When an Aging Parent Becomes Toxic: How to Spot & Deal with Toxic Behaviors

Published by
Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

Toxic parents don’t just grow out of their heinous behavior. Even an aging parent can remain, or even become toxic and hard to handle.

We’ve all heard about toxic parents and the influence they have over their children. But did you know that some parents remain toxic well into old age? As a matter of fact, some parents do not become toxic until their senior years, which seems odd, now doesn’t it?

Signs that your aging parent may be toxic

Not all grandmothers and grandfathers are sweet little elderly citizens. Sorry, I hate to break the news to you. Some of the aging parents are toxic and can influence you and their own grandchildren, not to mention anyone else who comes around.

It’s unfortunate, really, because they have reached the winter of their lives, and still they haven’t changed.

Here are some of the indicators:

1. Guilt trips

Making people feel guilty about things is actually toxic behavior. I wanted to let you know this in case you’re doing it too… stop! Well, aging parents who exhibit toxic behavior will also do this, but it will be a bit more extreme than the little guilt trips we use from time to time.

Toxic older parents try to make their children feel guilty for not taking care of them, or not coming to see them. They may even fake illnesses in order to get their children to come around. Yes, you should always visit your aging parents, but you should never be forced to do so by toxic coercion. If you’re being given a guilt trip, then you probably have toxic parents.

2. The blame game

The aging parent with toxic behaviors will use the blame game. When visiting your parents and something happens, it will never be their fault. If they knock over a vase and break it, it’s because you were distracting them and made them bump the vase in the first place.

I think you get the picture. The thing is, this blame game can go much farther than this and become serious, causing resentment between child and parent. Watch close for this indicator.

3. Criticizing constantly

When you visit, or even when you call, a toxic aging parent will always find something to criticize you about. If you bring your children, they may complain about the way you dressed them, or they could complain that your parenting skills aren’t up to par.

Either way, the toxicity of their behavior will show when nothing you do seems to please them, even if it’s almost perfect. I think this is one of the most hurtful aspects of this type of personality.

4. They still scare you

If you’re still afraid of your aging parents, and you’re 30 years old, there’s definitely a problem. Toxic parents have a way of instilling fear into their children, and sometimes this fear can last long into adulthood. When you go to visit your parents and something about them still terrifies you, then you’re still dealing with a toxic personality. It seems nothing has changed.

When it comes with parents who’ve only recently started exhibiting toxic behavior in old age, suddenly being afraid of them is alarming. You have to ask yourself why you’re scared. Sometimes it can be that your aging parent has fallen victim to dementia or mental illness which isn’t their fault in this case.

5. They ignore you

If you’re aging parent is suddenly ignoring you, either for some disagreement or even for some unknown reason, this is considered toxic behavior. Any sort of silent treatment is unhealthy, an should be addressed, communicated and resolved as soon as possible.

Aging parents who give their children the silent treatment have a problem with themselves, and maybe even have a hard time dealing with loneliness.

6. Holding you responsible for their happiness

Here is one that hit me in the gut really hard just now as I was researching. I have been giving my son guilt trips, but more than that, I have been trying to hold him responsible for my happiness by trying to get him to come see me more often. You see, it’s not my adult son’s responsibility to make me happy just because he used to be here, it’s my job.

If you’re aging parents are doing this, it’s toxic behavior. But cut them a little slack, and hopefully, they will realize their mistake like I did. If not, maybe you can communicate to them that it’s their job to make themselves happy, as with all of us.

How do we deal with these issues?

Aging parents have reached the last season of their lives, or at least, for us middle-agers, the fall of our lives. When this happens, I think parents have regrets. For those who were always toxic, a personality disorder is usually to blame. But for those who’ve developed these behaviors, it could be out of loneliness or unhappiness in their lives.

How do we handle various toxic issues?

  • The first step to dealing with the toxic behavior of your aging parents is to first understand which one it is. Were they always toxic or did it develop over time?
  • For those who’ve developed these attributes, I suggest, if you’ve fallen behind on visits, and I mean way behind, maybe you should visit more often. You could try calling too just to check-in. Sometimes this behavior evaporates when an aging parent knows you’re still thinking about them.
  • If they blame you for everything, I suggest that you let most of that go because most of it is trivial anyway.
  • The same goes for criticism. After all, what does criticism do except give you an opinion that you can take or throw out? Just always be respectful.
  • If your aging parent scares you, then find out why. Search the past and talk to their doctors. Either there’s a root to the fear or they are suffering from something that causes you to fear them.
  • If they’re ignoring you, give them some time. If they ignore you too long, then go see them. Most likely, they will secretly be happy to see you. That could have been the strategy anyway.
  • However, you must remember, you are not responsible for their happiness, and this must be made clear. Help them find hobbies or ways to make themselves happy. Kindness and helping others are great ways of cultivating happiness.

It’s not that I’m laying responsibility on you for all the toxic behaviors, it’s just that being kind can sometimes heal things like this. If it doesn’t work, unfortunately, ties may have to be broken for a while. Not all aging parents are easy to help or deal with. I just like to have a little hope before giving up.

If you have an aging toxic parent, try these strategies above first. It’s worth saving your relationship. I promise.

View Comments

  • Truly toxic parents should not be given the benefit of the doubt or that you have to just put up with their behavours.

    • I think it runs a bit deeper than that. Just remember, no matter how badly someone treats you, there's something hurting them. No, it's not your fault they treat you bad, but something is really wrong with their lives and if someone can help them, they should. You just have to be careful.

      • so true i want to see my dad yesterday at hospital. not close at all i just stop time to time to visit him at his home he failover weekend fracture his hip. so, i let him talk he mention he ask his brother to drive passed my home from time to time to see is my car in yard or if i am home never stops to see hello just drives by that concerns me his sister many yrs. ago was found dead in her home, he thinks that's what going to happen to me.

  • I have a toxic mother. Our relationship has completely deteriorated because of it. She has everything you've described times ten unfortunately, and has no guilt whatsoever of taking her family down with her. It's a very hard situation, especially when your parents are still together and you have a good relationship with the other one.

    • If you are dealing with the symptoms of her toxicity, so is your father. I can tell you this if you are a spiritual person, pray. If not, seek help for yourself so you can learn how to deal with her. I say for you because, in most cases, they will not agree to help, and will be offended if you speak on how they truly are. Toxic people usually deny the bad things they do and take credit for the good things they don't do. They actually steal words from other people. it's strange. If it's this serious, it's going to take some heavy therapy or talking to in order to get her to admit to it. I wish you all the luck in the world.

  • Wonderful and insightful article. I have toxic parents (extended family as well). There is never any excuse for abuse, my situation is a non- diagnosed BPD and narcissistic parents. As they get older they become more toxic I recommend that if anyone is experiencing this after a lifetime of abuse to allow professional caretakers to assist them in their advanced age. It is not easy, but for your sanity going no contact or having limited supervised contact is healthier for you. You not, we are not responsible for their mental illness.

  • I generally ignore my adult son. But, it causes me extreme anguish when I reach out to him, text, email, and I don't get a response. I also need to protect myself. If he reached out, I would definitely react positively.

    • Watching your children grow up and leave is so hard. I just learned this the past couple of years. My heart breaks over and over because my oldest son isn't living here anymore. I sometimes act toxic to try and get him here, you know guilt trips and all. I actually apologized to him the other day for being that way, and that I Loved him.

Published by
Sherrie Hurd, A.A.