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Setting Boundaries With Your Self-Absorbed Adult Child

Easing the pain from struggling adult children who lash out.

Key points

  • Self-absorbed adult children tend to be overly focused on their struggles and tend to take their angst out on their parents.
  • Setting healthy boundaries goes a long way in helping your adult child out of their self-absorption.
  • Be sure to let your adult child know you appreciate it when they are more flexible in their communication and behaviors.

Many parents are in pain from their struggling, self-absorbed adult children. Consider Electra, age 32, emphatically saying to her mother, Susan, "You're the reason I don't believe in myself. You screwed up my life!"

Parents like Susan feel at a loss when trying to point out realities to their self-absorbed adult children. That's because struggling adult children tend to be overly focused on their problems, unfairly blame their parents for them, and tend to take their angst out on their parents.

Self-absorbed adult children know there is a short list of people who will love them, despite their antics, and their parents are at the top of that list. This often leaves the parents feeling stuck in the face of their adult children's struggles.

A Note to Adult Children Reading This

If you are an adult child reading this post, please note that I have also written about toxic parents (e,g, "Setting Boundaries With Your Gaslighting Parents"). There is no doubt that some parents have some serious personal struggles and limitations.

That said, even the most reasonable parents, when frustrated, have let their own emotions get the best of them when interacting with their children. Still, isn't it usually best to work through past familial hurts and move on, if possible? Doesn't a mindset of empathy, learning, and growing to help us heal and close gaps due to misunderstandings?

Parents in Pain From Their Self-Absorbed Adult Children

I often hear heartwrenching stories when I coach parents of struggling, self-absorbed adult children. As one example, Charlotte, age 32, decided that her father, Jose, did not care about her. This was after he refused to send her money to help her boyfriend, Josh (whom Charlotte frequently complained about to Jose) get a lawyer for Josh's recent DUI.

As a second example, Tracy recounted to me how her 27-year-old son, Peter, suddenly started screaming and going off on her because she offered a different opinion about a movie they had recently watched. Just a few days earlier, they were having a stimulating discussion about commonly liked popular movies. Now, she felt overwhelmed and hurt by his rant, loaded with cursing, about accusations that she was "the worst parent on the planet."

Regardless of the circumstances, the persistent reality is that parents tend to feel rocked by the mean things they hear from struggling adult children. Let's look below at some relatable situations of what my coaching clients have described hearing from their adult children.

Hurtful Things Said by Self-Absorbed Adult Children

  • An accusation over something you did or did not do, or that you weren't doing enough compared to what you did/do for their siblings. You feel as if you are used to being accused of things like this, but deep down, you wonder, "Can anyone put up with this kind of emotional abuse?"
  • Telling you that you have not been supportive of their toxic, manipulative relationship partner (as in the case of Charlotte mentioned above)—yet they call you and complain about them. You worry this toxic partner may be there for the long haul, so you just take this wrongful accusation.
  • A text or call out of nowhere asking for money. You feel worn down, so you give in without really discussing the matter.
  • Denying a substance abuse problem or full-on addiction and blaming you for stressing them out and "making" them use alcohol or drugs. You have tried to mention substance abuse in the past, and your adult child has been in denial and has now pulled you in too.

Setting Boundaries: The Gift That Keeps Giving

Isn't it time to stop the madness? Setting healthy boundaries goes a long way in helping your adult child out of their self-absorption. My book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, includes the following parent coaching tips that are highly applicable to these power struggles:

  • To sidestep a heated argument, say, "I hear that is how you see it; I see it differently."
  • To counter, when your adult child manipulatively says, "You don't care about me," you can say, "I appreciate you telling me you feel this way. What am I doing that is getting in the way of showing how much I value and love you?"
  • When your adult child is otherwise disrespectful, say, "You'll likely feel better about yourself when you speak to me in the respectful manner that I am trying to speak to you."

Final Thoughts: Remember to Reinforce Positive Behaviors

As a hurting, frustrated parent of a self-absorbed adult child, it may be easy for you to become self-absorbed as well. By this, I mean you may have become absorbed in seeing your adult child's negative behaviors and not seeing their emerging strengths and positive exceptions to their problematic patterns.

So, be sure to let your adult child know that you appreciate it when they are more flexible in their communication and behaviors. Similarly, be on the lookout for when they show control of their emotions. Most importantly, let them know how it helps both of you when they are willing to have open, calm, and constructive conversations.


Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, Da Capo Books, New York, NY.

Thi Hoang, Nam-Phuong & Kirby, J. (2018) Parenting of Adult Children: A Neglected Area of Parenting Studies, In book: Handbook of Parenting and Child Development Across the Lifespan (pp.653-675), DOI:10.1007/978-3-319-94598-9_29. Publisher: Springer, New York, NY

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