The Missing Parent Syndrome (MPS): How Psychosocial Loss Impacts Adult Children & Strategies for Building Bridges and Reworking the Grief – Pt I

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Two recent events reminded me of what I am dubbing “MPS” – the Missing Parent Syndrome. The parent is not literally missing; more MPS reflects a sudden, overwhelming event or illness, and/or chronic condition (e.g., a serious stroke, perhaps with lingering post-depressive symptoms, or ongoing dysfunctional substance abuse, maybe even severe workaholic patterns, etc.) that affect mind-body-psyche health, feeling of fragility vs. hardiness, sense of self, and capacity for mature engagement with others.

In addition, the Missing Parent may be away for lengthy periods of time because of the type of work; think of a mother or father in or employed by the military stationed overseas. Of course, a person temporarily living outside the family doesn’t automatically breed an MPS scenario. However, upon the MP’s return, if this individual and/or the family have prolonged difficulty with reintegrating healthy partner-parental roles, the extended household may be sowing MPS seeds.


The MP just cannot be as emotionally available as they were before the bio-psycho-social turning point. There’s a new or exaggerated self-centeredness, callousness, or pronounced cautiousness; their defensive and self-protective walls have gone up limiting give and take openness and authenticity. The MP will push you away – passively or aggressively – if you get too close to their pain or shame. And if the pattern persists, what may have been a psychological-interpersonal problem for the child can take on biochemical dimensions, including states of intense agitation, aggression, and/or depression. And this phenomenon is particularly pronounced and hurtful when the parent is still physically present in the child’s life. Also, MPS may involve adult children of almost any age as much as youngsters and teens.

Let me provide some “Missing Parent” examples, along with key family dynamics, followed by some MSP intervention strategies:

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1. Lonely, Wounded Mother and “Clinging” Son. A Supervisor, who I’ll call Eric, in a recent workshop with five other management-level colleagues, shared how his once vital mother (now in her 50s) has become depressed, has gained considerable weight, and mostly stays at home. Actually, it’s been ten years since she really has been that vibrant fun loving woman Eric once knew and still longs for. Ten years ago this late 20s gentlemen left for the military. Also, his younger brother graduated high school and was spending less time at home. More recently, Eric has become engaged and his fiancée is expecting. He did not mention any involvement between his mother and his fiancée.

In addition to the family separation issues, I suspect “grief ghosts” were rearing and roaring. The oldest son’s father had left the household when he was one. The father eventually remarried and there has been really no involvement with the family. For this man, the mother, not the father, is the “missing parent.”

However, the mother has always been bitter about the loss; and I’m sure her ex’s remarrying only added that proverbial salt to the wound. In fact, over the years Eric shared how his mother would scold him for behaving “like his father.” He acknowledged looking like his father. Still, when Eric drives fifty miles to be with his mother, this young man can’t understand why she won’t make an effort to get dressed or doesn’t want to go out and have a good time. In addition to not understanding her depression, he refuses to recognize that his mom, at least for the foreseeable future, will not be recapturing her former, seemingly joyful manner of living. Not surprisingly, Eric himself is becoming increasingly depressed by the visits. And, alas, he knows his mother will not seek medical assistance for her depression.

Interventions: Logical and Psychological

a) Logical. Not surprisingly, the group wanted Eric to “honor thy mother,” to accept where she is and just “be” with her. A popular suggestion was staying home and sharing Chinese delivery. And, of course, a vital component of mature love is placing another’s needs before one’s own. (At the same time, one must be aware of possible unhealthy self-denial patterns, e.g., giving one’s self away and thereby enabling another’s dysfunctional behavior and decision-making.)

b) Psychological. It’s vital to recognize that before a person can implement logical problem-solving, he may have to engage in psychological processing. And in this instance, Eric needed to own his anger fueled by unrealistic expectations of his mother. In addition to not understanding his mom’s depression, he is presently trapped by irrational anger. But at a deeper emotional level, his anger distracts from a painful sadness regarding the reality of his mother’s compromised state and living condition. And sometimes children can be frightened by role reversal – when a parent becomes less functional and increasingly needy.

In addition, it’s hard to say precisely what impact Eric beginning a new family is having on his mother; it is possible some old echoes (abandoned by Eric’s father) and fears of further disconnection are being stirred. Of course, mom may be worried that she will be eclipsed by her son’s new constellation.

After much back and forth with the group, the true complexity of the family entanglement began dawning on Eric. He seemed receptive about calling the EAP for guidance. In hindsight, I wish I had more specifically explored or mentioned two resources: 1) does his mom belong to a church, and might a church member make a home visit? and 2) if contacted, a counselor from a United Way Family Counseling Agency would likely make a home visit, with the hope of developing a supportive relationship with his mother. The longer term goal, naturally, would be getting Eric’s mom the medical and therapeutic help she needs.

And finally, counseling for Eric would allow him to grieve the lost “idealized mother,” enabling him to feel less deprived and burdened. And with this step, he has a real fighting chance to become a more realistically caring son. In addition, Eric spoke of a conflict with an older woman in the workplace that certainly had “mother-child” overtones. When MPS issues are not acknowledged, disguised or misguided battles invariably break out.

And in Part II, I will do some exploration that hits close to home: how the death of my girlfriend Diana’s 19 y.o. daughter, and Diana’s subsequent emotional devastation and withdrawal, impacted the relationship with her still living 17 y.o. daughter. And why and how, nineteen years later, opportunity arose to: 1) revisit this painful “missing parent” issue and 2) clear up and clean up much of the wound. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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