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Taking the stubborn out of your parents

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For all you baby boomers out there, in respect to your ageing parents, do these little epithets ring a familiar bell:

  • They’ll let you know when they need help
  • They ignore doctors’ advice
  • They want to do things their own way

One adult child lamented to me that their parent told them they had ‘the right to fall’, after their parent’s third visit to hospital following another fall and after the parent had read a social media post on the importance of empowerment for the elderly.

You may not be surprised to know that a recent Penn State University report on stubbornness amongst ageing parents found almost 80% of adult children said their parents were guilty of stubborn behaviour. But here’s the real rub – almost 70% of those parents also described themselves as stubborn. That is a dynamite combination for frustration, if not, screaming matches.

The family Mexican standoff may be familiar to you. It’s a titanic clash of expectations between what we need, what we want and what’s good for us. Everyone comes at it from different and understandable perspectives:

  • For parents, what is important to them is being able to do what they have always done or want to do. Social scientists call it ‘autonomy’, or we would call it, control. A parent’s insistence, persistence or resistance is their attempt to avoid being thwarted from their desires and habits. As they see it, they may have been integral to your growing up, but they don’t need you in their growing down;
  • For children, the old shibboleth that ‘with age comes wisdom’ is poppycock. Age brings with it a loss of reason, insight or even a failure by parents to remember their own experiences e.g., when they had to care for their parents.

Needless to say, there is no quick fix to this ‘war of wants’. For one thing, a frontal attack on your parents with a war of words will not usually bring a light bulb moment for them. It could just encourage more parental trench digging and construction of firewalls. But one thing is certain – the art of negotiation becomes the secret to success. Successful negotiation is often described as a ‘win/win’ outcome. The real art in negotiation, however, is persuasion.

While there is no secret formula to persuasion, here are some techniques that have been used as an antidote to stubbornness:

  • There is power in numbers. If you are one of 5 children, it can be very helpful if you, and all your siblings, are on the same page in terms of your desires for your parents. While that, in itself, may represent another element in negotiations i.e., with your siblings, the force of the family front can never be underestimated in a parent’s eyes
  • If you happen to have a health professional in the family e.g., your daughter or son is an occupational therapist or physiotherapist, get them on board. Many parents regard their children and their motives with scepticism. But, when it comes to their grandchildren, they can have a special place in the grandparents’ eyes.
  • Target your parents’ subliminal guilt complex. They often don’t appreciate the hurt and distress caused to you and other members of the family when you are rebuffed. The more you are rejected by your parents the less likely you are to persist in getting them to seek enlightenment. Indeed, adult children often report a lingering depression as a result of their parents’ intransigence.
  • Find a compromise. There is usually a middle ground that gives the appearance of success to a parent but, in reality, hides a modicum of success for the concerned children. It is elusive, but often attainable.

Finally and perhaps not surprisingly, the Penn State research also found that the stubbornness index rises as a parent’s frailty increases and, even more so, if a child lives with a parent. As frailty has an inexorably intense trajectory in the ageing journey, and as more and more children are starting to care for their parents, there is a forewarning, if not foreboding, for adult children.

It may be time to prepare for this later life battle or even to consider upskilling your negotiating skills to be better prepared.

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