Should I Intervene to Help My Depressed Mother?

Reader’s Question

Q. I am a married 30-something with two young children. My problem is with my parents. Shortly after I married, my succesful father retired from law and he and my mother moved to a rather rural city from where my mother’s family lives. Since then, my mother has taken up smoking and heavy drinking, and it seems my father is an alcoholic. My mother hasn’t had any medical attention in years. I have urged her to to seek counseling, which she did once, but will not return (the counselor informed her that her depression was due to my father and they both needed marital counseling. He wouldn’t go, and that was that.). Their marraige is clearly suffering, and neither one seems happy, but only my mom will confide in me. I think she feels trapped and alone, but will not do anything about her situation. I have urged her to visit us more often, to go on a mother/daughter weekend, but no! She has become sullen, weak, and very negative. My relationship with both parents has suffered. I want them to be happy, and I want my children to see their grandparents as happy and healthy individuals. I am tempted to see a therapist myself, because I am having a hard time understanding “what went wrong” and I want to know what more I can do to help either of them. Is it my place to intervene more, or is there anything more I can do? Any guidance would be appreciated.

— Anonymous

Psychologist’s Reply

A. As a responsible and healthy adult, it is your place to be not only concerned, but to have an option to intervene. This is about family. Your parents have personally and emotionally deteriorated as a couple, making you the responsible adult in the family. The next issue is what strategy to use…how to approach them…and how far to go.

Your parents, both drinking heavily and being socially withdrawn, have become depressed drinking partners. Their move to the new area has turned into a move into isolation. Your initial strategy is correct — maintain contact with your mother, try to coax her into social contact, and encourage her to recognize and seek help with her situation. If that fails, a heart-to-heart talk with one or both may be needed. From your perspective, these talks will be difficult because it will place you in a situation of “parenting” your parents. You’ll need to be business-like:

  1. describe your observations
  2. express your concerns
  3. offer your help in any manner needed
  4. assure them of your love and support, and
  5. also assure them that you may be required to structure their contact with your children due to their condition/behavior.

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Before you have this talk, do your homework and identify professional resources in their area. Then if you’re confronted with “There’s no help in this area”, you’ll already have answers.

Sadly, they may not respond. If that’s the case, you’ll need to organize family visits to protect yourself and your children. This may include frequent calls to monitor and support them but only brief physical visits. Counseling for yourself may also be helpful as this situation can be highly stressful. The feeling of helplessness is often overwhelming.

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