5 Ways Your Struggling Adult Child May Be Manipulating You

Overcoming the negative influence of guilt with a troubled adult child.

Posted Jul 30, 2017

As a psychologist working with children and teens for over 30 years, I have counseled many troubled, overly dependent adult children. It is heart-wrenching to see these young adults in a self-defeating holding pattern with little motivation. Further unfortunate, is how emotionally and financially draining this can become for their parents. Common among this population, and consistent with the myriad of comments from my readers on this topic, are stories of substance misuse, depression, anxiety, and very low self-esteem.

Troubled adult children often are master manipulators of their frustrated, desperate feeling parents. They know the guilt-triggering painful comments to say to their emotionally exhausted, vulnerable parents such as, "Okay, great if you are not going to help me then I will just end up on the street and die!" Or, "All you do is tell me to get a job, stop pressuring me or I will kill myself." Sadly, your guilt, which in most cases is not justified, makes you vulnerable to the manipulations of your troubled adult child.

It has felt good to see some readers of my previous posts on this topic respond to one another's comments and offer mutual support. This empowering social support often takes the place of coaching one another to feel empowered by setting limits.

Yet, sadly, a few readers have responded with hostility to one other due to the polarizing effect this topic seems to produce. That is, parents of struggling adult children often to go "all or nothing" in looking at their situation: Either the struggling adult child needs to be let sink or swim or the parents are okay nurturing the struggling adult along. The answers are not always so black or white.

Guilt muddies the waters for parents of troubled adult children. Guilt plays tricks on the mind. It can convince you that your child's struggles are your fault. But given the role of genetics, negative peer influences, and personality characteristics that come in to play, parents would do well to serve themselves up some healthy doses of self-compassion.

As my best friend from kindergarten says, "The only perfect people are in the cemetery!" So, if you've done something about which you're ashamed, apologize to your adult child and move on. Do your best not to dwell on it, otherwise it can continually serve as a manipulation tool by your adult child. 

Following are five red flags that your adult child is manipulating you:  

1. Your adult child holds you emotionally hostage by threatening to hurt or kill herself or himself. Adult children who are truly at risk for self-harm need to be taken seriously. But repeated, guilt inducing, manipulative, toxic plays for attention or leniency to get out of facing responsibilities needs to be directly called out and addressed.

2. Your hear lying through "selective memory. You swear you had a conversation about a plan and everyone was pumped up and on the same page, But then one day, your adult child pretends to remember the conversation completely differently, if at all. 

3. Your adult child does not take life on—but you do. You are shouldering his or her debt, taking on a second job, or taking on additional responsibilities while your adult son or daughter is caught up in inertia, being seemingly endlessly non-productive. You and your spouse or other family members feel strain created by the excessive neediness from this overly dependent adult child.

4. Your adult child "borrows" money from you because she or he can't maintain solid or consistent employment. He says he intends to pay you back but that never happens. Yes, it is okay to help adult children out financially at times, as long as you are not being exploited in doing so.

5. You're resigned to disrespect. You think that because your adult child has "problems" that lets him or her off the hook from showing heartfelt respect. You may notice that he or she seems respectful when wanting something from you.  Your adult child, however, turns on a dime or gets passive-aggressive if you refuse the request. You feel worn down and accept this emotional chaos as normal.

Tips for Breaking Free From Your Adult Child's Manipulations

  • Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations below to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:
  • Set limits on how much time you spend helping your child resolve crises. Encourage the child to problem-solve by asking, "What are your ideas?” If he or she reflexively responds with, "I don't know." then politely say something like, "I believe in your resourcefulness and know you'll feel better about yourself when you give this some further thought." 
  • Set firm boundaries with your child if he's constantly using your guilt to manipulate you. My book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, applies to including older ones as well. It discusses the Calm, Firm, and Non-Controlling approach, which teaches parents how to set (or reset) boundaries while avoiding fruitless and destructive power struggles. 
  • While living with you, encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board. If unemployed, for starters, have them help out around the house with gardening, cleaning, or other chores.
  • Don't indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on adult children’s efforts toward independence.
  • Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. Agree that you won’t give an answer for certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least for 24 hours. For example, the next time you get an urgent text that says, “I need money,” respond by saying, “I’ll have to talk it over with your father [or, if you are single, 'I’ll have to think it over'] and I'll get back to you tomorrow.” This will allow you time to consider it and give you a chance to think and talk about it beforehand. It will also show that you are remaining steady in your course while presenting a united front.
  • Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise. 
  • Remember you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. He or she will most likely come around later.

Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 30 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and completed his post-doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He received his graduate training at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the author of four books including, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2015). For more, visit drjeffonline.com

For phone coaching to manage adult dependent children, you can contact Dr. Bernstein at 610-804-5078 or drjeff4help@gmail.com