3 Ways to Defuse an Angry Adult Child
Become a supportive voice of reason instead of a sacrificial punching bag.
Posted January 18, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Adult children who act out in unhealthy ways likely need coaching to handle emotions and communicate effectively.
- Parents can play a crucial role in helping their adult child regulate their emotions.
- Being calm, firm, and non-controlling in your approach helps you avoid fruitless power struggles.
I have made one very important observation from over 30 years of coaching parents to manage conflicts with their struggling adult children: No matter how much your adult child is struggling, your role in how you perceive, feel, and respond is of utmost importance.
The challenges facing the parents of struggling adult children are ubiquitous. The parents who reach out to me are from domestic and international locations and represent the economic strata.
Does your struggling adult child act out in any of the following ways?
- Embellish and tell lies.
- Suddenly ramp up with screaming.
- Engage in gaslighting.
- Blame their struggles on you.
- Remain unemployed or underemployed.
- Act manipulatively by creating crises.
- Fail to acknowledge addictive behaviors.
- Stay with emotionally abusive intimate partners.
- Spend money recklessly.
- Express themselves often through angry outbursts.
- Sling guilt.
Are you tired of being a crisis management specialist?
Yes, I realize that tragic things happen to all of us, such as sudden health issues, car accidents, or traumas of one kind or another. But what about those adult children who deliberately create crises? Parents of struggling adult children who behave this way often feel like they are on call to fend off the next crisis—like being on a SWAT team. Are you confused about what I am referring to? The parents I coach have shared being on the receiving end of high-impact stressors from adult children, such as:
- A crisis text or call demanding (or guilting) you to give them money because of their haphazard financial management.
- Harping on the past with a victim/"woe is me" mindset.
- Angrily lashing out at you with failing short-term memory and forgetting all you've done for them in the past.
- Unfairly blaming you for not giving or doing enough compared to what you did/do for their siblings.
- Coming to you for support, complaining because they are with a toxic, manipulative relationship partner. You rush in to be supportive, and then they go back for more abuse from the toxic partner. Adding salt to your wound, they forget how supportive you've been and blame you for their relationship problems.
3 ways to bypass the drama: Be calm, firm, and noncontrolling
I encourage you to shift from being a crisis first responder to being an emotional coach. Your struggling adult child is likely emotionally immature and needs you to coach them to handle emotions and communicate more effectively. The more you see yourself as their coach (being calm, firm, and noncontrolling gets you into coach mode), the less you will feel stuck—or codependent—as a parent.
The following sample soundbite reflect the calm, firm, noncontrolling approach which I detail in my book 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. Originally developed for parents of children age 4 to 18, they have been repeatedly shown to resonate with and de-escalate "children" from 4 to 44:
- “There’s a reactive side of me, as your parent, that now wants to yell and get control. Just being aware and expressing this is helping me stay calmer. How about we talk this out so we can understand each other better?"
- “I hear that’s how you see it. I see it differently. It may help us to move on if we agree to disagree instead of continuing to fight.”
- “I can see that you’re very frustrated. Just know I’m here for you if you’d like to talk.”
- “I hope that once we calm down, we will be able to have a constructive conversation about this.”
- “I can’t control the way you choose to speak to me [or your sibling, another parent, relative] when you are upset. I think you will feel better by being more respectful.”
- “It’ll work better for both of us if you can say what you mean without saying it meanly.”
- “I appreciate how cooperative you are being during this difficult time.”
A note for frustrated adult children
I realize that there are many toxic parents of adult children out there. If you are an adult child of toxic parents who traumatized you, I empathize. I have seen many adult children who have been mistreated and abused by their parents. And as a parent myself, I've made my share of mistakes and could have done some things better. At the same time, countless parents try their best while understandably falling far short of being perfect.
While I understand you may have problematic or even abusive parents, please don't blame them for your struggles without also taking a forward look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can know your value and move toward your valuable independence.
Being your struggling adult child's emotion coach, not their rescuer from the SWAT team, takes a different mindset. A calm, firm, noncontrolling mindset will promote healthy de-escalation of conflict and pave the way to problem-solving and growth--without the drama. The more you learn to bypass your adult child's emotional reactivity (and your own), the better they will be able to engage in calm, constructive conversations, which are essential for a successful life.
Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Gotlieb, L. (2016). Dear Therapist: I Don’t Know How to Help My Angry, Unmotivated Adult Son, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/dear-therapist-son-f….
Kelly E. Cichy, Eva S. Lefkowitz, Eden M. Davis, Karen L. Fingerman, “You Are Such a Disappointment!”: Negative Emotions and Parents’ Perceptions of Adult Children’s Lack of Success, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 68, Issue 6, November 2013, Pages 893–901, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbt053
Swaab, L., McCormack, L. & Campbell, L.E. Distress and Psychological Growth in Parenting an Adult Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Aggression. Adv Neurodev Disord 1, 260–270 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-017-0033-5