4 Ways to Stop Getting Emotionally Abused by an Adult Child

Knowing your value as a parent means knowing when to say, "Enough."

Posted Jul 04, 2020

Julia, 26, sat in front of me wracked with tears. She said, "Dr. Jeff, I just treated my parents like sh-t this whole weekend. I gave them serious attitude and kept picking fights with my mom. She, and my dad for that matter too, take it way too personally but I'm just in a really crappy place in my own life. So, I keep taking it out on them and I totally have no freaking idea why!"

Here are some other examples from my coaching practice for parents of adult children who act in an aggressive, manipulative manner:

  • Carly, age 35, keeps telling her parents they ruined her entire life by enrolling her in a parochial school she could not stand as a preteen. 
  • Jose, age 19, tells his mother she is being a bitch for not being willing to "trust him" when she questions his continuous demands for "loans" that he never pays back.
  • Bruce, a 22-year-old who failed out of college during his sophomore year, threatens his parents by saying he will kill himself if they continue to ask him about looking for a job.
  • Shana, age 25, tells her mother, Janice, that "It's all about you," when Janice innocently and protectively asks Shana why she is continuing to pursue a guy who emotionally abused her and dumped her twice in the past six months. I helped Shana get a healthy perspective and create an emotionally safe dynamic to bypass Shana's accusations and defensiveness.

[Note to Adult Child Readers: Yes, there ARE toxic parents out there. If you have parents who have been abusive, please remember to know your value. The best road to your own success is always the high road. Don't expect to change your parents. Rather, take your own ship to port by not letting the rocky waves of your childhood take you off course.] 

As I describe in my book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, anger is a surface emotion. Underlying the anger tends to be anxiety, frustration, depression, guilt, shame, and a lack of feeling in control. Sadly, when adult children manifest anger (which can be expressed passive-aggressively through manipulations, or overtly, or even hidden), it can feel really hurtful to their parents. 

Major League Manipulators

Struggling adult children often are master manipulators of their frustrated, desperate parents. They can play them like a violin. Adult children know the precise 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, they say things similar to what Bruce said above, such as, "All you do is tell me to get a job. Stop pressuring me or I will kill myself." Sadly, your dysfunctional, reflexive guilt, which in most cases is not justified, makes you vulnerable to the manipulations of a troubled adult child.

This guilt really muddies the waters for parents of troubled adult children. Yes, you probably could've made some better choices or responded more effectively at times to your child over the years. But fruitless guilt plays tricks on the mind. It can convince you that your child's struggles are ALL 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 some healthy doses of self-compassion. 

Through my coaching sessions with parents, I have found the following common ways that adult children are manipulative:

  1. Your adult child does not take life on—but you do. You are shouldering his or her debt, taking 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. Y
  2. You hear lying through conveniently selective memoryYou 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 holds you emotionally hostage. This occurs 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.
  4. Your adult child "borrows" money from you. This borrowing is part of an ongoing set of crisis laden events. Such financial chaos is usually because they can't obtain, or 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 now just expect 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.

4 Ways To Unshackle Yourself From an Adult Child's Manipulations

  1. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor. Please remember that you are the emotional pace car, not them. You get to plan the intensity, volume, and speed of any interaction. The more you remember that you are in charge of how you react, the less you will be vulnerable to being manipulated. Otherwise, if you accelerate every time your adult child is waving a checkered drama and crisis flag, there's going to be nothing overheating with emotions, followed by crashing and burning. 
  2. Set firm boundaries with your child if they're using your guilt to manipulate you. While living with you, encourage working children to contribute part of their pay to household expenses. If unemployed, for starters, have them help out around the house with gardening, cleaning, or other chores.  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." 
  3. Don't sell out your value by loosely giving out money. Being financially supportive is best done when it's connected to your adult children’s genuine appreciation and their efforts toward independence.
  4. Be ready. Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. If you are feeling pressured, empower yourself to not give an answer for a certain time period, whether it be the next morning or for at least 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 model the process of thinking things through. Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.  

For more about Dr. Jeff click here.


Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)