Ask the Expert: How to Cope with Anger as a Family Caregiver
Our clinical psychologist and Director of Memory Care at TheKey offers insights and advice to family caregivers on how to stay calm and manage feelings of caregiver anger—before boiling over.
Q: Sometimes the stress and frustration about the demands of caregiving for my father boil over into anger and rage. Is this normal—and why does it make me feel so bad?
Dozens of complex emotions can come up when you’re caring for a loved one, including sadness, frustration, guilt, and anger. That last one, anger, is particularly complicated and less often discussed.
Through my work as a clinical psychologist and Director of Memory Care programs at TheKey, I can assure you that feelings of anger among family caregivers can be very common and deserve more attention. If feelings of anger or resentment are coming up for you, know you’re not alone and that there are ways to manage these feelings and still honor your underlying needs.
What Makes Family Caregivers Angry?
Family caregiver anger can look different for different people. It might be anger toward the person you’re supporting when you see them making risky decisions, or anger toward the healthcare system because it takes so long to get an assessment for your loved one, or because the inclusion criteria for a clinical trial are so stringent. Sometimes, it’s anger about all the hoops you have to jump through with insurance companies. And then there’s the financial burden of caregiving.
Anger can also stem from resentment, which is more about a feeling of unfairness or injustice. You may feel overwhelmed by the many demands of your caregiving role, or angry at other family members for not stepping up. Maybe you’ve had a complicated, tense relationship with the care recipient and this is a role you never imagined for yourself. Social isolation, which many family caregivers experience as they spend more time with the person they’re supporting, can also fuel anger. Other times, resentment can start to bubble up—when you’re around people who don’t have to care for a parent or when time is taken away from your own kids or needs.
Add to that not getting enough sleep and feeling like there’s no time to take care of yourself, and your emotions are bound to reach a boiling point. These powerful feelings can lead to a simmering buildup of resentment or an explosive, volcanic rage.
It’s Time We Talk About Family Caregiver Anger
For family caregivers, rage and resentment are both extremely common, but they’re not often talked about, especially when compared to caregiver stress, burnout, or grief.
One reason why family caregiver anger may be shrouded in silence: Socially and culturally, anger isn’t viewed as an appropriate emotion when caring for a loved one, so people feel ashamed and judge themselves for having it. They may try to squash down their anger and resentment, but it’s like a Whac-A-Mole game—it keeps popping up. People also often mix up anger and abuse in their minds. They think that if they tell someone about their anger, it will be mistaken for abuse. Family caregiver anger is not elder abuse. The great majority of family caregivers who feel anger and rage are not going to abuse the person they’re supporting, and yet this conflation of the two conditions can lead to people who need support not seeking it out because of shame or fear.
If you are concerned about the well-being of your loved one or another older adult, you should gather information on elder abuse and resources where you can find help. You can learn more about the signs of elder abuse—and file a report if warranted—on the website for adult protective services in your area.
How Do Paid Caregivers Deal with Challenges So Effectively?
Two words: training and context. Let’s say an individual—your father—has dementia and is experiencing a symptom called anosognosia, a lack of insight into his condition and changing abilities. He wants the car keys so he can drive somewhere and you, as his adult child and caregiver, say no because it’s unsafe. Now, Dad is arguing, yelling that he wants the keys.
A trained, paid caregiver will understand that, of course, that situation would be upsetting to this man who, in that moment and due to a very real symptom, anosognosia, isn’t aware he has dementia. The professionally trained, paid caregiver doesn’t take the yelling personally and doesn’t have the same long history with the person as you do, which can make it easier to remain calm, empathetic, and solution-focused. Condition-specific training is also critical. For example, our dementia training at TheKey provides an in-depth review of common behavioral and mood expressions as well as various experiential exercises designed to promote a greater understanding of symptoms and empathy for the person living with dementia.
3 Ways to Cope with Family Caregiver Anger
Don’t underestimate the power of taking a few breaths or briefly leaving the room when you’re irritated. Here are a few other strategies to help you further understand and manage anger as a family caregiver:
1. Name Your Emotion, Then Try to Process It
As with any strong emotion, anger is an outward symptom of what you’re feeling deep down. Get curious about what’s causing your anger. Is it fear? Grief? Fatigue? Isolation? A therapist can be incredibly helpful in identifying this. I know therapy can feel like one extra thing piled on top of all your other duties, but there are wonderful techniques you can learn and use for dealing with anger.
The type of therapy we hear about most often is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which teaches you to recognize negative thoughts, so you can try to understand how they relate to and influence your feelings and behaviors. CBT is great for uncovering unproductive thinking patterns and helping you reframe the situation.
Here’s a DIY approach to this work: Start by keeping track of situations that arouse your anger for a week and identifying thoughts, the intensity of feelings, and behaviors for each situation. You might identify a pattern of unhelpful all-or-nothing thinking such as, “If I’m impatient with my mom, I have failed her as a daughter.” You can then work on increasing your awareness of these thoughts and challenging or reframing them as they arise. For example: “I was impatient with Mom today when she kept asking what time it was, and yet I am trying and learning every day in this new role.”
2. Sit in Your Emotion—Alone or with a Professional
Another form of therapy that may be useful is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This mental work focuses on learning how to accept difficult emotions like anger without judging them—or yourself—for having them. The key here is to accept what you can’t change (“My loved one has a progressive illness and this is hard”) and change what you can (“I never talk to my friends anymore and I’m lonely, which is upsetting, so I will commit to making plans with friends twice a month”).
Other types of therapy can be helpful, too. If time constraints are keeping you from seeking therapy, consider teletherapy. You and your therapist can connect via videoconference, so you save the time you’d normally spend driving to and from an office. There are also many wonderful workbooks that can introduce you to different styles of therapy. Try searching online for “ACT workbook for anger” or “CBT workbook for anger.” I also recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s books on self-compassion.
3. Find a Community That Gets It
For a lot of family caregivers, snapping at the person they’re caring for is what ultimately pushes them to seek out the extra support they need. They recognize, “This isn’t the way I want to show up for this person. I want to do better—for them and for myself.” Support groups can be a wonderful way to feel less isolated and keep anger at bay. Hearing how others in similar situations cope can be incredibly helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association can connect you with a virtual or in-person support group.
You can also reach out to TheKey to learn more about our person-centered approach to in-home care. We customize plans to fit your care needs, be it companionship, support with daily chores and errands, or simply giving you a break from caregiving duties through our respite care services. Learn more about TheKey’s senior care services.
Bottom line: It’s not about not experiencing anger. It’s about having the insight and skills necessary to pause, make space for that anger, and make an intentional choice rather than react.
Is Your Family Considering Home Care?
We can help you understand your options and determine the best plan for your family, your budget, and your loved one's care needs. Give us a call and we'll get back to you within 24 hours.