My Elderly Mother is Never Happy
From the Mailbag: No matter what I do I can't seem to make my mother happy. I manage to get just about everything I do for her wrong. There was something wrong with all her Christmas gifts. If I take her out she is too cold, too hot, the food isn't cooked right, the car is uncomfortable and everything is too crowded. I'm too fat. My kids are lazy - they are 3 and 7! She calls every day to complain about how sick she is (she's perfectly healthy) and how no one ever comes to see her. She has no friends. I'm getting stomach pains when I hear the phone ring.
Answer: Your mother seems to have never have learned that the responsibility for her happiness lies with her, not with you. Someone who is determined to see the glass as half empty will always find a way.
When she was younger, did she have the same negative tendencies, possibly directed at a wider circle of people because she was less isolated? This may be a lifelong pattern, now directed primarily at you because you're "safe" and she has fewer available targets. Your mother may have developed the habit of using negative remarks to get attention. It often works quite well until people get tired of the negativity and withdraw completely. It sounds like you're just about ready to do that, yourself.
While it's harder to teach older dogs new tricks, unless your mother has a serious personality disorder you may be able to make a few behavior modifications...if not hers, then yours in how you react to her.
From what you have written you have a young family that needs your attention. Your mother is apparently still fairly independent. You are not responsible for being her entertainment or her whipping boy, and you do not dishonor her by demanding that you be treated with respect.
When you are visiting and her talk turns negative, excuse yourself politely. Tell her you will give her a call in a few days and come back when she is feeling more positive.
Use your caller ID and voicemail, if you have it. If you don't, caller ID is something I would invest in. It's not expensive. You aren't required to interrupt your life to take her calls when she feels like calling. If she doesn't leave a message, you're off the hook. If she leaves a negative or argumentative message, you don't have to return the call. If she leaves an "urgent" message that turns out to be not so urgent, simply say you're glad everything is OK after all, and that you have to go. Never engage in arguments or entertain complaints that you can do nothing about. This kind of negative attention is, for her, better than no attention at all.
When she's being pleasant, you can extend the visit or the conversation as long as YOU wish. When you are ready to say good-bye, find something positive to say about your visit before you leave or hang up. I find it handy to rehearse a few vague and generally upbeat things I can say if I'm at a loss for words.
Calm and reasonable = positive attention from you
Whiney, angry, unreasonable = no attention from you
Expect her behavior to immediately become even more negative. What often happens when we change the way we react to a behavior is that the person acting out will do everything in their power to get us back into the role we're "supposed" to play. Don't be surprised if the number of calls you get every day increases, or you are met at the door with an angry diatribe if you visit. Until your mother begins to realize that she gets more attention when her behavior is pleasant, she will probably continue or even escalate what has always worked in the past.
Hang in and don't fall back into your old pattern of trying desperately to please. If you give in, even once, just like with a child's temper tantrum you will be teaching her that if she escalates she will get what she wants - your attention.
Of course, if your mother has dementia or other cognitive disabilities, this kind of behavior modification is less likely to be completely successful. We do find that it still works quite well in the very early stages.