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3 Ways You May Be Letting Your Adult Child Manipulate You

Failing to establish clear expectations can lead to painful consequences.

Key points

  • Emotionally manipulative adult children struggle to calm down and problem-solve.
  • Shaming and attacking are common hurtful behaviors of struggling adult children. Being manipulated by them can feel highly toxic.
  • Remaining calm, firm, and noncontrolling helps parenta bypass power struggles.

As a psychologist and parent coach, I continue to hear how emotionally and financially draining struggling adult children can be. The stories I'm often told involve substance misuse, personality disorders, depression, anxiety, very low self-esteem, and in some cases, autism. As I have observed, big emotions often flare up at the same time and require two crucial skills to manage them:

  1. Calming down.
  2. Problem-solving.

Struggling adult children often lack one or both of those skills.

When they are hurting, troubled adult children often are master manipulators of their frustrated, desperate-feeling parents. Do any of these lines sound familiar?:

  • "You're a narcissist and all you think about is yourself."
  • "If you really care, then you're going to need to stop telling me and start showing me."
  • "Okay, great if you are not going to help me then I will just end up on the street and die!"
  • "All you do is tell me to get a job—stop pressuring me or I will kill myself."
  • "That time you [fill in the blank: __________] really messed me up. I can't forgive you for that."

Three Ways You May Be Setting Yourself Up to Be Manipulated

1. 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. And if you are like most parents who contact me for coaching, you have been wearing a "Kick me!" sign to prove it. So it is no wonder that they seem respectful when wanting something from you but turn on a dime or get passive-aggressive if you refuse a request. You feel worn down and accept this emotional chaos as normal.

2. Excessive/irrational guilt. Sadly, your guilt, which in most cases is not justified, makes you vulnerable to the manipulations of a troubled adult child. 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 into play, parents would do well to serve themselves up some healthy doses of self-compassion.

3. Your adult child does not take life on—but you do. You are shouldering their 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 nonproductive. You and your spouse or other family members feel strain created by the excessive neediness from this overly dependent adult child.

Tips for freeing yourself from your adult child's manipulations

Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express the guiding expectations, itemized below, to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence. Here are the basics of being calm, firm, and noncontrolling to gain influence and end the fruitless power struggles:

  • 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 a 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 "I’ll have to think it over"] and I'll get back to you tomorrow.” This will allow you time to think and talk about it beforehand. It will also show that you are remaining steady in your course while presenting a united front.
  • Set limits on how much time you spend helping your adult child resolve crises. Encourage problem-solving by asking, "What are your ideas?” If they reflexively respond 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 they are constantly using your guilt to manipulate you.
  • 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.
  • Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.
  • Remember as well that you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. They will most likely come around later.

References

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

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

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

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. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind? Perseus Books, New York, NY.

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

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