Dear Family Advisor

My mom has suddenly started pitching fits when I can't do something she wants. How do I stop this bad behavior once and for all?

Last updated: Sep 13, 2011

angry bird

My mother is 84 and has Parkinson's. She's living alone (her choice), can't drive anymore, and I know she's frustrated. But lately she's been losing her temper a lot, especially when I can't take her on all her various errands or pay her my full attention. She snaps at me, yells (she never used to be a yeller), and even threw a coffee cup clear across the room when I refused to take her to three different stores for their toiletry sales.

What's going on? I'm trying to be patient, but this is really pushing my buttons!

Your mom thinks she can get away with this behavior. You're going to have to reteach her, with firm and consistent reminders, that she's part of your life and you love her, but she can't call all the shots.

How to do this? First consider the physical. There may be something neurological going on that's causing her inability to control her impulses. Mention this change of personality to her doctors. Also keep a journal of her behavior and mine it for clues. Note when she takes her medications (do you know if she takes them regularly, and whether she's taking over-the-counter meds as well?), whether she's eating and sleeping properly (again, you may not know for sure), and the times and events surrounding her outbursts. Being a caregiver sometimes means being a super-sleuth! You may pick up on symptoms long before her doctors can.

Next you need to systematically retrain yourself in how you react to your mom when she's in one of her moods. Does she know she's getting to you? That can be a power play. She has your full attention when she upsets you. When she throws something like that coffee cup, walk out of the room and tell her you're not coming back until she can control herself. Then step outside and calm down. Dangerous behavior is upsetting, and you have to put a stop to it. If she can't stop, then you know something neurological is probably going on.

Perhaps most important, think about how things look to her these days. I realized with my own mom that she was jealous of my life -- of the fact that I was in the prime of it, with kids, a husband, strong limbs, and the ability and freedom to get around and pretty much do whatever I wanted to do. These were things I took for granted. Her reaction helped me see things from her perspective. It made me appreciate all that I have, and it reminded me that my life will change as well. It made me a bit more tender and allowed me to look past the bombardment of demands and sometimes-ugly comments.

Living alone and aging can be lonely and boring. Your mom may not have enough stimulation in her daily routine (conversations, small challenges, and adventures that allow her brain to fire healthy neurons). Look at her weekly schedule. Does she have visitors? Is there a way for her to run some of these errands with a friend or neighbor? Is she involved in church or community activities? Can she go to a local senior center and join a bridge club or go on field trips? She may balk at these ideas, but urge her to try them anyway. Coax her by offering to do something she really wants to do in exchange for trying a new class or outing.

Her behavior may also be a cry for help if she's harboring a lot of unresolved anger. Try to get her to open up about what's frustrating her. Of course, the inability to drive and have the freedoms she's enjoyed for so long are part of it, but there may be more. Give her a healthy way to vent. Teach her how to scream. Sounds crazy? We adults forget that pent-up hurts and anger need an outlet. Tell her to go in her closet and just scream and scream until she cries. Show her how. It may make you laugh, especially when your mom's eyes get as big as dinner plates. But she just may give it a try after you leave the house.

In your daily interactions, try some tactics that usually help a person like your mother realize she can't get away with fits: using humor to help her break out of a fussy mood, ignoring her incessant demands, putting on music she loves, asking her to help plan a project or family event, not arguing with her but simply taking her where you want and need to go.

I can't promise any of this will work, because the only person you can change is yourself. Choose to be proactive instead of reactive, and refuse to let her moods get to you. Focus on what's great about your life -- and hers. Find the joy and humor that life brings, even on an otherwise lousy day. Be tender and thoughtful every chance you get, to yourself as well as to her. In other words, rise above the demands and frustrations of caregiving as best you can. You have your mom and she's still in fairly good health. Surprise her with something more than errands: Take her to an antique store, set up a visit with a friend she rarely gets to see, or treat her to her favorite dessert at lunchtime. Show her that when she stops making unreasonable demands, unexpected gifts just might come her way.