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How to Manage Your Guilt About Your Struggling Adult Child

Guilt from caring is normal, but guilt from manipulation is unhealthy.

Key points

  • Adult children who are hurting may use unfair manipulations to try to make parents feel guilty.
  • Parents' decisions and actions to be supportive of their adult child may become misguided if they are driven by unhealthy guilt.
  • If parents are tired of guilt-slinging, a helpful two-word phrase to empower them is "No more".

Parents who contact me for coaching to cope with the struggles of their adult children feel one huge common emotion: Guilt!

It is normal to feel guilty. As a parent, you want the best for your child and it is natural to feel responsible for their well-being. However, it is important to recognize that you cannot control every aspect of their life and that they are responsible for their own choices and actions.

Your decisions and actions to be supportive of your adult child, however, may become misguided if they are driven by unhealthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt, as the parents I coach experience, often comes from parents buying into distorted, unfair manipulations from their struggling adult children. Below are some examples of unhealthy guilt-inducing, manipulative communications from adult children to their parents.

Normal Guilt Versus Being Manipulated to Feel Guilty

Chris, age 23, sent this text message at 1 a.m. to his mom, Kim: "Hey mom, I need $2,500 to invest for this really dope music opportunity. For real, I got this!"

Kim responded, "Chris, how about you first help me know more about what this is?

Chris 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. Okay fine, I'm creating a new brand that is going to disrupt the music industry as everyone knows it! Mom, you always have said to find my passion. This is it. So what now, you are all talk and no action to help me?"

The parents of adult children whom I coach often share soundbites of feeling manipulated by the same types of provocative and incendiary comments that Chris sent to Kim.

Here are some further examples:

  • After a year of no contact, Cala texted her mother, Sylvia, stating: "Hey, you messed up my life by always caring about the other kids and never caring about me. I'm working hard to forgive you though. I'm just trying to get over how bad a parent you have always been to me. But I guess you can't help how screwed up you are. So, if I decide to move back home, just know I will be cool with everything you have done to me." [Cala's text came from a phone Sylvia was paying the monthly bill for and Cala was sitting in an apartment significantly subsidized by Sylvia, too].
  • Brianna recounted these words from her 24-year-old daughter, Kate: "You're a selfish narcissist and never think about anyone but yourself." This was in response to Brianna telling Kate she was not cosigning her student loan after Kate had dropped out of three prior colleges.
  • Carlo, age 28, says to his father, Terry, "You make me feel like the black sheep of this family!" and, "You're the reason I use drugs."
  • Javon told me he reached his breaking point when his 33-year-old daughter, Kim, said, "I thought I could count on you, but I can't! Fine, I'll just end up homeless!"

If you can identify with the plight of the parents above, below is an empowering way to free yourself from the shackles of guilt.

Free Yourself From the Guilt Trap

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 have done, you have to draw the line and say, or at the very least, think: No more.

Stop setting yourself up to be on call to automatically respond like a SWAT team 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.

  • No more being a punching bag for misplaced and displaced disappointments and frustrations.
  • No more comparing yourself to parents of adult children who do not have the same struggles as your own.
  • No more beating yourself up for past mistakes you've made as a parent.

The more you figuratively rise above your shared interactions, 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.

In my book, 10 Days To A Less Defiant Child, I explain how when your adult child tries to manipulate you with guilt or is hurtful toward you, it helps to 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.
  • Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your tone.
  • Set healthy boundaries in a non-reactive way with your adult child and no longer be a victim of manipulations.

A Supportive Message to Adult Children Who Are Hurting

I hope that your parents did not weaponize this post by sending it to you. I realize that there truly are many toxic parents 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.

Yet, some parents try their best while falling far short of being perfect. Before solely blaming your parents for your struggles, 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.


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

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

Birditt, K. S., Miller, L. M., Fingerman, K. L., & Lefkowitz, E. S. (2009). Tensions in the parent and adult child relationship: Links to solidarity and ambivalence. Psychology and Aging, 24(2), 287–295.

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