Why Do You Keep Getting Manipulated by Your Adult Child?

Finding the strength to say, "Enough."

Posted May 26, 2020

Your adult child was once very young. Remember? They were full of innocence, and you were there to do your best to anticipate and meet every need.

Baffled parents of adult children tell me that they continue to wonder, "I just can't believe how things turned out like this!" Like you, they just wanted to see their child grow up to be happy and become able to make it in the world.  And just as they are, you're programmed to look out for and take care of your child. Right?

But that deeply formed programming lying within your brain may not serve you best when your child becomes an adult who has turned to manipulative behaviors with you. When life does not turn out well for a struggling adult child, it is painful. But how much do we as parents make that pain worse by enabling those behaviors?

I coach parents struggling to free themselves from the fruitless enabling of their adult children. Parents who have used the Calm, Firm, Non-Controlling Approach, as described in the second edition of my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, find that this works effectively for setting boundaries with adult children. It all starts with learning to stop repeatedly going on that same bucking and broncing rodeo ride called manipulation

Troubled adult children often are master manipulators of their frustrated, desperate parents. They know which guilt-triggering comments to say to their emotionally exhausted, vulnerable parents:

  • "If you hadn't have made me go to that school, I would not have the problems I do."
  • "Okay, great. If you are not going to help me then I will just end up on the street and die!"
  • You're the reason I don't believe in myself because all you do is invalidate me."
  • "All you do is tell me to get a job. Stop pressuring me or I will end up killing myself."

Sadly, your guilt, which in most cases is not justified, makes you vulnerable to the manipulations of a troubled adult child. When trying to manage an adult child who is being manipulative, what do the following words and phrases have in common?

  • "No."
  • "I'm sorry you're struggling, but you owe it to yourself to be part of the solution."
  • "That's enough."
  • "I hear you but I'm not comfortable doing that."
  • "My having money has nothing to do with whether or not it is best to give it to you."

These words and phrases are examples of parents trying to effectively create boundaries with struggling adult children. Maybe you prefer some alternative words or phrases other than these. That's fine. But, here's the kicker: If those alternative words and phrases end up sounding like these below, then the only boundaries you'll likely be creating are unhealthy ones: They will become barriers locking you into continuing to enable your adult child to manipulate you.

Here's what I mean by setting ineffective, problematic boundaries: 

  • "Okay just this one time."
  • "You're right, it's all my fault, I'm sorry."
  • "I'll loan this to you, but I really hope you will pay me back this time."
  • "Why do you hate me so much?"

This post is not about throwing struggling adult children under the bus. Adult children who struggle need love and support. But I have seen too many smart parents work too hard by letting their emotions get the best of them. This is because they get outsmarted by adult children who manipulate them. 

Being a parent of a struggling adult child can be highly stressful. Yes, I realize that tragic things happen to all of us, such as sudden health issues, car accidents, or traumas of one kind or another. But rescuing an adult child from a lifestyle of misguided blame and intentional self-sabotage is impossible for any parent.

Not clear what I mean? Here are some examples:

  • A sudden crisis text or call demanding (or guilting) you to give them money because of their haphazard financial management.
  • Angrily lashing out at you with a "failing short-term memory" and forgetting all you've done in the past.
  • Unfairly blaming you for not giving or doing enough compared to what you did/do for their siblings.
  • Being in denial about a substance abuse problem or outright addiction and blaming you for stressing them out and "making" them use alcohol or drugs.   
  • Neglecting your grandchildren and telling you to help (or letting you discover the issues) without being appreciative (e.g., "Don't you even care about your grandchildren?").
  • Coming to you for support, complaining because they are with a toxic, manipulative relationship partner. Then, like a SWAT team leader, you rush in to be supportive, and then there's a return for more abuse from the toxic partner. Adding salt to your wound, your adult child's memory lapses yet again, and it turns out you have never been helpful. And guess what? You are now the one to blame for the relationship problems.

If you get pulled into these types of crises, it is time to stop. Examples of how I coach parents in these situations include the following:

  • Learning to stop relying on your struggling adult child to tell you your value and learning to know your own value.
  • Starting to believe and say, "I hear that that is how you see it; I see it differently."
  • Responding with, "I wish you would let yourself see that I do" when your adult child manipulatively says, "You don't care about me."
  • Saying, "You owe it to yourself to speak to me in the respectful manner that I am trying to speak to you."
  • Apologizing for your past shortcomings as a parent—within reason.  And, reminding your adult child that the only perfect people are in the cemetery!

For more, click here.