When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

Coping with mental illness, substance abuse, and the problems that tear families apart

Coping With Guilt and Avoiding Manipulation

Parents are experts at blaming ourselves when our children struggle.

One of the most troubling experiences parents with troubled children face is constant judgment. In your early years as a parent, you might have heard that if you disciplined your child more effectively, offered better activities, found better therapists, practiced a healthier lifestyle, or engaged in a veritable cornucopia of other practices, everything would be different. It's true that parenting can strongly affect the way a child turns out, but your child is much more than a product of your parenting. Early influences such as friends, teachers, and the surrounding community play significant roles, but genetic mental illnesses can't be changed by good parenting alone. If you want to effectively parent an adult child who has emotional problems, you'll need to find ways to escape guilt, because guilt makes you vulnerable to manipulation.

Is This My Fault?

No single force can completely control your child, which means that the simple answer to whether or not this is your fault is a resounding 'no'. Of course, life is full of nuances and your situation may be one of them. Perhaps you struggled with problems of your own when your child was growing up, or maybe you struggle with guilt because you didn't seek early treatment for your child or denied her problems. It's true that parenting often plays a role in the adulthood development of problems such as substance abuse and criminal behavior, but there is not a simple one-to-one correlation between parenting choices and adult struggles.

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Assessing what you could have done differently is a healthy strategy that can help you make better choices going forward. The truth, though, is that every parent makes mistakes. Parenting is an inherently guilt-inducing undertaking, and even parents whose children appear perfect struggle with guilt. The fact that you feel guilty doesn't mean you are guilty. And even if you've made terrible mistakes parenting your child, your child's life is ultimately her own creation.

Why You Can't Change Your Child

No matter what choices you made when your child was younger, you cannot force your child to change when she becomes an adult. You can't force her into treatment, love him into wellness, or count on the right job, right religion, or right parenting style changing your child. Your child is an independent, autonomous person who is capable of making her own choices. Troubled children only change when they are ready to do so, no matter how many resources you offer.

The best thing you can do for your child is create an environment that encourages and supports positive change. And one of the best ways to do this is to keep yourself healthy—physically and psychologically. This frequently means establishing boundaries with your child, refusing to “rescue” your child from the consequences of her poor decisions, and even protecting other family members from your child.

Guilt and Manipulation

Troubled children can become master manipulators. They know that their choices are painful for their parents, and when they want something, they may use this to their advantage. Your guilt makes you vulnerable to manipulation.

While accountability is a key life skill with transformative effects, it's unwise to tip your child off to your guilt. If you've done something about which you're ashamed, apologize and move on. Don't dwell on it or allow it to continually serve as a manipulation tool. Even if you continue to struggle with guilt, your child does not need to know about this guilt, and it's a good idea to avoid displaying it when your child is around.

Healthy Coping Strategies

Guilt can be painful and all-consuming. Moreover, if you continually struggle with guilt, you won't be able to feel psychologically healthy, which makes you continually vulnerable to suffering caused by your child's behavior. There's no magic bullet for guilt. Instead, coping is a long—and often very arduous process. Try some of the following to get relief—or even just a brief respite—from your guilt:

• Therapy can help you sort through your feelings about your child's struggles and help you find better coping skills. If your child is in recovery, family therapy may help you re-navigate your relationship with your child.

• Physical activity is associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Try to get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Relaxation-based exercise routines such as yoga can be particularly helpful.

• Take time to do things you enjoy. Parents of troubled children sometimes find that all of their time is dedicated to strategizing about how to help their children, but you can't help your child if you're struggling and overwhelmed. Join a book club or take lessons to learn how to do something you've always wanted to do. Spend time with friends and family, and schedule leisure activities every day.

• Set firm boundaries with your child if he's constantly using your guilt to manipulate you.

Guilt plays tricks on the mind. It can convince you that your child's struggles are your fault and that everything will be better if only your child gets better. But no single action can fix an entire life. By focusing on your own needs, you'll become a better parent, and will be better prepared to help your child when needed.

References:

Bottke, A. (2008). Setting boundaries with your adult children. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.

 

De Moor, M. M., Boomsma, D. I., Stubbe, J. H., Willemsen, G., & De Geus, E. C. (2008). Testing Causality in the Association Between Regular Exercise and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65(8), 897-905. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.65.8.897

 

Joel Young, M.D., who teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University, is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, near Detroit.

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