Dealing with a Delusional Mother

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I am an only child of parents that are both ‘mentally ill’. My Dad (deceased since 1991, and Mother, still living in Arizona have schizophrenia. Mom has Paranoid Schizo and is abusing me, emotionally. She continues to think that I am living with her ex-boyfriend in another state and keeps asking my “why” I did that to her when it has no basis in reality.

I sent her pictures of myself and my boyfriend and she is so ill that she thinks it is her ex-boyfriend. She sends me letters, to Oregon, but truly believes that I live in Colorado with John, her ex-boyfriend, that is now in a nursing home with Parkinson’s.

She is accusing me of stealing things from her house, such as money and CD’s of music. I moved to Oregon in 2003 and have not been to her house. I’ve would never steal anything from her, anyway.

She keeps telling me that she is lonely and wants a relationship, with me, but I cannot do so because of her behavior. I have tried to set boundaries, with her, regarding this boyfriend thing but she just keeps going over the same things again and again.
Since I am an only child I feel as if I am abandoning her, by not having any contact, with her, being out of state, and all. I want to know how she is doing and if she needs any help, but she will not stop the destructive behavior.

I’m having a very difficult time dealing with this. Please help!

Kathy in Oregon

A. Hi Kathy. This is a very complicated situation. Your mother is schizophrenic and currently delusional. She believes that you are currently living with her ex-boyfriend despite all evidence to the contrary. She has also accused you of stealing money and CDs from her house. No matter what you try there seems to be no way to change her mind.

It is important to explore exactly what that means. Your mother completely disagrees with reality. In terms of being able to reason with her, it’s impossible. You are attempting to reason with a person who is not capable of thinking logically at this time. She is delusional. Delusions are part of schizophrenia. Your attempts at logic-based reasoning will likely continue to be ineffective while she is delusional. That is the nature of delusional thinking.

There is also the issue of guilt. It is not uncommon for individuals who have family members with a serious mental illness to feel guilty. Schizophrenia often leads to the breakup of families. It can be a very difficult illness to treat and at least 50 percent of the individuals who have schizophrenia are unable to recognize they are ill and subsequently choose not to treat it. Some families, to preserve their own psychological health, have had to permanently discontinue contact with an ill family member because of this. As tragic as it is, there are times when such a decision is advisable. That might be the case in your situation.

It also seems that you may be reacting inappropriately to your mother’s behavior. Understandably, you become frustrated with her when she does not believe you. You may be taking it personally (i.e. I am her daughter, how can she not believe me?). The fact is that delusions, which are part of schizophrenia, do not allow her to believe what you are saying. It’s not you, or her, it’s the disease. Unfortunately, misunderstandings of this nature have led to the breakup of marriages and families of individuals who have schizophrenia.

Another way to understand the nature of delusions is to liken them to someone acting bizarrely while high on drugs. We understand that it is the drugs that are likely causing them to act bizarrely. Just like the person who is high on drugs might act inappropriately because they are under the influence of a mind-altering substance, the person with schizophrenia who is delusional is being driven to act in such a manner because of their delusions. They are not deliberately acting bizarre; it is the delusion that is driving the inappropriate behavior. Perhaps understanding the nature of delusions from a different perspective may help you to not feel frustrated when dealing with your mother.

It would be very helpful for you to talk with other people who have a family member with schizophrenia. If the disease is well controlled they will tell you that there are few problems but if the disease is active and not controlled they will tell you a far different story. Remember that more than half of all persons with schizophrenia are in complete denial that there is anything wrong with them. This why so many people with schizophrenia refuse to take the very medication that would help them. Why would they take medication when they sincerely believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them? This condition of denial is known as anosognosia.

It would also help you to read about the delusions of schizophrenia. Delusions of grandeur, for instance, are where someone sincerely believes that they are Joan of Arc or Jesus Christ. Another type, delusions of sin and guilt, are where an individual believes that they have committed the most hideous crime. Mothers with this delusion will often believe that they have killed their own children and when they are presented with their own living children they know that these children are imposters. How do they know? They know these children, though they look like their children are imposters because they clearly and vividly remember killing their own children. No amount of evidence that you present will make a difference because they are in the midst of a delusion and soon your motives will become suspect as they begin to wonder why you are attempting to “fool” them (paranoid delusions).

As I mentioned above, it would be helpful to read about delusions. I discussed a few but there are more. Also, consider attending a support group. A popular organization called the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has many support groups across the country.

Thank you for your question. Please write back if you have any further questions.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Dec 2009

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2009). Dealing with a Delusional Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/12/14/dealing-with-a-delusional-mother/