Post-partum depression? Emotional abuse? Whatever — step up the counseling

Posted: May 08, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: Just spent weekend with Son and Daughter-in-Law. Son behaved horribly toward Wife, to the point that I had to get between them, and concerned for the safety of all, I told him to leave.

Daughter-in-Law, however, lit into me for “placating” son, not seeing the “real” him, creating a monster. She started all over again in the morning. I saw a completely different side of her as she verbally attacked me. This is the side Son has only recently shared with me.

Please hear me: He was over-the-top angry and wrong. Made it clear to him.

But she also was berating him, over and over, went to bed and got up an hour later to scream at him out of the blue. ... I could see the emotionally destructive dance. They are in counseling now, but there is a 4-month-old baby involved. How do I offer help, but also create appropriate space for self and them?

Answer: Wow. Poor kid. Poor everybody.

There’s one thing you can do immediately, and that is to urge your son to supplement the (I assume) couple’s counseling with his-and-hers individual counseling — and, if you can, offer to pay for it. Solo therapy is in his best interests regardless, whether she turns out to be an emotional abuser, he does, or both. That’s because emotional abusers don’t just hit pause on their abuse when they enter a therapist’s office; they are known to manipulate the proceedings to their advantage.

If you live near enough to them, you can offer to babysit regularly, a “shift” that’s on the calendar every week. It could be an oasis for this child, while also alleviating some of the caregiving pressure on the parents. It also gives you a vantage point from which you can discern the truth.

If you’re not local, then try to visit often, even if you have to stay off-site.

Question: The daughter-in-law could be experiencing postpartum depression. One of the signs of depression is anger. Maybe she should be screened for that. Unless she’s always been this way, in which case it could be general depression or something more serious like bipolar disorder.

Answer: Yes, PPD is a possibility, thanks. She also might have gone off meds to have and nurse the baby; maybe, too, she’s abusive and the baby cemented her control, freeing her to let loose.

If the son is forthcoming, the parents can get a decent idea of the context and the timing of any behavior change.

There’s a limit to how much is a parent’s business, but informed parents can provide extra hands, and clarity that only distance allows.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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