How to Recognize Self-Destructive Caregiving Behaviors

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The Caring Generation® – Episode 139 May 25, 2022. How to Recognize Self-Destructive Caregiving Behaviors. Caregiving expert, Pamela D Wilson shares habits that negatively affect family caregivers and how to change behavior patterns to replace self-defeating behaviors. Learn how to improve family caregiving relationships through the process of establishing trust and validating emotions.

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Family caregiver stress can lead to self-destructive caregiving behaviors. Caregivers experience emotional and physical distress from the ongoing pressures of caring for aging parents or a spouse. Aging parents or spouses who become dependent on the care of adult children or a healthy spouse can become self-centered and unable to see the effects of needing care on others.

How to Recognize Self-Destructive Caregiving Behaviors

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Persons not yet in a caregiving role who eventually become caregivers are shocked by how the caregiving role strips caregivers of life as they knew it. This lack of empathy and understanding for the day-to-day experiences of family caregivers can lead to relationship stress that leads to self-destructive caregiving behaviors.

Caregiving Responsibilities Pose Adverse Effects on Life

Many caregivers acknowledge the choices they made and the detrimental effect on their lives. Those who participate in caregiver support groups are honest about losing career opportunities, making less money, damaged marriages, poor health, and the effects on children who take a back seat when caring for elderly parents.

It’s no surprise that trading parts of life for caregiving duties transfer to self-destructive caregiving behaviors that extend across many aspects of life including career, family, and the ability to earn a living. Even with all of the negatives, being a caregiver is viewed by many as fulfilling and the right thing to do.

Self-destructive behavior patterns result from unproductive ways to deal with stress and avoid painful thoughts, emotions, or relationships. Being a caregiver for elderly parents pulls adult children back into family relationships. If marital relationships were not on solid ground before caregiving, stress related to caring for a sick spouse can lead to relationship breaks.

Unexpected Situations May Result in Unreasonable Expectations

One day or night—out of the blue—comes the phone call from aging parents who need help. Children who feel a responsibility or duty are catapulted back into family relationships involving a high degree of care for aging parents.

Elderly parents expect their children to be immediately available to meet their needs—even though the family never discussed previously caregiving expectations. Expectations by aging parents for care and support can be complicated by parents’ self-destructive habits or care refusals.

How Do Self-Destructive Caregiving Behaviors Show Up?

What are self-destructive caregiving behaviors? How can you recognize them when they happen? Even better, how can caregivers replace self-harming behaviors with positive habits that contribute to well-being?

Anyone interested in behavior change can learn the steps to a more positive life. If you are a family caregiver, you may notice that elderly parents fall into the trap of self-destructive behaviors.

For parents who need care, self-destructive caregiving behaviors include care refusals like not taking medications, seeing the doctor, eating healthily, or becoming more physically active. Caregivers ignore the same self-care recommendations for better health.

Self-harming behaviors originate from difficulty dealing with ongoing stress, avoiding painful thoughts or emotions, or navigating challenging relationships. These issues can stem from the present time or date back to childhood years.

Challenging relationships with aging parents may have a foundation in relationships with their parents. If parents are physically or verbally abusive or abuse alcohol or drugs, children’s likelihood of self-destructive behaviors increases. Consider these factors as you model behaviors for your children.

Examining Family Relationships Can Bring About Positive Habit Change

Family relationships of the past can impact caregiving interactions today. Introspection can identify self-defeating actions that have an emotional component.

Let’s begin with behaviors of overcontrolling caregivers who take over the lives of aging parents or a spouse. Caregivers spend their lives doing for others, not realizing that being too helpful controls or prevents loved ones from doing things for themselves.

Doing can exert control over others which harms the caregiver and the care receiver. Let me share a caregiver example of being too helpful that relates to caregiver control.

A Caregiver’s Story

A husband was the caregiver for his wife, diagnosed with dementia. As the memory loss diagnosis progressed, she came to depend on her husband for many aspects of daily support.

As many caregivers do, the husband became seriously ill and was hospitalized. So the children placed their mother in memory care assisted living since she was not safe living at home alone.

The first couple of weeks in memory care were emotionally challenging for the family. But then, suddenly, mom returned to doing many of her prior habits. The children were pleasantly surprised.

Mom asked for the newspaper to read it every day like she used to do. She began calling friends on the telephone when she hadn’t used a phone in years.

Separated from her husband, the wife returned to doing more things for herself. Her husband took over these activities when they lived together because of wanting to be helpful or desiring to control their day-to-day routine, or maybe he had another reason.

So as you see, doing for others can have unintended consequences. A spouse or an aging parent can become more dependent on the caregiver. Caregivers who do too much can take away the abilities of elderly parents, spouses, grandparents, and others to do things for themselves.

Caregivers Have Good Intentions, But . . .

Here is another example—a caregiving wife strongly encourages her husband to be active. On the surface, encouragement might seem very positive.

However, let’s look at the husband’s health concerns. He has type 1 diabetes that has resulted in neuropathy in his feet. This feeling of numbness makes it painful for him to walk long distances.

And because long walks are unbearable, his balance is not steady. As a result, he could fall and experience a severe fracture. So we have a husband who was previously very physically active and has become less active because of numbness and pain in his feet when walking

The good news is that the husband wants to swim at the recreation center. He feels this exercise would be good for him in place of walking. His concern is that the distance from the parking lot to the locker room and then to the swimming pool is too far for him to walk comfortably.

What might be the solutions? The husband wants to purchase a scooter so he can get around from place to place without experiencing pain or risking a fall. His wife doesn’t want him to get a scooter because she thinks he will stop walking.

What’s Really Underneath Caregiving Behaviors?

In this scenario, what is the downside of using a scooter if the goal is to exercise to be physically stronger and feel more independent? Here are a few questions to consider

  • What does the caregiving spouse fear?
  • Will the husband spend more time swimming and less time with his wife?
  • Might the wife be embarrassed when people see her husband using a scooter?
  • Will the wife feel a loss of control if her husband enjoys newfound independence?

In many cases, it can take a little investigation to determine the underlying causes of cause self-destructive behaviors that can harm another person or the caregiver.

Let’s look at the bigger picture and consider the benefits of a scooter.

  • For this man, weight-bearing activities like walking are painful and risky due to neuropathy in his feet—so riding a scooter makes practical sense.
  • Swimming is an excellent cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activity that is non-weight-bearing.
  • In addition to swimming being physically beneficial, mental health benefits result from participating in enjoyable activities.
  • Making new friends at the rec center swimming pool might bring new opportunities for socialization which is positive for health and well-being.

Detrimental Caregiving Behaviors

Caregiving relationships that prevent participation in positive activities are damaging. Depending on the relationship, jealousy or resentment may exist.

For example, a sick parent may feel left behind if the caregiver daughter goes to work or spends time with friends. On the other hand, the caregiver may resent a demanding parent, so they may turn to alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructive caregiving behaviors to ignore how they feel about the situation.

Many family caregivers are stuck in unpleasant situations because they don’t know how to flip the switch and look at the situation differently. Let’s talk specifically about unnecessary self-sacrifice or “martyrdom” as being a self-destructive caregiving behavior.

Some caregivers give up excessive amounts of their lives. They place careers or jobs on the back burner and delay getting married or having children when they move into the home of an elderly parent to provide 24/7 care.

Avoidance and Denial

Why? There can be a variety of motivators. For example, something the caregiver wants to avoid.

It’s easier to focus and devote one’s life to caring for another person so the caregiver can avoid dealing with issues or conflicts in their life. Then there are situations where adult children become trapped caring for elderly parents who are filled with blame, criticize every move, and don’t want the caregiver to have friends or get a job because parents would not have the caregiver’s full attention.

Elderly parents can deny how much care they need or how quickly their health is worsening. Facing unpleasant situations leads to self-destructive caregiving behaviors when one refuses to discuss the issue or plan for the future. These situations leave the caregiver’s life in limbo because they are unable to make plans for their future.

Then there are parents or unhelpful family members who are moody or create unnecessary drama. Do your siblings refuse to help care for aging parents? If so, there’s probably a relationship problem dating back to childhood you don’t know about.


Other self-destructive caregiving behaviors include a lack of self-care or self-neglect. Self-neglect means that caregivers or care receivers don’t take care of their health or participate in activites that boost their self-esteem or minds.

For example, most caregivers take elderly parents to the doctor for check-ups but don’t take the time to see the doctor themselves. Caregivers want parents to eat nutritiously and exercise.

Still, caregivers don’t follow their own advice. Self-destructive caregiving behaviors happen when caregivers place the well-being of others above their health and well-being. This type of unbalanced relationship leaves little or no time for the caregiver.

It is easy to fall into the habit of participating in self-destructive caregiving behaviors without noticing the negative effects on life until caregivers pass the breaking point. If you feel emotional about your caregiving situation—feeling resentment, anger, or guilt, it’s time to be introspective about what is happening.

Make the Shift To Positive Behaviors

self-destructive caregiving behaviorsFeeling isolated or depressed are more self-destructive caregiving behaviors. This state of mental distress is why managing thoughts becomes essential.

Thoughts result in daily reality. When thinking changes, feelings and behaviors will follow.

But it can be challenging to change a mindset if you are not clear about what makes you feel depressed, frustrated, anxious, or a list of other feelings. Understanding other self-destructive caregiving behaviors like eating junk food, smoking, drinking, doing drugs, gambling, cutting, or other self-harming activities is the first step to changing a behavior pattern.

So, where to begin? Start a journal or a notebook. Begin noticing your feelings—happy or sad.

At the moment you have the feeling, write down what is happening to make you feel this way.

Keeping a thought diary can help you understand your feelings because the reasons may not be evident at first.

It may take some time to relate today’s experience to an experience you had one year ago or ten years ago or to notice patterns of behaviors. That’s okay.

Making an effort to figure all of this out is progress toward change. And change can be uncomfortable when life can feel like it’s totally out of control.

Be Honest About Self-Destructive Caregiving Behaviors

Let’s run through a list of other self-destructive caregiving behaviors before moving to steps you can take to work through this state of discomfort. Here’s a laundry list:

  • Believing you will fail
  • Failing to take action
  • Procrastinating
  • Self-pity
  • Being mean to other people
  • Complaining
  • Blaming others
  • Dwelling on the negative
  • Criticizing others

Identifying participation in these behaviors can require alone time to be honest about your contribution to where you are today. Being honest is an opportunity to build life skills, improve caregiving relationships, rise above daily challenges and improve relationships.

Tips to Move Forward

It is helpful, especially in caregiving relationships, if everyone involved can be honest about their feelings. Being honest takes a willingness to avoid blame and take full accountability for being in today’s situation.

Acknowledging common or different goals of caregiving relationships is vital to making progress in putting self-destructive caregiving behaviors in the past. For example, aging parents and children who become their caregivers are in very different life stage positions.

Adult children may be building careers or having children while elderly parents are retired. Taking these differences into consideration is important so that each person in the care relationship feels heard and valued.

While parents have needs for care and may prefer that children become their caregivers this is not always possible or practical. Discussing the practicalities of care may be challenging. But by addressing life situations that are uncomfortable, it can be possible to identify other options for the care of aging parents.

Dealing head-on with uncomfortable topics can lead to positive change rather than remaining stuck in destructive caregiving patterns. This forward movement may help repair broken relationships between parents who need care and their adult children.

Let’s examine seven steps for identifying feelings that can result in self-destructive caregiving behaviors.

1 Time for Self-Reflection

Instead of self-isolating to get away from uncomfortable or difficult family situations, make time to be alone and be with your thoughts and emotions. Get up early and find a quiet space where you can think or journal or make quiet time before you go to bed.

Sometimes doing routine activities like housecleaning, laundry, or yard work is a great time for self-reflection. Figure out an activity that works for you and gives you time to think.

2 Make a List of Behaviors You Want to Leave Behind

Make a list of self-destructive caregiving behaviors you notice. Prioritize actions that make you feel the most uncomfortable or unhealthy.

Let’s use an example of being constantly criticized by an aging parent or a spouse. This excludes parents with memory loss or mental health diagnoses because these would be separate discussions with very different recommendations.

People with memory loss can’t remember conversations or change their behaviors. Individuals diagnosed with mental illness may also have little control over their actions or responses.

The way the interaction of being criticized makes you feel and how you respond may be a behavior you want to leave behind.

If you are a caregiver exposed to constant criticism, how do you respond?

  • Do you walk away and isolate yourself to get away from a critical care receiver.
  • Do you turn to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings of anger or resentment?
  • How do you feel when you are criticized?
  • Do you feel like you are not a good person?
  • Maybe you feel like your mom or dad will never be happy?
  • You might feel like a failure because you can’t seem to get it right or something else.

Begin writing down each circumstance where you have a negative emotional response and what is happening at the time. You may be able to recognize a pattern that you can interrupt with a replacement behavior.

3 Gain an Understanding of the Situation

When an event bruising emotions occurs, how would you like to respond? Would you like to be able to state your feelings and ask the other person why they feel the need to criticize or do something else?

Thinking of ways to begin a two-way conversation can lead to better understanding. While elderly parents can be critical because they feel out of control over a situation and are dependent on others for care, these feelings do not mean it’s okay to be mean or abusive to a caregiver.

Being in constant pain can make a person irritable or short-tempered. There could be many reasons that are not obvious for a parent’s behavior.

Avoiding discussions about hurtful interchanges is a self-destructive caregiving behavior. Through the caregiver’s action of remaining silent and holding in feelings, an aging parent or a spouse is given permission to misbehave.

Think of when you were a child. Did your parents let you do whatever you wanted or did they intervene? When you become the caregiver for an aging parent roles can reverse.

Look at what isn’t working in your caregiving relationship and identify ways to respond. For example, avoid damaging your health by eating a bag of Oreos or drinking a bottle of wine whenever you become upset. Notice when something happens that makes you crave junk food and stop yourself by replacing the desire for cookies with a different and more positive behavior.

4 Be Compassionate With Yourself

Find ways to be compassionate with yourself and participate in self-care. So rather than eating the bag of Oreos, leave the house to go for a walk, take a short drive or go read a book. Think of distractions that will take you away from harmful behavior patterns.

Rather than drinking a bottle of wine, call a friend. Refuse to allow the behaviors of another person to drive you to self-harming behaviors. Don’t give up your power or your self-worth to anyone.

5 Plan Conversations

caregiver behaviorsSo in the case of having a conversation with a criticizing care receiver, think about what you want to say. Role-play the conversation with yourself, a family member, or your best friend.

The goal is to be firm but compassionate. Avoid criticism or blame.

Explain how you feel when verbally attacked. Ask why the other person feels it necessary to criticize.

Listen to the feedback and determine if the statements are valid. It can be easy to do something routinely that irritates another person making criticism one of their responses.

Think of finding the toilet seat up or dishes left in the sink instead of being put in the dishwasher. These are simple things, but they are the things that, when piled one on top of another, become annoying if one does not speak up.

6 Identify Your Emotions

When working through challenging caregiving relationships that make you feel unappreciated, frustrated, angry, or any other negative feeling, it is essential to identify your emotions and the feelings of the care receiver.

Are you both feeling frustrated, angry, or worried? Discussing feelings, also called emotional validation, is a way to learn about, understand, and express acceptance of another person’s emotional state or feelings.

Validation does not mean that you feel the same way but that you understand how another person might feel differently. Just as you might feel a certain way under different circumstances.

For example, snakes frighten you while your friend is fascinated by snakes. Thoughts about snakes is a simple example of two people understanding how another feels but having different opinions.

7 Accept Your Feelings

Think of a time when you had someone disagree with your feelings, and you felt defensive. An example would be a family member who is not a caregiver telling you that “you shouldn’t feel this way” or “caregiving can’t be that hard.”

When caregivers work until exhaustion, it’s easy to lose patience and trust. When these types of relational exchanges happen, you may not want to talk to the other person or spend time with them, right? Caregivers become frustrated when an aging parent doesn’t understand them or what they are experiencing.

The Steps Through Emotional Validation?

 What are other steps included in emotional validation?

1 Listen Attentively

The first step through emotional validation is active listening. When you listen in this manner, you are fully present and trying to understand another person in a non-critical and non-telling-them-what-to-do manner.

Listen and ask questions. Do not offer solutions. The minute you start to tell someone else what to do, you end the process of emotional validation.

2 Accept The Feelings of Others

Regardless of whether you agree with how another person feels, accept their feelings. This is not a right or wrong discussion.

This discussion aims to build a pattern for creating honest and safe conversations where you can talk about anything.

3 Gain Agreement About What You Hear

Another critical step is to restate how you think the person feels so that you are not making any incorrect assumptions. Then the next step, if you are the caregiver, is to gain the care receiver’s agreement to work through this process with you so that they understand your feelings.

Why It’s Important to Discuss Caregiving Emotions

In most caregiving relationships, feelings are not regularly discussed. Caregivers may not want to burden an aging parent with their emotions or worries. So they remain silent and engage in self-destructive caregiving behaviors.

On the other hand, the aging parent or the spouse may not want to be a burden but instead, they react with verbal insults or other unkind reactions. Neither the parents nor the caregivers are talking about their feelings because they don’t think their concerns will be heard or perhaps there is a lack of trust.

This takes us back to the beginning of self-destructive caregiving behaviors. If you feel emotionally distraught and unable to resolve conflict, you may not trust the person you have the conflict with.

This could be the person you care for, aging parents, siblings, or another person. Unfortunately, a lack of trust and a relationship on shaky ground can lead to complications in caregiving and other areas of life.

The path forward is to identify why you feel the way you feel or respond the way you do. Spend time thinking about this and how you can react differently, which will change the outcome of future interactions.

And through this, agree to participate in the emotional validation process to work on the relationship. Doing this may not be easy if you are uncomfortable sharing your honest thoughts and feelings.

If the conversations don’t work out as you hope, you could end up in the same situation. But at least you made the attempt. Then you can decide whether to remain in the position or the relationship—or not.

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Worst case you now have another tool, emotional validation, to work through other challenging situations in your life. When you choose to end self-destructive caregiving behaviors you take back ownership of your life.

Looking For Help With Your Caregiving Situation? Listen to Over 100 Podcasts Answering Questions from Family Caregivers on The Caring Generation.


©2022 Pamela D. Wilson All Rights Reserved


About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

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