3 Ways Guilt Impacts Parents of Struggling Adult Children

Managing your problematic guilt to make better decisions

Posted Oct 14, 2018

Guilt, guilt, and more guilt!  I see time and time again how guilt greatly gets in the way of parents trying to make sound and healthy decisions in response to their struggling adult children. Maybe you blame yourself for being too strict or being too passive as a parent. Perhaps you beat yourself up for not modeling enough love, affection, or good communication skills. Or, you torture yourself for a divorce you feel you could have prevented. Many parents also share with me that they regret not spending as much time as they would have liked with their children over the years. 

Even if there is some truth behind some of your perceived past parenting short-comings, condemning yourself to irrational levels of guilt will likely get in the way of your ability to be effective in now supporting your adult child. 

In my years of coaching parents of adult children in the U.S and abroad, I have observed these three guilt-related problems that are prevalent in parents of struggling adult children:

1.  Coming to the rescue too quickly.

When you rush in to fix or solve your adult child's challenges, you thwart her or his opportunities to develop and practice independent problem-solving skills. I call this crisis management parenting. While it can feel rewarding to appropriately help your adult child through a tough time, being an on-call crisis manager leads to a super stressful, drama-filled life.

Joan (name and all identifying info is altered to protect privacy), a client of mine, described a feeling of loud alarms going off in her mind and body, when her 24-year-old son, Travis, would repeatedly text her requesting money. Some notable details about Travis are that he had dropped out of college and refused to get and hold a job, While I validated that financially helping adult children from time to time is fine, I helped Joan see that Travis's recurring pattern of feeling entitled to demand money from his mother was not healthy for Travis, Joan, and for their relationship. 

Joan broke free from crisis management parenting by changing how she saw Travis's requests for money and responded to him. Instead of immediately sending him money, Joan became empowered to text Travis back messages such as, "Sounds like you are in difficult situation. I am here to listen and discuss ways you can help yourself get through this." Travis's initial responses were not fit to share here. 

Over the course of the next month, Joan had to continue maintaining firm boundaries. As a concerned parent, Joan struggled in establishing new patterns and worried about Travis but what followed as a result pleasantly surprised her. Travis reached out to tell his mother that he got a part-time job and was thinking about re-enrolling in college. During our telephone coaching sessions, I helped Joan manage her own emotions, worries, and her guilt about "abandoning Travis." 

2. Taking on blame for an adult child's struggles and failures.

Irrationally blaming yourself for your adult child's struggles will likely lead you to enabling by impulsively solving problems for him or her.  Parents are not perfect. There are many things we say or do as parents that we wish we could do over.  Most parents seek to be optimally supportive for their children and provide them with a loving and nurturing home. Yet, I have been amazed how some children faced with adverse family events and trauma have coped and achieved in impressive ways.  And, I have seen other children raised with many advantages that end up struggling to thrive as adults. 

To stop irrationally blaming yourself write down on a sheet of paper (or on a digital device) a list of supportive things (big and small) you've done for your child over the years. The parents I coach to do this tell me it really helps them reclaim their value as a parent. This is so important because guilt-wracked parents tend to devalue themselves.  As you go about writing down what you've done, reflect on things like reading books to your child, playing games and sharing in activities, taking time off from work to attend school functions, and the financial sacrifices you made to benefit your child.

3. Neglecting personal physical and emotional needs. I have heard many times that if you are on a plane with a young child and the oxygen masks come down, it is recommended that you first place the mask on yourself prior to putting the mask on your child or other passengers that need your help. By helping yourself first, you put yourself in the optimal physical and mental state to help others. 

Too often, I see parents excessively spin their wheels, ruminating about what their adult children are doing. Parents of adult children who are wracked by guilt and worry often have poor sleep, unhealthy eating, and problems focusing because they are irrationally shouldering their adult child's struggles. Worrying yourself sick over your adult child will not help him or her.

To start taking care of yourself, you may want to seek out support from a professional counselor or personal coach, friends, spiritually supportive sources, Al-Anon (for family members of those with addiction issues, or NAMI (for family members of those with mental illness). Make sure you see a physician for a health check-up. Also consider using phone apps and/or fitness trackers to monitor your physical health. Several Apps are also available for support with practicing mindfulness to manage stress. 

For more about Dr. Jeff, please visit, drjeffonline.com