Practicing with (Troubled) Children

When Your Difficult Child Is Your Parent

When I first heard that Practicing Families was running a series on “Practicing with Troubled Children,” I wasn’t sure that I would have anything to contribute. My own two kids are in one of the easier developmental stages and . . . for now are doing okay. But then as I reviewed the others’ stories, I realized that I do have troubled children.

But the troubled children are my parents.

My husband and I are what you call a “sandwich generation.” We were both born to older parents and therefore are caring for aging parents at the same time we are raising our own kids. My husband’s father was the oldest of our parents and the first to hit problems. He suffered for many years from numerous health problems, all of which affected his physical and mental health. As his condition became too much for my mother-in-law to handle alone, my husband and I became more and more involved.

Then came the time when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with colon cancer. As she was treated for her condition, my father-in-law was unable care for himself at home alone. So I became my father-in-law’s keeper for a week while she was in the hospital.

Since I had toddlers at the time I found myself handling his constant needs and demands much as I would my young children’s. I didn’t think too much of it until he asked me to trim his toe-nails, a task he was no longer able to do on his own, and a task that I was often doing for my own children. It was then I realized we had crossed a line. I was now parent. He was now child. A 170 pound rebellious, cranky, difficult child.

A small kid holding hands of an old woman

What had started as a terminal diagnosis due to a slowly progressing lung condition spiraled into a grand finale of cancer. I cared for him often in that last year, especially when he was moved to an inpatient hospice. I would sit with him once a week so my mother-in-law could go home to wash clothes and regroup. He was never happy when she left. He would fuss and complain and ask when he could just go home. I had no idea how to answer. I knew that he would not leave.

As I often did when my children were fussy in their early years, I would rub his hand and turn on his favorite TV show to try to bide the time. Two weeks before he died, we celebrated his last birthday in hospice. I sat by my 80-year-old father-in-law’s side and spoon-fed him his birthday cake. He was happy that day. A last gift to us.

Now, three years after my father-in-law’s passing, it is my own father who is making the turn from parent to child. The past couple of years we have watched his memory slowly fail, taking parts of his history and personality with it. I have watched one of the smartest men I’ve ever known become a person who can’t remember what he had for dinner only an hour after he ate it. Even as I watch my own children grow and gain new skills, I watch my Dad fade away and lose his abilities a little bit at a time.

At first I wanted to fight the loss as hard as I could. I forced my way into doctor’s appointments and begged the doctor to give my father something to help his mind work right again. My father in no uncertain terms told me that he was “just fine” and that my advice and presence were not welcome. Never mind that he asked me the same question five times in the waiting room.

As my Dad continues to fade away, we find ourselves in a conundrum. How do you honor and respect your parents when they can no longer make good choices for themselves? My brother, husband, and I find ourselves trying to help Dad save face whenever possible, even as we gather to talk about him behind his back: How are we going to convince him he can’t do his own taxes this year? Do you think he’s still safe to drive? What will we do when he’s too much for Mom to take care of at home?

There are no words for this slow slog of grief and loss.

But even in the struggle, there are joys. I was not particularly close to my Father-in-law before he became ill. But even in the fussiness and the fights we were drawn together. The last time I spoke to my father-in-law before he died I was commenting on how nice it was that so many of his friends had come to see him that week. He took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “Yes, and I’m glad that you’re my friend and that you are here too.” Moments like that outweigh dirty toenails any and every day.

And with my Dad, for the first time in our lives we are learning to just be together. He was often too busy to spend time with me while I was young, and then I grew up and became too busy myself (Cats in the Cradle anyone?). But now that the past is forgotten and the future cannot be conceived of, we sit and enjoy the present moment. He comes to soccer games and though he has no idea what is happening on the field or in the conversations around us, we enjoy the time the only way we can. We make comments on what a nice day it is. We notice how the sky is so blue against the clouds and how good the breeze feels on our faces. He remarks over and over on how big the kids are and how great they are doing. He has come to a place where he seems to enjoy and be comforted by our simple presence. For once in my life with my perfectionist Dad, just my existing in his presence is good enough.

And there is Grace in that. Such grace.


Practicing Families writers are consistently honest about their own struggles and shortcomings as parents. It is more difficult, though, for parents to share about the truly difficult behaviors of their children. No child or teenager should have their mental illness, addiction, illegal activity, or other significant problems broadcast to the world. Yet the lack of posts about these types of situations can leave some parents feeling isolated in their struggles. So Practicing Families is inviting parents to share anonymously about their deepest challenges with troubled children. No author names will be published and it is understood that names and details in the post have been changed to protect privacy. Please send a note to if you would like to contribute to this sporadic series.


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