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Stop Letting Your Adult Child Guilt You

You are in charge of how you view yourself, not your child.

Key points

  • Adult children sling guilt when they feel defeated, helpless, and alone.
  • Knowing your own value means rejecting an adult child's attempts to tear you down using guilt.
  • Saying "No more" helps empower you to think and act more empowered.
  • If you have regrets, learn to let them go and learn from them rather than feeling weighed down.

Joey, age 23, sent this text message at 1 AM to his mom, Julia: "Mom, I need $2500 to invest for this really dope music opportunity. For real, I got this!"

Julia responded, "Joey, how about you first help me know more what this is all about?

Joey replied, "WTF, mom? Don't you EVEN trust my judgment on anything! This is the one thing that can improve my life and YOU don't give a crap at all!"

The parents of adult children whom I coach often share soundbites of feeling manipulated by the same types of provocative and incendiary comments that Joey sent to Julia.

Here are some further examples:

  • Brianna recounted these words from her 24-year-old daughter, Allegra: "You're a selfish narcissist and never think about anyone but yourself." This was in response to Brianna telling Allegra she was not cosigning her student loan, after Allegra had dropped out of three prior colleges.
  • Carlo, age 28, says to his father, Terry, "You make me feel like the black sheep of this family!" and, "You're the reason I use drugs."
  • Javon told me he reached his breaking point when his 33-year-old daughter, Kim, said, "I thought I could count on you, but obviously I can't! Fine, I'll just end up homeless!"

Time to Get Off the Guilt Merry-Go-Round

Stop setting yourself up to be on call to automatically respond like to a SWAT team to solve the next manufactured, drama-laden crisis. If you are sick and tired of the guilt-slinging, here's a helpful two-word phrase to empower you: No more.

When your adult child tries to engage you through shaming and guilt with pressuring demands, when your adult child is emotionally abusive, or when they fail to acknowledge your love and/or the positive things you have done, you have to draw the line and say, or at the very least, think, No more.

  • No more being a punching bag for misplaced and displaced disappointments and frustrations.
  • No more comparing yourself to parents of adult children who do not have the same struggles as your own.
  • No more beating yourself up for past mistakes you've made as a parent.

The next time your adult child tries to manipulate you with guilt or is hurtful toward you, step back and do the following:

  • See these manipulations for what they are and thank yourself for seeing them instead of getting sucked in and being a victim to them.
  • Set those crucial boundaries with your adult child and no longer be a victim of manipulations.

The more you look down at your shared interaction, staying mindful of this toxic dance, the less vulnerable you will be to getting tripped up by it. Whether communicating in person, on the phone, or through text messages, within your mind, rise and watch the toxic guilt being hurled at you from above.

Embrace Your Guilt With Curiosity

Sit with your guilty feelings about your adult child and explore them with curiosity instead of judgment. Many situations are more complex than they first appear. Owning up to mistakes is important. It’s equally important, however, to say "No more" to unnecessarily blaming yourself for things in your adult child's life (including their choices) that you can’t control.

Forgive Yourself

Self-forgiveness is a key component of self-compassion. When you forgive yourself, you acknowledge that you made a mistake, and then you can look to the future without letting that mistake own you. You grant yourself love and kindness by accepting your imperfect self. Remember where all the perfect people are: In the cemetery!

Self-forgiveness involves four main steps:

  1. Take responsibility for your actions.
  2. Express remorse and regret without letting it transform into shame.
  3. Commit to making amends for any harm you caused.
  4. Practice self-acceptance and trust yourself to do better in the future.

Parents often have a hard time letting go of guilt, which is understandable. After all, it’s not easy to move on from a mistake you made with a child. But letting an adult child actively manipulate you with toxic guilt will consume you and leave you feeling powerless.

Guilt belongs in the past. You can begin letting it go by strengthening your resilience and building confidence to make better choices in the future.

A Supportive Message to Adult Children Who Are Hurting

It is my hope that your parents did not weaponize this post by sending it to you. I realize that there truly are many toxic parents out there. If you are an adult child of truly toxic parents who traumatized you, I empathize. I also work with many adult children who have been mistreated and abused by their parents. And as a parent myself, I've made my own share of mistakes. Yet, some parents try their best while falling far short of being perfect. Don't compromise your worth by riding on a horse named Victim. Before blaming your parents for your own struggles, take a look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can move toward your own valuable independence. Bottom line: Learn to feel good about knowing your own value as an adult even if your parent(s) did not do the best job of seeing it or expressing it.

More from Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.
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