“Am I a helicopter parent? Or healthy in my fierce efforts to ensure my son’s mental health?” Author asks.


Illustration courtesy of Psychology Today.

(3-2-20) I published an inspiring blog last June about parental guilt written by Faith Tibbetts McDonald, an author and fellow parent of an adult son with a serious mental illness. I met Faith after giving a speech and am thrilled that she has continued to write about her journey in a new book, offering thoughtful advice based on her own experiences.

Am I a helicopter parent? Or healthy in my fierce efforts to ensure my son’s mental health?

By Faith Tibbetts McDonald, author of  On The Loving End Of Crazy.

One gray day last winter, I noticed that my adult son who suffers bouts of major depression and usually stops by our house for coffee on his way to work had not stopped by for two days in a row.

I called his phone. The call went straight to voice mail.

The symptoms of depression ticked through my mind: fatigue, excessive sleeping, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness. Sometimes, thoughts of suicide.

I drove to his apartment. The mile and a half seemed longer than usual.

His car was in the driveway. He hadn’t gone to work.

To calm my anxious thoughts, I inhaled slowly and let myself in to his house.

I barged to his bedroom where the blinds were pulled shut. He was in bed with the covers drawn up over his head. “I can’t get up,” he murmured.

Not the worst scenario my runaway worries had conjured.

I sat down on the edge of his bed.

“I’m going to sit here until you do get up. And then we will call a doctor.” 

“No, I don’t need a doctor. It’s just the winter blues,” he said as he rolled over, secured the covers around his shoulders, and burrowed deeper into his bed.

“Your medication needs to be adjusted.”

“No, I just have the winter blues.”

I knew better and shifted my efforts to promote my son’s health into high gear.

I made a list: doctor’s appointment, counseling appointment, some kind of exercise, joy-seeking excursion.

With one click on Amazon, I ordered an alarm clock that gradually fills a room with light to mimic the rising sun. It’s supposed to help individuals wake up feeling energetic and happy. Spoiler alert: it didn’t help. Turns out, a person has to set the clock religiously.

My son is an adult.  I can’t visit his apartment and set his alarm clock every night. Or make doctor’s appointments for him. Or force him to the appointments.

Convincing an adult to seek mental health help takes an enormous amount of fortitude and negotiating finesse.

And that’s not the hard part.

Every time I set out to help my son, accusations that are prompted by ideas that circulate in our culture, blare in my thoughts: “Helicopter parent!” “Enabler!” “He has to hit rock bottom and then he’ll seek help.” “You’re over-parenting.” “He has to learn to be his own advocate.”

So, while determining when and how to step in to help, and when and how to step back and let him adult on his own is challenging, negotiating my complicated feelings about that struggle takes intentional thought. I’ve learned to give myself a lot of grace.

What I really want is for my son to develop healthy practices that maintain his own health.

However, sometimes his illness paralyzes and hinders his ability to care for himself.

Walking the fine line between urging him to independence and stepping in when his illness cripples him requires discernment, courage, tenacity and grace.

I need to step in when help is needed.

And step back when he’s healthy enough to function on his own.

Because signs of his illness are not obvious like a bleeding gash or protruding, broken bone, it’s easy to forget, as one health professional told me, “Right now, his brain his broken. That means the part of him that makes good decisions isn’t working.”

To complicate things, when he is ill, he doesn’t ask for help. His illness causes him to drift into himself.

If you love someone who struggles with mental illness, you may find yourself facing a similar struggle. As I determine when and how to step in, here are some practices that work for me:

  1. I watch my son’s behavior for signals about the state of his health. I try not to be invasive like a paparazzi photographer. I watch from a discrete distance. When I notice physical signs that he’s struggling, say he misses work, or comes by to visit and doesn’t smile when the dog greets him, or he stops over and lays on the couch for hours, I know it’s time to step in.
  2. I ask questions. Examples: You don’t seem very happy to see the dog, what’s going on? What can I do to help you maintain your health this week?
  3. I talk to him about how his behavior affects me. I like it when you stop by for coffee in the mornings. I worry when you don’t stop in. If you decide not to come by, could you text me? Or do you mind if I text you? You and your health are important to me. Let’s maintain it with a proactive approach that works for both of us.
  4. Once during a dark time, at a counselor’s suggestion, we selected a code word that our son could use if he felt he was spiraling to suicidal thoughts. Now, I can’t remember the word we chose. At the time, having a code word as a tool reminded us that talking about difficult aspects of illness is necessary and possible.
  5. Seeking counseling together is an option. We are all doing the best we can in the throes of this illness. When things get tense, I suggest that we get counseling together. Finding a good counselor is a challenge, and my son has never agreed to our getting counseling together, but pointing to it as an option has helped us talk through some difficult matters.
  6. When I insist that my son get help, I find ways to offer options. When my son goes through a stint of depression, he is so stymied by the heaviness that cloaks him that he can’t identify areas in which he needs support, so I offer choices: I can make you a healthy meal. I can ask you repeatedly to go on a walk with me. I can drive you to your appointments. What will be helpful?  When I insist that we are going to get medical help, I say here are some options you can choose from: emergency room? Family doctor? Psychiatrist?
  7. I provide room in our relationship for him to get better. When he’s healthy, I step back but still work hard to build our relationship.
  8. I am compassionate with myself regarding my complicated feelings. Once in a while, I give myself permission to do silly things prompted by worry if doing so helps me feel better. However, I allow my son as much independence and control of his own life as he is able to handle. I don’t want to interfere, but I will when his well-being demands it. The only way I have found to live with the emotional tension I feel is to acknowledge that it exists and that I am doing my best to navigate it.

Maybe there’s a scenario in which the popular advice to wait for someone to hit rock bottom is good advice. But that’s someone else’s story. When it comes to mental illness, people need to step in for their loved ones.

And then there’s the stepping back.

As much as I wish I could, I can’t get better for another person. On the sidelines of another person’s life, I can educate and encourage, but I can’t do the healthy practices that may lead to more vibrant health for him.

I’ve learned that loving someone who struggles with mental illness requires surrender, versatility and lots of communication.

After a stint in the hospital during a mental health crisis, our son lived with us for a few years. He began to talk about moving out which prompted worry for me. How would I keep an eye on his health?

I explained to him: I am never going to say, “Yes, this is a good idea… but you know what’s a good idea for you. Do it!”

We can’t win the struggle for our loved one’s health but we can support them in healthy ways.

We can allow them the space in which they can grow.

And we can be healthy ourselves. It’s not healthy for me to accept labels like “helicopter parent” that indicate I’m parenting inadequately. More accurately, I’m a mother who loves her son. I will sacrifice my comfort for his. I am fierce in my effort to seek my son’s health.

That’s who you are, too. Own it.

About the author: Faith Tibbetts McDonald is an assistant professor of teaching in the English Department at the Pennsylvania State University. Her book On the Loving End of Crazy—One Mom’s Story of Hope is a mother’s true story about parental coping when a loved son becomes crippled by anxiety and depression and after a series of lawless, self-destructive acts, attempts suicide. The book was written to bring hope and help to people who love someone whose life is unraveling due to mental illness. As one reader says, “After reading Faith’s work, we’ll all be better at the hard stuff.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.