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One Word to Stop Your Adult Child's Upsetting Manipulations

Strings of the puppeteer: Unraveling the web of manipulative adult children.

Key points

  • The stress of dealing with a manipulative adult child leads to feeling helpless, sad, and frustrated.
  • Understand toxic manipulations and spot them instead of getting sucked in and being a victim to them.
  • Say, "Enough" to being a punching bag for misplaced and displaced disappointments and frustrations.

Manipulative adult children often exploit their parents' love and generosity for personal gain. They may use guilt, emotional blackmail, or manipulation to extract financial assistance or other resources. These parents, who once provided selfless care and nurturing, find themselves trapped in a web of emotional manipulation and psychological strain.

The constant stress of dealing with a manipulative adult child can lead to feelings of helplessness, sadness, and disappointment. Parents may question where they went wrong in their parenting, feeling responsible for their child's behavior. Moreover, manipulative actions can strain relationships within the family, causing rifts between siblings and creating a toxic environment.

Julie Can't Find Peace With Stacy

Julie's description of her adult daughter, Stacy (names changed for privacy), is heart-wrenching. Julie feels vulnerable to her adult daughter's manipulations. Julie shared with me representative soundbites of what Stacy says to her. Many of my parent-coaching clients share similar stories with me whereby they feel sucked into the vortex of guilt-inducing messages such as these:

  • You invalidate me all the time!
  • I thought I could count on you but, obviously, I can't!
  • Fine, I'll just end up homeless!
  • If you really loved me, you wouldn't question why I need this!
  • You make me feel like the black sheep of this family!
  • You're selfish and never think about anyone but yourself!

As a parent, maybe you can identify with being on the receiving end of toxic, manipulative messages like those above. And if you can, you may ask, "So, now what do I do?" Well, it was highly rewarding for me to see how Julie learned to respond to these types of manipulations from Stacy in a much more emotionally healthier way.

John Tries His Best But Feels Like the Worst Parent Ever

Another coaching client of mine named John shared similar concerns with me. He said, "My adult son Brian knows exactly what to say to make me feel guilty, and then I give in to his unreasonable demands. I try to be kind and generous, but he makes me feel like I am the worst, most unsupportive parent in the world!"

John, continued, "I keep feeling guilty. There are so many things I could have done to help Brian. I never realized he had so much anxiety and sadness that I just couldn't see. I feel like a failure as a parent!"

A Supportive Note to Adult Children

Before I go further, let me say this: I realize that there are also many toxic parents of adult children 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 share of mistakes and could have done some things better. At the same time, countless parents try their best while falling far short of being perfect.

So, if you happen to be a frustrated adult child, know and reclaim your value. Don't blame your parents for your struggles without also taking a look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can move toward your valuable independence. Bottom line: Learn to feel good about knowing your value as an adult even if your parent(s) did not do the best job of seeing it or expressing it.

Say "Enough" of the Madness to Help Set Boundaries

As a parent, if you are sick and tired of the manipulation, here's a helpful word to empower you: Enough! As in, Enough is enough! This word, Enough, is key for you to pause and set those all-important healthy boundaries.

Please keep in mind that setting (or reclaiming) boundaries does not mean losing empathy for your adult child. If your adult child has anxiety, has depression, is struggling with an active addiction, or has other struggles, they may have a harder time making healthy choices to help themselves. If your boundary-setting efforts come from a place of good intention, that is having heart versus being heartless. My book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, further discusses how to balance empathy for adult children's struggles with effective boundary setting.

The Empowering Clarity of "Enough"

When your adult child tries to engage you through shame with pressuring demands, is emotionally abusive, or fails 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, Enough:

  • Enough of being a punching bag for misplaced and displaced disappointments and frustrations.
  • Enough of beating yourself up for past mistakes you've made as a parent.
  • Enough of being what I call a SWAT-team parent. Stop setting yourself up to be on call to automatically respond to and solve the next manufactured, drama-laden crisis.
  • Enough negatively comparing yourself to parents of adult children who do not have the same struggles as your own.

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

  1. Whether communicating in person, on the phone, or through text messages, within your mind, rise up and watch the toxic manipulations from above.
  2. Understand these manipulations for what they are and thank yourself for seeing them instead of getting sucked in and being a victim to them.
  3. Now, think "Enough!" and, if you feel it's appropriate, then also say, "Enough."
  4. Realize that now knowing when enough is enough empowers you to set those crucial boundaries with your adult child and no longer be a victim of manipulations.


Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd. Ed), Hachette Go Books, New York, NY.

Birditt, K.S. (2009). Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence. Psychol Aging. 2009 Jun; 24(2): 287–295.doi: 10.1037/a0015196, PMCID: PMC2690709, NIHMSID: NIHMS94367

Yang, J., & Zheng, Y. (2019). Links Between Perceptions of Successes, Problems and Health Outcomes Among Adult Children: The Mediating Role of Perceptions of Parents’ Feelings and Intergenerational Relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

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