Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

As a graduating college student, moving home with my parents for the semester came with many changes and challenges. I had to create a new routine, learn to accept my lack of privacy and independence, and adjust to the constant presence of my parents, which I have not experienced in years. My dad and I get along extremely well, but my mom and I are a different story. We have always had a turbulent relationship, and this pandemic has not changed that.

I recognize that my mom has had an especially hard time over the past couple of months. She works as an independent contractor and has lost all of her business. She is now experiencing financial stress and does not have work as a distraction from the outside world. My mom’s brother and his family also got sick, and my mom hit a breaking point when my uncle was admitted to the hospital. He is home safe and everyone is healthy, but the resulting fear has not gone away.

I do not believe that a day has gone by since I came home, more than two months ago, that my mom has not cried. Although I try to help, mental health has never been openly discussed in my family. We do not know how to properly express our feelings or successfully support one another in times of need. My mom has been taking her feelings of stress and worry out on me in the form of both anger and tears. As much as I have been trying to help lighten the load, I do not feel that I am adequately equipped to give my mom the support she needs.

How can I best suggest that she reach out to a therapist or other means of support without giving her the impression that I do not care and do not want to continue helping? She is so sensitive right now that I’m afraid that feeling would break her.

Sydney
Chicago


Dear Sydney,

You’re right that your mom has had a particularly hard time in these past few months as a result of the pandemic. Loss of income and seeing loved ones get sick can be extremely anxiety-provoking. But I suspect that her current condition goes beyond what you call “stress and worry.” Her daily tears and irritability are common signs of clinical depression.

You two may have long had your troubles, but depression can make an already-challenging relationship even more so. That’s because people who are depressed may act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t—they might become more reactive, distracted, impatient, and angry; they might be more easily injured by an innocuous comment; they might view the world through a more distorted lens. This can be especially hard on children of depressed parents. Studies have shown, for example, that living with a depressed mother is associated with negative, and often long-lasting, effects on a child’s well-being. People who have moms suffering from depression also tend to feel responsible for their mother’s well-being, and the child-adult roles flip-flop, with the child (referred to as a “parentified child”) taking on a caregiving role.

Because of this role reversal, a child in this situation may not go to a friend’s sleepover (or, later, to a preferred college or job in another city) if doing so means leaving a depressed parent instead of “being there” to soothe her. Or a child will be extra careful around that parent, walking on eggshells to make sure that nothing is said or done to upset her.

That’s what seems to be happening right now between you and your mom. You’ve taken on a caregiving role, and are also afraid to suggest that she seek more appropriate help for fear that she’ll misconstrue your intentions and you’ll “break her.” The result is that you’re left feeling resentful and helpless.

Your mom would likely benefit from therapy, but you don’t have much control over whether she chooses to go. The good news is that you do have control over what you do to take care of yourself, and you need a therapist of your own. A therapist will help you to see past what your mom is going through to help you understand what you are going through—not just in terms of your relationship with your mom and your worry about her, but also how the pandemic has affected you as a college graduate whose plans have been derailed. Many people who grow up in households where emotions aren’t openly discussed become keen observers of other people’s feelings, but haven’t had much practice with identifying their own. Knowing how you feel helps you to assess what you want and need, whether that’s healthy boundaries, a different living situation, or more connection with friends while sheltering at home.

The other benefit of seeing a therapist is that you’ll learn more about the dynamics of your family and how those might affect your relationships as you launch into adulthood. For instance, you say that you and your mom have always had a turbulent relationship, but although you may get along well with your dad, I wonder how you came to feel responsible for your mother’s well-being and if, perhaps, your father, the more appropriate person, could have taken on more of that role. Similarly, just because you had ongoing tension with your mom doesn’t mean that your dad didn’t play a role in the family conflict—by recusing himself, for instance, and not getting involved when maybe he should have. The point is not to blame anyone, but instead to bring the three of you closer in a healthy way going forward.

Notice that I focused on you going to therapy before I got to the question of how to suggest it to your mom, because I wanted to place your needs first and give you some practice thinking that way too. If you do decide to approach your mom about seeing a therapist, you might start by telling her how much you love and care about her, and that you don’t want her to suffer so much. You can normalize her struggles by acknowledging all that has happened in her life in recent months, and how understandably challenging these events have been. You can tell her that not saying anything would feel to you like not being helpful to her, and that the best way you know to be helpful to her is to be open and honest with her. You can explain that you’re there for her, but that you can’t offer her what a therapist would, because you simply don’t have those skills. You can also use humor, something along the lines of, “If you have pain in your chest, you’d probably go to a cardiologist before you had a heart attack—and you wouldn’t want me to be your cardiologist! Same thing with emotional pain.”

Ultimately, though, the best way to help your mom see the value of therapy is to go to therapy yourself. Not only will it serve you well, but you will demonstrate for her a model of a person who values her emotional health and send the message that we all go through difficult times and that when we do, we can empower ourselves by getting the help we deserve.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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