Acing awkward conversations with Mom: a guide to “The Talk”

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My friends tell me one of the hardest things they’ve had to do is bring up “The Talk” with their parents. It’s that difficult conversation no one wants to have.

It may be telling them it’s not safe for them to live alone anymore, they shouldn’t be driving, they need (more) help, or that they need to see a doctor or that your safety concerns about their house. 

Sometimes, The Talk starts with a question: Where is their will, other important papers, and a list of their doctors and medications? How much money do they have for planning purposes? What are their end-of-life wishes?

Parents may stonewall their children or say, “it’s none of your business.” Rather than wait until there’s a cognitive issue or they’re too sick to make a good decision, you’ll want to, as the expression goes, take the bull by the horns.

I never had to initiate The Talk. My mother, a no-nonsense woman, gave up driving when she thought it was time and, after my father died, moved into a senior living community so she would have care if she needed it.  

She presented me with her obituary (well-written, as expected from a former English teacher) and informed me that after her funeral, the reception would be at my brother’s. She even made me promise he’d hire a cleaning woman –  she was worried about the dog hair in his house!

My mother had been overly controlling my whole life. But in hindsight, I appreciate the fact that she was so practical. She didn’t make me guess what she wanted or have me scramble to write an obituary.

For those with less forward-thinking parents, getting a good outcome—a conversation where your parents feel really heard and there’s an action plan or resolution-- often depends on your approach. 

Getting ready for the conversation

In order to navigate these delicate conversations, it’s important to prepare for them. That includes understanding your loved one’s mindset, as well as  the emotions they can trigger. 

Imagine changing places with your parent. How would you feel in this scenario? It’s weird and tough to have a real-life role reversal, so be understanding and show empathy. They might feel loss, guilt, anger, resentment or fear.

Here are some pre-talk tips:

1.  Be thoughtful about what you want to accomplish from the conversation. How does that align with your parent’s wishes?

2.  Figure out the best time and place for The Talk. Your mother might be more receptive to your comments in the morning after breakfast when she’s not hungry or tired, or on a weekend if that’s a more relaxed time. 

3.  Decide your medium. While face-to-face is usually more effective, it may always not be possible. Some people have better conversations with a video call via Facetime or Skype, or just a good old-fashioned phone call. Others prefer email for introducing a subject because it can be read, and reread, on your parent’s schedule so  they can think before reacting.

Wherever you have The Talk, try to have it in a quiet place without distractions. No TV blaring, no grandchildren underfoot. No rushing through it and feeling hurried. Going out to their favorite restaurant on a quiet night might be a good setting (plus, people don’t usually raise their voices in public, even when they disagree.)

Having that awkward conversation

You’ve set the scene for success. Now it’s time to dive in! How you convey your message can impact their reaction to The Talk.

Keep this in mind during the discussion:

Acknowledge their feelings. Saying, “I know how hard this is for you” goes a long way. Tell them your suggestions are meant to improve both their life and yours.

Ask for their help. Set the tone by telling them you love them and are concerned. Let them know you are on the same side and can problem-solve together. Make them feel important and valued – after all, you’re talking about their life! 

Rather than tell them what you think they should or must do, get their thoughts. Some questions might be:

  • How do you feel about the situation? 
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What are you worried about if something changes (i.e., if they move to a new place, that they won’t know anyone; if they hire help, that they’ll run out of money; or if they use technology that detects falls or reminds them of an appointment, that it will be too intrusive and complicated)?

Explain the impact on you. You’ve probably heard of using “I” statements rather than you. For example, instead of, “You have to give up driving before you kill someone!” try, “I worry so much that you might get into an accident when you drive, and that would be really upsetting. I have become so anxious about this.” 

Do some research before you broach the topic (of driving, let’s say). Let them know they will still be able to go out and get around without their car. Could you or someone else take them where they want to go? Does their town have special transportation services for seniors? Know what’s available in their area by calling town hall or the senior center, their local Area on Aging, or checking out their town Facebook group. 

Don’t interrupt! Hear them out. Cutting them off can derail your desired outcome and lead to resentment. Plus, it’s not respectful.

Take a time-out. If the conversation gets heated or starts going south, take a breather and say, “Let’s take a break when we’re all calmer and we can discuss this another time.”

Don’t expect a “one-and-done” result. Unless there is instant agreement, plan to have more conversations about the subject. Think of this first talk as your introductory session. 

 Chances are, you’ll need to bring up challenging topics with people who aren’t your parents, too. Maybe it’s a friend, your teenage son, or someone in your office. Fortunately, this approach can work for them, too. Regardless of who your audience or the issue, while the talk may be tough, the delivery can be tender.

About the author

Sally Abrahms is an award-winning writer focusing on 50+ family caregiving, baby boomers, housing, technology, and lifestyle. She has published in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times and AARP and is the author of two books and contributor to four. 

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The contents of the above article are for informational and educational purposes only. The article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified clinician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or its treatment and do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of information published by us.

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