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The 6 Distorted Realities of Struggling Adult Children

1. They expect others to meet all their needs.

Key points

  • Some adult children struggle to live in reality due to several factors, including a lack of life skills.
  • Enabling behavior from parents can hinder an adult child's personal growth and recovery.
  • Addressing these issues can require a multifaceted approach, including practical skills development.
StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay
Source: StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay

Struggling adult children who do not seem to live in reality may exhibit a range of behaviors and attitudes that indicate a disconnect from the practical aspects of life. As I see from coaching parents trying to help their adult children who struggle to thrive, their dysfunctional beliefs can manifest in various ways, and it's often a complex interplay of psychological, social, and environmental factors.

Some struggling adult children may have mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, or other psychological disorders that can affect their ability to engage with reality. These conditions may affect motivation, decision-making, and overall functioning.

Here are some areas of divergent reality for struggling adult children.

1. Dependency Issues

Financial Dependence: Some adult children may struggle to live in reality due to financial dependence on their parents or others. They might resist taking on responsibilities and making necessary life decisions because they rely on others to meet their needs.

One of my clients sought my help to manage his unhealthy guilt, which caused him to keep supporting his 28-year-old son, Josh, who chose to quit new jobs after a few weeks or months and therefore had no awareness of the value of the dollar. It was the last straw for my client when Josh said, "Dad, if you even cared one bit about me, you'd step up and buy me a new guitar because my music is gonna make me famous. And when I'm famous, your sorry ass will regret not supporting my dreams."

Emotional Dependence: Emotional reliance on others, especially parents, can also contribute to a lack of engagement with reality. This can result in avoiding challenges or making decisions independently. An adult child I know of struggled to create healthy intimacy with her boyfriend due to her almost constant texting and calling of her mother for reassurance across most aspects of her life.

2. Excessive Fear of Failure

Some adult children may fear failure to such an extent that they avoid taking risks or making decisions altogether. This fear can be paralyzing and prevent them from facing the realities of adult life.

For example, another client had an adult child who was afraid to pursue any kind of job. They had a fear of not being able to handle anyone telling them what to do.

    3. Lack of Life Skills

    In some cases, struggling adult children may lack essential life skills. The two most important skills for life, as I wrote in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, are the ability to calm down and the ability to solve problems. The inability to maintain these two crucial skills could be due to a variety of factors including a lack of emotional intelligence, inadequate role modeling, or a failure to develop practical skills during their formative years.

    4. Unrealistic Expectations

    Unrealistic expectations about life, success, or relationships can lead to disappointment and a refusal to accept one's actual circumstances. This can result in a distorted view of reality. Josh, with his unrealistic expectations about becoming a star musician by engaging in far more fantasizing than practicing, falls into this category as well.

    5. Escapism

    Escapism in struggling adult children often manifests as a coping mechanism to navigate the challenges and pressures of adulthood. Whether facing financial difficulties, relationship issues, or professional setbacks, individuals may resort to various forms of escapism, such as excessive use of entertainment, substance abuse, or retreat into fantasy worlds. While seeking temporary relief, it's crucial for these adult children to address their underlying issues and develop healthier coping strategies to foster long-term resilience and personal growth.

    6. Enabling Behavior

    Sometimes, parents or other support systems inadvertently contribute to the problem by enabling the adult child's avoidance of responsibilities. In this case, parents play a huge role in distorting the reality of the adult child. This can create a cycle of dependence and avoidance. Let's consider Susan, a 26-year-old woman struggling with a substance addiction. Her mother, Mary, knows Susan's issues but finds it difficult to see her daughter suffer. Instead of setting boundaries and encouraging Susan to seek professional help, Mary consistently bails Susan out of financial troubles caused by her addiction.

    Susan often spends her money on drugs, neglecting bills and rent. Rather than facing the consequences of her actions, she turns to her mother for financial assistance whenever she's in a tight spot. Mary, out of concern for her daughter's well-being, gives Susan money without addressing the underlying issues.

    In this scenario, Mary's actions enable Susan's destructive behavior by shielding her from the natural consequences of her choices. By providing financial support without encouraging Susan to seek help or take responsibility for her actions, Mary unintentionally reinforces Susan's addiction. Enabling behavior like this can hinder an adult child's personal growth and recovery. It's crucial for parents to strike a balance between providing support and encouraging independence, especially when dealing with adult children facing challenges like addiction. Seeking professional advice and support groups can be helpful in navigating such situations.

    Final Thoughts

    Addressing these issues often requires a multifaceted approach, including emotional support, practical skill development, mental health intervention, and sometimes tough love to encourage responsibility. It's crucial to approach the situation with empathy and understanding while also helping the individual gradually transition into a more realistic and responsible lifestyle. Professional guidance from therapists, counselors, or life coaches can also be valuable in supporting struggling adult children with reconnecting with reality.

    © Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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    Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock


    Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) - A support organization for adult children of alcoholic families. Website:

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

    Bernstein J. (2023) 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.

    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,

    National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) - Provides information and support for individuals and families dealing with mental health challenges. Website:

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