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Is Your Adult Child Emotionally Draining You?

Being your adult child's emotion coach can help you be an effective parent.

In my coaching parents of adult children for over 30 years, I've heard of many overly dependent adult children who lash out—due to being stalled out—with little motivation. These adult children are hurting and often take it out on their parents.

The stories I'm told are often heartwrenching. They include details of adult sons, daughters and non-binary adult children who never really thrived academically or socially. At the same time, I hear of adult children who had been doing well academically, socially, and even in the world of work and then became waylaid by traumatic events, health conditions, or getting mixed up with an unhealthy intimate partner.

Parents in these situations feel like the walking wounded as they find themselves at their wit's end. One of the biggest struggles they face is asking themselves if they are constructively helping their struggling adult children or enabling them.

What Is Enabling?

Enabling usually refers to patterns that appear in the context of drug or alcohol misuse and addiction. But according to the American Psychological Association, it can refer to patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue.

But it’s important to realize enabling doesn’t really help. Over time it can have a damaging effect on your loved one and others around them. It’s difficult for someone to get help if they don’t fully see the consequences of their actions.

7 Examples of Feeling Depleted by a Challenging Adult Child

  • A text or call out of nowhere asking for money. Feeling worn down, you give in without really discussing the matter.
  • An accusation over something you did, did not do, or that you weren't doing enough compared to what you did/do for their siblings. You feel as if you are used to being accused of things like this, but deep down you wonder, "Can anyone really put up with this kind of emotional abuse"?
  • Bringing up a decision you made years ago and dwelling on the past with a "woe is me" mindset. You fail to be assertive because you feel guilty, though it is not really justifiable.
  • Telling you that you have not been supportive toward their toxic, manipulative relationship partner—and yet they call you and complain about them! You worry this toxic partner may be there for the long haul so you just take this wrongful accusation.
  • Being blamed by them for their relationship problems. You marvel at how distorted this is but yet don't have the energy to speak your own truth that this is not the case.
  • Denying a substance abuse problem or full-on addiction and blaming you for stressing them out and "making" them use alcohol or drugs. You have tried in the past to mention substance abuse and your adult child has been in denial and has now pulled you in too.
  • Unfavorably comparing you to other parents or grandparents. You feel tired, shamed, and emotionally drained and think maybe you are the problem after all.

If you get pulled into these crises, it is time to stop. My book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, includes the following coaching tips:

To sidestep a heated argument, Say, "I hear that is how you see it, I see it differently."

To counter when your adult child manipulatively says, "You don't care about me," you can say, "I appreciate you telling me you feel this way. What am I doing that is getting in the way of showing how much I value and love you?"

When your adult child is otherwise disrespectful, Say,"You'll likely feel better about yourself when you speak to me in the respectful manner that I am trying to speak to you."

And, when your adult child does regulate their emotions and open up to you in a constructive way, make sure you "catch them" positively engaging you and let them know you appreciate it.

It goes without saying—but I'll say it anyway—that parents need to be sure to apologize for their past shortcomings, within reason. Remind your adult child that you are still learning to be their parent. After all, Isn't that true? In this spirit of a growth mindset, you can further share that the best way for you to keep learning and growing is to have constructive conversations with them. Even if they are not ready to do this, you can find comfort in knowing that you are willing to do so.

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