How Do I Convince a Parent to Go to Therapy?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My mom is nearing 70. She was widowed four years ago, and ever since then she seems to have given up on life. She barely leaves her house, doesn’t want to socialize or make friends, and has even started smoking again, despite being a lung cancer survivor. She falls asleep in her chair at 3 a.m., sleeps until after noon, feeds her dogs, then watches TV the rest of the day and night. She used to love cooking; now she eats cereal for dinner half the time. She used to love sewing; her sewing machine is collecting dust. She used to have many friends; some have died off, some are out of state, and she has no motivation to seek more. Yet she professes that she is lonely. Well, do something about it! Instead, she relies more on her children and guilt trips us if we don’t meet her needs—if we don’t call all the time or visit, to her we don’t care. (None of her kids live within an hour’s drive and we all have demanding jobs and families.)

I’ve done some reading and I think she’s clearly depressed. I know she feels like her life has been gutted now that her husband isn’t in it. She has no one to take care of anymore, and probably feels a lack of purpose. That’s why my siblings and I are so adamant that finding one would be in her best interests: volunteer, go to church … something! But she refuses.

I really think therapy would benefit her, but (as you might imagine) she is opposed to the idea, saying there is nothing wrong with her. I tried to tell her that going to therapy doesn’t mean there’s necessarily something wrong with her, that it can support her healing from her grief and move on with her life, but she just isn’t buying it. I tell her that moving forward and living her life is what her husband would have wanted, and she agrees, but nothing ever happens. She is very set in her ways. I feel helpless, like I am watching my mother die right before my eyes. And I am angry she won’t help herself, since she is the only one who can. Any suggestions or advice for me? —Helpless Here

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Dear Helpless,

The sadness, anger, and helplessness you feel are palpable. You are clearly very concerned about your mother, and based on your description of her, it does seem possible she is depressed and she might very well benefit from therapy. You can see all of this quite clearly, but she cannot—and that must be quite frustrating for you.

I imagine the feeling of “watching your mother die right before your eyes” evokes many feelings, even beyond feelings of concern for your mother’s health and well-being. You are likely dealing with your own feelings of loss of the woman your mother once was, and looking to the future with concern about your actual loss of her through death.

I wonder if engaging in your own therapy could be helpful for you. I imagine the feeling of “watching your mother die right before your eyes” evokes many feelings, even beyond feelings of concern for your mother’s health and well-being. You are likely dealing with your own feelings of loss of the woman your mother once was, and looking to the future with concern about your actual loss of her through death. Sometimes, these kinds of experiences can also raise feelings about your own mortality.

It also sounds like you are trying to change your mother’s behavior. While it is certainly understandable to want better for her, you cannot force her to do anything. Trying to force someone to do something, even if it is something that would be good for them, is almost always a recipe for frustration. Engaging in your own therapy might be helpful in accepting that no matter what you do, your mom might not seek therapy or take steps to heal. Once you accept that you cannot make your mom get well, you may be better able to identify what you can do to help her, and more comfortable stopping there and leaving it in her hands.

It sounds like your mom is expecting you and your siblings to do a lot, maybe more than is reasonable. When you’re unable to be what she needs at any given time, the “guilt-tripping” you describe can be a lot to bear. If you do, in fact, feel any guilt—reasonably or otherwise—therapy may also help you deal with that, along with any resentment the guilt-tripping behavior might elicit.

Finally, engaging in your own therapy might be helpful for your mom, too. You could be a good model of a healthy, functional person seeking therapy simply because you are struggling through a difficult life situation and trying to find ways to cope with it. You could talk to her about the value you find in therapy and how it helps you. She might even see it in potential changes in the way you relate to her.

I wish you peace and healing in this very difficult time.

Best wishes,

Sarah

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Turner

    Turner

    December 30th, 2016 at 9:21 AM

    This has to be a real struggle, especially knowing that going to therapy could actually be helpful to someone but they think of it in a totally different way than the way that you see it.

  • william

    william

    December 30th, 2016 at 12:50 PM

    I am often in the same position, trying to get them to do something that I know would be in their best interest but them pushing back against it. It makes me want to stop trying bu then I remember what if they had given up on me and stopped trying for all of those years.
    That is when I snap back to reality and just try to continue to be a good son to them.

  • Jeri

    Jeri

    December 31st, 2016 at 8:11 AM

    what good is it going to do anyone if you force someone who really doesn’t want to be there?

  • Nova

    Nova

    January 2nd, 2017 at 9:03 AM

    I got my dad’s primary care physician involved when I felt like this would be a good step for him. This doctor was someone that he knew and the he trusted and I think that in some ways he felt like he could trust his opinion more than mine because he could be more objective than me. That was fair, I understand that. It did sort of hurt to think that he didn’t always think that I had his best interest in mind, but I did. So that is why eventually once I got his PCP to agree to help with some of the suggestions then that went a long way toward encouraging him to do something that in reality he should have done years ago.

  • Dellaine

    Dellaine

    January 3rd, 2017 at 11:28 AM

    It is in my case a no win situation. My brothers are all like oh they are fine they don’t need that kind of care but they don’t see them as much as I do and I know that they could benefit from seeing a therapist or counselor. There are some things that are always bound to cause issues and tough conversations and unfortunately for us this is one of them.

  • grafton

    grafton

    January 30th, 2017 at 2:53 PM

    It can be a difficult spot especially when they refuse to see that there is something that is wrong. My dad thinks that he can do everything on his own without help so I would hesitate to ever bring up anything like this with him.

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