Whenever I hear the term “unconditional love,” I think of the first moment I saw my son.

That’s probably the purest love I’ve ever felt, or ever will feel. All he had done so far was breathe and cry a little, and I loved him.

Yet unconditional parental love can be used up, worn away and virtually destroyed.

Some of the most difficult moments I’ve ever witnessed as a therapist, where there wasn’t an actual death, is when a parent is agonizing over a child whose destructiveness and emotional manipulation is squeezing out the last drops of unconditional love that parent feels. By the time they’re in my office, there have been years of lying (by commission or omission), stealing, drug abuse or prescription medication abuse, disappearances and reappearances, emotional manipulation, multiple jobs, and chronic chaos — maybe even continual suicidal threats. To say these “children” haven’t successfully launched is an understatement. They seem stuck in years of making a mess out of their lives, and frequently blame others, especially parents, for their plight.

Certainly, there are many parents who do a poor job of providing safety and a sense of being securely loved for their children. A child can feel besieged by the instability and emotional onslaught of a parent as well. It can take years for that child to understand that their parent isn’t stable or it wasn’t their “fault’ that their mother or father wasn’t, and probably isn’t, there for them. That reality can make a child’s path to adulthood very difficult, and can leave emotional wounds that can only be healed with awareness, compassion and time.

But not always.

When parents are good enough but children still struggle…

Parents may have actually been decent, “good enough” parents. They didn’t expect too much or too little, they focused on letting their children be children, they were understanding and handled life with maturity, they provided safety, they worked together. Sure they made mistakes. But the mistakes were normal and unintentional.

Yet children can still develop emotional and mental problems. She may have a diagnosable severe mental illness which creates deep despondency and/or chaotic highs, but refuses treatment. Drugs may be altering her personality and an addiction may govern her every move. Her patterns of thinking and behavior may be distorted and dysfunctional, and her emotions and impulses may ravage through and control her, as in a personality disorder.

Parents are left to fight through the questions and find their own answers. The guilt can feel immense, “What did we miss? What did I, or we, do or not do?” To go from watching a toddler take his first steps to overhearing him make a drug deal or vehemently claim that one more supervisor was after him is a long, extremely painful journey.  And that pain can become unbearable.

In order to cope, in order to reach some kind of emotional balance, a necessary sense of detachment begins to happen — necessary because continuing to unconditionally love that child will only end in sabotaging what’s left of their own lives, and the lives of their other sons and daughters, grandparents and other family members.

Anyone can use up unconditional love. Anyone. Your spouse. Your parent, Or your child.

It’s a kind of emotional death. The death of dreams. The death of hope. The death of trust.

You love. But that love becomes cautious. Guarded. You detach, just as they say in Alanon, “Detach with love.” These parents know their child is miserable, often leading a life that she recognizes in her core is far from what she dreamed. But she doesn’t have the belief or the readiness to risk choosing another way of being.

The need to set boundaries…

These same parents, who’ve tried to love as well as they knew how, have to set boundaries. They change the locks on their doors to keep their 28 year-old daughter from stealing — or tell their 32 year-old daughter she’s not invited home due to her emotional sabotage of one more holiday– or cut off financial support from a 40 year-old son and realize he could be homeless — or feel better when that son is in prison because they know where he is.

It can feel terrible. Yet these are natural consequences of their now adult child’s behavior. Setting boundaries can escalate the child’s behavior, as he or she tries desperately to manipulate the parent into returning to a little or no boundary zone.

Hopefully the boundaries remain intact.  But it’s far from easy.

When parents don’t agree on what to do…

A couple comes immediately to mind. His daughter had a severe alcohol problem, and would call at all hours of the night — or leave messages and then not pick up the phone. He would rush over to find her passed out in the bathtub or on the floor. His wife, the stepmother, had had enough, as this had been going on for years.

You have to stop. She has to confront this in herself. As long as she knows you’ll save her, you’ll fix it, she won’t fix it herself.”

“But what if the one time I don’t go is the time she actually dies? I could never forgive myself.”

The room got very still. Both looked at me as if I had the answer. I didn’t. There was no good answer.

They eventually met with the daughter, after compromising on what he could stomach, and what she could tolerate.

These parents feel the kind of pain that doesn’t get written about. It doesn’t go away. Way too often, there isn’t a Disney ending to these stories. It can’t be made pretty.

The child has to reach his or her own “bottom.”

And that can be agonizing to watch.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!