Dear Doctor George...

My mother-in-law’s son is a habitual liar who has gotten into trouble with the law and has physically abused his wife. Since they were using drugs, their two children were taken away by Social Services for a time.

My mother-in-law is both stressed and depressed. She talked to her priest and he told her to cut all ties, but if she does that, she won’t be able to see her grandchildren.

What should she do?

... Sad for My Mother In-Law




Dear Sad for My Mother In-Law...

The first thing that needs to be said is a general comment for everyone. When kids are involved, they come first — their protection and needs have to take priority over everything else. Adults, be they parents or others, need to make certain that children are protected physically, emotionally, and in every way possible. That may mean reporting suspected neglect or abuse to the authorities, as has apparently already occurred here (though the situation that you are describing might make one wary that there may be further need for such intervention in the future).

You mentioned that your mother-in-law consulted her priest. That can be helpful, since priests have much experience helping people with family problems. Doctor George often finds that it’s useful to seek second opinions (perhaps from other clergy or from a family counselor/psychotherapist). Doctor George is not implying that someone should keep looking until they find the advice that they agree with (because if that’s their criterion, there’s really not much point seeking advice) but there’s nothing wrong with hearing another perspective and, perhaps, discovering another possibility. Often times, when we hear similar advice from two different sources, we can feel more comfortable with not second-guessing ourselves.

Since your mother-in-law was not the one writing to Doctor George, let’s talk about people who are in your situation. Doctor George certainly understands how frustrating it is to observe these sorts of circumstances without being able to do anything about them. It’s hard to see someone suffer, especially where children and grandchildren are concerned. One thing that we can know is that our empathy and support are helpful even if there are no direct actions we can take. Our kindness, our concern, our listening, our taking the person out to eat (or including them in other activities that get their mind off of their problems) can also be wonderful contributions. It also helps to invite people to talk about their problems while not forcing them or constantly bringing up the topic.

There is a potential difficulty in getting too emotionally involved in someone else’s problems. We often feel as if we can solve the other person’s problems for them, but this is rarely possible. We usually do not have the power to change another person’s life circumstances, which, in many cases, have developed over years and years. People generally need to make major life decisions for themselves. Our psychological development requires that we learn how to work out our own problems. Whether raising children, or involving ourselves in the lives of friends and colleagues, the more we do for them, the less able they are to subsequently handle matters on their own. It creates a dependency on the person who is solving the problem. If the problem solver wants that, then their motives should be examined. There are some good books on this subject, such as Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

It’s always important to maintain proper psychological boundaries and not fall into what family therapists refer to as “enmeshment” with others. There is a fine line between healthy empathy and dysfunctional over-involvement with other peoples’ problems. We can tell when we are getting overly-involved if we’re “driven” or “compelled” to be helpful, and if we find ourselves frustrated when the other person is not taking our advice and doing exactly what we suggest.

As you know, Doctor George cannot give direct advice to people who write in, so he doesn’t mean to imply that you are overly or inappropriately involved. The situation, that you described, is certainly very sad and worthy of your concern. It is always difficult when we cannot directly reduce the suffering of others, but we should know that our concern and love can be the northern star for people who need it.

Best of luck to you and your mother in-law,
   Doctor George