Elderly temper tantrums: What’s behind the outburst?

“I hope I don’t have temper tantrums when I get old!”

As an adult, it’s unsettling when you witness your parent having a temper tantrum for the first time. We tend to think of tantrums as only pertaining to small children or teenagers, but the truth is that emotional outbursts can occur at any time in life. Acting out merely boils down to a loss of composure triggered by strong feelings like anger, sadness, fear or any combination of the three.

Many family caregivers are mortified and have no idea how to handle their parent lashing out in a way they’ve never experienced before. Understanding the reasons behind an outburst is crucial for determining the best way to handle one without losing your temper, too.

Seniors throw temper tantrums for a whole host of reasons. Often, it’s a result of the personality changes brought on by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Certain prescription medications can have negative side effects or interact with one another, causing mood swings and irritability.

If you are weathering the emotional ups and downs of an aging loved one who has dementia, there really isn’t much you can do about it. Outbursts are common with many kinds of dementia and at various stages throughout the progression of the condition. As tempting as it is to try to reason with someone who is cognitively impaired, the truth is that this will only make matters worse.

Some family caregivers have dealt with a parent’s stubbornness and manipulation for their entire lives, while others are seeing an increasingly unflattering new side of their aging Mom or Dad.

Dealing with elderly temper tantrums:

Schedule an appointment with your loved one’s doctor to confirm that their poor behavior is not being caused by any new or worsening physical or mental health problems.

The next time your elder throws a temper tantrum, do not engage. Give it absolutely no energy. Make it clear that you are not going to listen to their outburst. Say this as calmly as possible and then walk away. Leave the room and give them plenty of time to cool down before you interact again.

If your loved one tells you that you don’t love them, gently take their hand once they’ve calmed down and say, “I do love you. In fact, I love you so much that I have to take breaks to be able to give you the best possible care.” Leave it at that and don’t get into a discussion.

“No is a complete sentence.” Remind yourself that you need and deserve a break, and then make it happen. It doesn’t have to be an all-day event but doing something small for yourself each day will set the standard. Schedule time for respite just like you schedule all other appointments.

Eventually, your loved one will come to be more accepting of your self-care and personal boundaries. If you are consistent and unyielding with your “me time” and limitations, they will realize that you are serious and likely cut back on their attempts at emotional manipulation.

Finally, understand that the first few times you actually follow through with these steps, you’re going to feel guilty. You’re going to feel like you’ve done something wrong or mean, but you haven’t. Always putting someone else’s needs before your own is not a healthy or happy way to live. Learning to prioritize self-care and banish undeserved guilt are the keys to successful, sustainable caregiving.

Try to be patient with yourself and forgiving if you make mistakes. Even if your aging loved one is never happy and won’t let you live something down, cut yourself some slack. When it comes to those who are prone to temper tantrums and complaining, it often has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own insecurities and shortcomings.

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