Mother Needs Help

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I want to help my mom, but she refuses to believe there’s anything wrong with her, and i have no idea what to do. Growing up, she was very overprotective, to the point of it being ridiculous (ie – asking what Santa claus got me for Christmas last year at the age of 25 then starts crying when i tell her I’m not a child, i’m a woman with my own place). I remember growing up, she would hold me back because she was afraid of everything and the shopping was terrible. She has had temper tantrums IN THE STORE when i would ask if we could go home. Her current husband tells me she still has them till this day and she’s a 60 year old woman! She’d make comments on how one day i’d love to shop and would want to meet a man who could work so i could shop all day, so i should learn how to dress well, be thin and have great hair. I was at the time worried about what we would eat and where we would live, not some stupid name brand jeans. She’s spend so much money on crap and hours at malls and would move me around all the time out of the blue just because she was tired of her job and the town. The only reason why we weren’t homeless and i was able to move out at a young age is because my father did leave us emotionally, but was wealthy enough to help and was always financially there for me, no questions asked.

I never knew what mood she was in, and it seemed like the smallest thing would have her either cry “i’m a bad mom” for hours or throw things at me and scream like a four year old child. She is currently married, and the man she married seems to take care of her, but when she complains about him, (like complains about how his ex-wife gets amnesty from the divorce for example, or how he’d leave a store when she starts acting like a child then pick her up later) its hard to really take her side and say he’s a jerk rather than tell her to get help.

She is convinced that my brother and i have abandoned her, when we are both trying to live as normal adults. I really dread talking to her on the phone (we live far away) because i know either i will get a guilt trip about not living with her or talking to her 3-5 times per day or will get yelled at for being a bad daughter. I have a life here, i have a boyfriend here, a decent job and getting a PhD in a few years. It makes me feel guilty like i should be there and shouldn’t give up on her, but when i suggested she get help or i’d leave, she just throw a shoe at me and told me she wasn’t crazy, then cried for hours. I was gone the next day. This was 8 years ago. What can i do to help her and not abandon her? I truly feel guilty, but i also remember what it was like.

A: What you are describing could be the behaviors of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is characterized by unstable relationships and emotional dysregulation. Fear of abandonment often fuels emotional turmoil. I suggest you read up on it and see if it fits.

If so, all you can do is love her and be clear about your own boundaries. When she calls, don’t try to reason with her or to defend your life. Don’t take sides in her complaints or arguments. It won’t change her and will only make you more frustrated. Just tell her you are sorry she feels the way she does; that she knows in her heart that you love her; and that you will talk to her when she is able to be calm. If she can’t calm down, tell her you have something to do and you’ll talk to her later. Then politely hang up.

It sometimes helps to set a time when someone like your mom can count on hearing from you. You might make an arrangement to call her, say, every Sunday evening at 8:00 and guarantee her an hour. Let her know that you are happy to have a good chat at that time but that your life is too busy to call her in between. Politely end the call after the hour is up, no matter what is going on. By compartmentalizing the calls, you give her something to count on and you give yourself room to get on with your own life.

You can certainly share information about BPD with her but she may not listen to that any more than she has listened to other things. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been found to be very helpful for people who carry that diagnosis. You might want to find out if there is a DBT therapist near her in case she is open to getting treatment.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Jun 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Mother Needs Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/06/06/how-do-i-help-my-undiagnosed-mother/