energy into arranging for home grocery and meal delivery, a home care aide and whatever services can be arranged more. Third party the hell out of this.

Otherwise tell her you can only communicate by email during the week because you are so busy and you can will call once a week at X time when you are on break so you have a set time limit. Keep a timer and be very very strict.

She will absolutely test those boundaries. There will be emergencies, she’ll tell everyone mutual how awful you are, she’ll turn into the sweetest grandmother for a while, then the meanest. She’ll send you presents, postal letters, turn up at word hours - get a video doorbell and when she turns up, refuse to open the door or have a go bag and just grab it and say you are on the way out and can’t stop, and escape to a favourite coffeeshop to calm down with your kid.

Also notify your kid’s school, daycare etc that she is not allowed to pick him up or visit etc. My ex overrode all my protests and allows full access, and it’s the one thing I wish I’d written into the custody paperwork.

Set a filter for her emails so you only have to see and deal with them when you are ready, not dread opening your email inbox.

After a while, she’ll realise you’re sticking to this and she will turn her vampire energy on to someone else easier to feed on.

And therapist for you.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You might find this twitter thread on when and HOW to refuse to be an elder care giver useful.

Refusing to be an elder caregiver - thread

"The single strongest argument I have for not care-taking is simple: it prevents abuse. When a person is forced into caring for someone they fear, resent, hate, have been harmed by, the relationship is inherently unstable and it will worsen.
Nothing gets better with more stress!

A hostile relationship damages both caregiver and cared for. Caregiving is heavy emotional labor; being cared for is heavy emotional labor. When both people are resentful and in a power struggle? It will go badly.

(This is also why paid caregivers need to be paid much better.)"
posted by Murderbot at 6:15 PM on February 1, 2020 [16 favorites]

My dad found this book helpful, I think, when caring for his very difficult and self absorbed mother at the end of her life:
posted by purenitrous at 7:37 PM on February 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The problem you are facing is your own emotional regulation when your mother is skilled at pressing your buttons. It's not that you are being pushed into putting a railing on your front stairs when that is the first step to her moving in with you. You're not going to do that. It's that she has complained or implied that she wants you to do things and triggered a huge bunch of anxiety and guilt and anger and helpless feelings and you are in fear that she will manipulate you into doing things you don't want to do that will make your life worse, like agreeing to visit her or getting embroiled in a conversation where you try to defend yourself.

I have found going mean, inside, to be helpful. When your mother says, "You don't love me!" the internal response that is safest is "It's true, I don't. She's not safe to love." And when your mother says, "You don't come to visit me!" the internal response to cultivate is, "And thank God, she can't make me visit either." Training your brain to go in these directions instead of towards the bad feelings her accusations and demands produce are absolutely necessary.

If you are seeing her in person, either stop, or put her on a limited predictable schedule. If you are talking to her on the phone, physically step away from the phone during conversations. Put her on speaker phone and fold laundry and walk out of the room while she is talking and miss part of what she is saying. Practice reducing your hyper vigilance with physical exercises to tune her out. Even starting by looking away from the phone and describing what you are looking at helps reduce your cortisol level.

Difficult people tend to flood our emotions. You don't want to look away when there is a bear rending your front door open, and so it's hard to disengage from the mother at your door. If there was a bear you would be either whacking at its paws with an axe or running out the back door with the baby under one arm and the toddler under the other. Neither of these responses are right for the mother-at-your door, but you've gotten stuck at the first one, heart rate pounding, stomach sick, obsessing about how far she will get in and worse, feeling that you ought to let her.

Your mother is not bringing anything positive, right? And she is not bleeding out on your front door step, right? So you don't have to either feel like you should talk to her or let her visit, or that you should rescue her with help. In fact, given that your mother is like a wounded bear, going outside to give her help is the last thing you should do, or you will get appallingly lacerated. The right thing to do is to called Department of Natural Resources so they will come over with a tranquilizer gun. Or in your mother's case, any care-taking you do,including emotional care-taking needs to be delegated to other people, people who are not in her power and can avoid getting into situations where they will get lacerated, or succumb to the panic reaction of whacking her with a shovel.

So when your mother wants to talk your thoughts would me much more effectively running to how to get out of the conversation. If you want to help her with her loneliness (you can't, no one can, she's a bottomless pit) you could be looking up counselors that she could talk to or help lines or on line forums. But talking to her is hurting you and you know it. And it's not even helping her because next day she is back again, starving for emotional connection as if the time you had spent trying to help her had never happened.

Anything you can do to emotionally disengage will help. Physically doing things, and deliberately directing your thoughts away from her, coming up with a structure and a plan for doing those things is better than allowing yourself to feel helpless. Just sit down with a piece of paper and make a little note of every statement she makes that is a manipulation to make her help you. At the end of the conversation you might have seventeen ticks on the paper, and a slightly better grasp of an overwhelming experience.

In my experience people who are like this are so helpless with their own emotional regulation that they have project superhuman abilities on their targeted helper. My mother couldn't prepare food she was willing to eat, so she would ask for help, but then when we couldn't make food that she was willing to eat she would be furious at us for preparing the wrong things. Of course the basic issue was that she had problems eating and no one could have figured out anything that she wanted. But she spend hours and years trying to figure out how to force someone else into solving this problem. It was what she did when she was hungry - hate people for not feeding her and taking care of her.

I am guessing that your mother too, is constantly trying to get you to do things that are impossible - like making her feel better. And since sometimes you have appeared successful at those things, both you and her are assuming you could help if you only tried, and the problem is that you are not willing to. But if you try to do the impossible for her you are going to fail, and be blamed. So focus on the fact that you literally can't do what she is asking. There's no guilt or shame in that. It's a fact. It can't be done.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:05 AM on February 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in the same boat, and nowhere near resolving this issue, but here are the lessons I've learned from almost two years of therapy just for this.

1. My parents are no longer capable of abusing me, and no longer have any power over my life. They can't do me any harm. This is a very grounding thought. I repeat it to myself every time I feel overwhelmed by an interaction with them or thoughts about them.

2. When I was young, reading their every emotion and doing everything possible to keep them happy was a survival skill. It allowed me to grow up with the least damage to myself. But now, that skill is no longer useful or necessary, and the habit of being emotionally entangled with them is hurting me.

3. The problem now - the only problem now - is this long habituated emotional enmeshment with my parents. If I can learn to put up emotional boundaries - i.e. if I can learn to say to myself, "I feel this. They feel that. Their feelings are not my problem and not my business. They are adults. They can and will deal with their own feelings." - then the whole problem is solved.

4. The first step to accomplishing (3) is to learn to say the first sentence, which is tough! I often don't know how I, myself, feel. But this self knowledge and self-discovery will form the basis of my own sense of a secure self. If I don't have the secure sense of self, I will act either to please them or deliberately to displease them - which is enmeshment with them, still.

5. The second step to accomplishing (3) is to let go of trying to control your parent's responses. If she has a tantrum, that's her decision, you know? It's really none of your business.

I will strongly recommend Dr. Harriet Lerner's books, especially The Dance Of Intimacy. She explains much more clearly than I can how the sense of self is the essential piece of this puzzle which makes it possible for us to be kind and compassionate even while setting and keeping boundaries.

Also: can you get a therapist for yourself? Because you need one to help you through this!
posted by MiraK at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2020 [9 favorites]

I could not imagine facing this without therapy for myself, and I think that is an important first step in your plan for your own sanity during this time. Please find a therapist.
posted by Miko at 10:22 AM on February 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

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