How to Deal with Conflict Caused by a Defiant Elderly Parent (or Client)


Conflict is a part of every relationship, but when disagreements occur in the family they can become particularly upsetting and stressful.  Emotions are more on the surface and more readily escalate.  People who care about each other often find the most difficulties communicating and balancing their needs with the demands of a family member.  While conflict among siblings and between husband and wife are common place, perhaps the most difficult situation is when you find yourself confronting an elderly parent—especially if he is often defiant. 

It’s likely that you are experiencing conflict on two levels, interpersonal—with your parent—and intrapersonal, conflicting messages in your head, your “self-talk” about what you should do or say to resolve the situation.  As long as your internal voice is active and you are experiencing a dilemma, you will likely feel stressed and upset. 

It might help to keep in mind that your parent—or another person—doesn’t make you stressed or upset or hurt.  It’s not like someone dumps a pail of water on you and makes you wet.  You are the only one in control of your emotions and, therefore, your goal is to find strategies that prevent you from “making yourself” react in negative and potentially harmful ways to the situation.  What you do need to do is to explore approaches to resolving the conflict that you believe are reasonable and effective. 

First, determine whether a particular conflict is important enough to pursue.  Some conflicts are inevitable and so insignificant that the best approach is to just “get on with it.”  In other cases, the conflict recurs because of a personality characteristic, the result of a medical condition, or a long-standing habit.  In the majority of cases, avoiding conflict and suppressing your feelings can strain your relationship.  Your goal, then, is to find a course of action while recognizing the limitations and opportunities in each situation. 

Regardless of how you decide to address the conflict, it is important to first empathize.  Identify what your parent is feeling and try to understand her perspective. In some cases, an older parent is argumentative or obstinate because they fear they are losing control of their lives.  It may not be that they even care about the outcome of a particular issue as much as they want to feel they have choices and can influence their own destiny.  Consider whether a particular incident is isolated, or whether the symptoms that make a given conflict apparent are the culmination of a prolonged series of events.  Explore the factors that may be contributing to your parent’s unreasonable demands so you can put the current conflict in perspective. 

Reassure your parent that you love them, that you understand how difficult it is for them, that you want to listen to their ideas.  Then do it—listen, even if you have heard the same message many times before.  Sometimes, by focusing on the positive and not allowing yourself to be consumed by negative and stressful thoughts, you can behave in ways that facilitate a more positive and healthy relationship. 

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