Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: 'My son says I'm a dreadful mother and doesn't want to see me any more'

Dear Virginia, My son, who's 25, became very depressed and ended up going to see a therapist. He's been fairly cold lately, but last week he wrote me a letter saying what a dreadful mother I have been and how he doesn't want to see me any more. I can't understand it. I have two other children who also feel baffled by it – they say I've been a great mum to all of them. My ex-husband doesn't help, by feeding him nasty, untrue stories about me. What can I do? Best wishes, Teresa
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This is a terrible situation for you to be in and there's really nothing you can do. Sometimes people who go to certain counsellors – not all, I hasten to add – end up with views fed to them at a time when they are most vulnerable, that can only be described as wicked. It's so easy to turn a young person's mind when they're at their lowest, and what simpler target to suggest to blame than their mother, quite possibly some blameless woman who, while she might not have been great shakes as a mum, was only doing her best?

The truth is that all unhappy people feel that their parents were to blame for at least part of their misery, and of course they may well be right. But writing letters and trying to cut them out of our lives isn't the way forward. That doesn't get us anywhere. It just buries the problem under the carpet. The way to resolve these feelings is to take at least some responsibility for the way our parent's behaviour has affected us and take responsibility for that response. And, if we can, forgive our parent for any damaging part they played in the relationship.

Clearly any parent who enjoyed stubbing cigarette butts out on their child, and encouraged it to be gang-raped by drunken partners doesn't deserve a lot of love or sympathy, if any, but these are extreme cases. It sounds as if you gave your son as much love as you could at the time, and if you made mistakes they were probably very human ones of the kind that any parent makes from time to time.

I would try hard to get your other two children to talk to your son and find out exactly what his gripe is. If there's any specific incident in the past that's preying on his mind, it's no skin off your nose to apologise for it profusely, try to explain why it happened and beg forgiveness. Even if it's just a general malaise about feeling left out or least favoured, again an apology doesn't do any harm. No mother wants her child to feel hurt in any way, even if his hurt is entirely imaginary, but certainly not if there is an element of truth in it.

But if they can't pin him down to anything, then I'd simply continue to stay in touch as much as you can. Send him birthday presents and cards. And email him, perhaps every month, with news of your life and with an affectionate note at the end saying how much you wish him happiness and how you think of him every day.

Eventually, I hope, this kind of attention will wear him down and when he emerges from his depression – or leaves that particular counsellor – he may be in more of a mood for a rapprochement. He's at an age when a lot of chickens come home to roost and it may that this is a phase, like all the other phases he went through as a child, that he will grow out of in time.

It's the illness talking

Being foul to the person nearest and dearest to you is part of the horrible illness of depression. It is most difficult to bear, particularly the first time it happens but it is the illness doing it, not the man.

My late husband suffered from bouts of severe depression and my daughter has, too. The first time our daughter became ill when my husband was well, he said that the thing he found most difficult to bear was the way she spoke to us as if she actually disliked us. I told him that that was exactly the way in which he spoke to me when he was ill. I never managed this most difficult part of caring as well as a woman I met once on an out-patients' bench who quite openly called her son "Mr Grumpy". She said it helped her deal with a situation that was just about intolerable, reminding her that it was the depressive behaviour of the man that she was having to live with, not the loving, caring man she used to know. Sometimes they come back to us as they were before they became ill, sometimes they don't. Try and get as much normal life as you can with your other two children.

London W11

Therapy caused this

Perhaps Teresa should ask her other children to enquire about this therapist. A dear friend of mine suffered from OCD. She tried many sources of help. One "therapist" persuaded her it was all her mother's fault, and prompted her to write a detailed accusation to the lady (by then living abroad). I saw the pained and bewildered letter she had in response. In the many years I knew her before the "therapy" she had never criticised her mother. The "therapy" did not help at all – she recovered, years later, with treatment based on a contradictory theory.

Fred Murphy, By email

It's not your fault

I know how you feel! Our 25-year-old son went to a therapist and announced that we were to blame for his unhappy childhood and subsequent problems. We realised he was not well and did not argue with him. We apologised for any mistakes we may have made and this seemed to mollify him. We too turned to our other children for consolation. They sensibly pointed out that he was entitled to his perception, but it was not a childhood they recognised. Your son may have needed to pin the blame on someone and he chose you. You will have to shoulder this burden, keep in touch in any way you can and show him you still love him.

Our son is now 30 and is back living with us. Not an easy situation, but we are glad he wants our support. Hopefully your son's health and his attitude towards you will improve with time.

Name and address supplied

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 25 and my problem is that I keep having sex with almost every man I go out with – and often on the first date. I don't enjoy the encounters particularly, but each time I keep thinking that this is the one that might come to something – and then I'm so unhappy when the man doesn't contact me afterwards. Sometimes the affair will last a bit longer, but the moment a man starts falling for me, I start to turn on him, and can't bear to see him. I can't see how I'm ever going to have a proper relationship at this rate. What is wrong with me?

Yours sincerely, Viola

What would you advise Viola to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent.co.uk, or go to independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a Belgian Chocolate Selection by Amelie Chocolat (www.ameliechocolat.co.uk)

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