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Guilt

How to Stop Allowing an Adult Child to Walk All Over You

Take off the "Kick Me" sign and forgive yourself.

Key points

  • Adult chldren who are hurting may direct their angst at their parents.
  • Parents who get ensnared by guilt and regret can end up enabling problematic behavior.
  • Adult children benefit from taking constructive actions instead of blaming parents for their struggles.

Adult children, especially those who are emotionally struggling and lack the ability to have calm, constructive conversations, may walk all over their parents. These adult children assert undue control, manipulate, or take advantage of parents emotionally, financially, or in other ways.

This can strain the parent-child relationship, eroding boundaries and mutual respect. It often involves a lack of consideration for the parents' needs, feelings, and autonomy, leading to an unhealthy dynamic. As I explain in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, empathy-based communication, clear boundaries, and mutual understanding are essential for addressing and resolving issues with adult children and promoting a healthier family dynamic.

Following are some examples from my parent coaching experiences of the ways adult children can be unyieldingly manipulative and emotionally aggressive. (Names and other identifying information have been changed to preserve privacy.)

  • Jose 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!"
  • Joey, 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!"

Take Off That "Kick Me" Sign

Stop setting yourself up to be on call to automatically respond like a SWAT team, ready 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've done for them, you have to set boundaries and say, "No more."

  • No more beating yourself up for past mistakes.
  • No more being a punching bag for your child's displaced disappointments and frustrations.
  • No more comparing yourself to other parents who are not experiencing the same struggles.

The next time your adult child tries to manipulate you with guilt, 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 picture yourself looking 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 Message to Adult Children Who May Be Hurting

I also work with many adult children who have been mistreated and abused by their parents. As a parent myself, I've made my own share of mistakes. Some parents try their best while falling far short of being perfect. I realize that there are many emotionally immature and toxic parents out there. If you are an adult child of truly toxic parents who traumatized you, I empathize.

Still, don't compromise your striving for success by blaming your parents for your own struggles. Instead, take a look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can move toward your desired 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.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock

References

Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd Edition). Hachette Go Publications, New York, N.Y.

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, PESI Publishing Eu Claire, WI.

Deidre McPhillips (2023) Mental health struggles are driving more college students to consider dropping out, survey finds, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/23/health/mental-health-college-dropout-sur…

Hanson, Melanie. “College Dropout Rates” EducationData.org, June 17, 2022, https://educationdata.org/college-dropout-rates

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

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