When to Step In or Stand By

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Reader’s Question

The responses on this site about how adult children can deal with abusive controlling parents have been very helpful. I am OK with and capable of distancing myself physically and emotionally. But, I can’t shake the feeling that it is my responsibility to somehow help my parent who is clearly troubled by seeking a counselor for her or some other kind of treatment. If she were physically ill, I would clearly feel it is my responsibility to help her seek treatment. But in this case I am just not sure. All the responses seem to say we should not be responsible for how others feel, but how can that be true?

Psychologist’s Reply

When we have a parent, or anyone close to us, who we can clearly see is suffering, it is very natural to want to intervene and get them treatment. This is a delicate endeavor, and much depends on context. If your mother has a broken leg, it is easy to point to the problem and strongly urge her to get help. If your mother stays home all day, stops talking to her friends, is constantly teary, and has lost interest in her usual activities, it may be obvious to you that she is depressed; however, she might describe herself as ‘tired’ and feel intruded upon when you encourage her to seek help.

Assuming you have raised your concerns and asked your parent/loved one to get some sort of treatment and have been rebuffed, you are limited in your options. If you are in a relationship that is strong enough to withstand some intrusion, you could insist your parent make an appointment with their physician. You could ask to go with them if they will allow it so that you can bring up specific symptoms and concerns. If they do not want you there, you could still either write out your concerns and send them in to the office, or call the office and tell the doctor yourself. Both of these are intrusive acts, and you should be prepared to accept the consequences of engaging in them. You should let your parent know what you are doing so that there is no misunderstanding; they cannot prevent you from calling, even if they are angered by it.

Ultimately, you must acknowledge that you cannot force someone to seek out treatment unless they are a danger to themselves or others. (Anyone worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else should immediately call the police for assistance.) If your mother were depressed, in the best case she would listen to you and/or her physician and seek some sort of treatment to remediate her symptoms. However, you also might end up having to observe her in her depression if she refuses to see her physician or follow up with treatment. This is where it becomes important to set those boundaries you mentioned in your question. There is nothing to prevent someone from living in their mental illness, but you do not have to embrace it with them. Make sure that you are engaging in self-care and avoiding a co-dependent relationship that enables their symptoms and reduces your quality of life. It may also be helpful to seek out some supportive therapy of your own if you are struggling with your sense of powerlessness to improve your parent’s situation.

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