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Does Your Struggling Adult Child Unfairly Blame You?

Leading with empathy to foster self-compassion.

Key points

  • Adult children who are hurting often lash out at their parents as safe targets.
  • A parent who sets limits with empathy and compassion can help manage an adult child's emotional reactivity—as well as their own.
  • Adult children of parents who fell short can still acknowledge their own value, even though their parents didn't see or express it.

Jackie, a parent I provide coaching to, told me midway through our first session that she wanted to finally retire. I was a bit surprised to hear this, as she had first shared that she loved her job as a project manager in a manufacturing company. Then, she clarified: "Dr. Jeff, what I mean is that I want to retire from being Jordan's mother. She is always ragging on me about how I messed up her life. I think she is truly the most ungrateful adult child in the world!"

Based on years of coaching parents, I hear stories of many of them feeling manipulated by very provocative and downright mean comments from their adult children. Here are some examples of these crisis-laden, guileful soundbites:

  • Gustavo recounted to me about his 26-year-old son with anxiety who says, "You seem most happy when I struggle!" Gustavo further shared how his son throws at him: "You make me feel like the loser in this family!" and, "I started using drugs all because of you!"
  • Ava told me how wiped out she felt after hearing her 30-year-old angry daughter, Louisa, say things such as, "You're the reason I can't find a good guy. I grew up with you always putting me down so that is what I look for—guys that treat me like sh*t!"
  • Nolan told me he reaches his breaking point when his 27-year-old son says, "I thought I could count on you, but obviously, I can't!" and "Fine, I'll just end up homeless!"

Some Words of Compassion If You Are an Adult Child Who Is Hurting

I hope you are not reading this post due to it being weaponized and sent to you by a parent. If that is the case, they are wrong to do this to you. I realize that there truly are many toxic parents of adult children out there.

If you are an adult child of truly toxic parents who traumatized you, I empathize. I work with many adult children who have been mistreated and abused by their parents. And as a parent myself, I've made my own share of mistakes and could have done some things better.

At the same time, some parents try their best while falling far short of being perfect. Don't compromise your worth by acting like a victim as this only hurts yourself. Don't blame your parents for your own struggles without also taking a look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can move toward your own valuable independence. Bottom line: Learn to feel good about knowing your own value as an adult even if your parent(s) did not do the best job of seeing it or expressing it.

Toxic Blaming Messages Are Maddening for Parents

As a struggling adult child's parent, maybe you can identify with being on the receiving end of toxic, manipulative messages like those above.

Know When to Say “Enough” and Assertively Take the High Road

If you are sick and tired of the manipulation, here's a helpful word to empower you: Enough! As in, "enough is enough!" This follows from the Calm, Firm, Non-Controlling approach as I describe in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Ed.

When your adult child tries to engage you through shame with pressuring demands, is emotionally abusive, or fails to acknowledge your love and/or the positive things you have done, you have to draw the line and say, or at the very least, think–enough!

Whether communicating in person, on the phone, or through text messages, within your mind, rise and watch the toxic manipulations from above. The more you look down at your shared interaction, staying mindful of this toxic dance, the less vulnerable you will be to getting tripped up by it.

Examples of What to Say to Bypass Your Adult Child's Toxic Blame

  • “I hear that’s how you see it. I see it differently. It may help us to move on if we agree to disagree instead of continuing to fight.”
  • “I can see that you’re very frustrated. Just know I’m here for you if you’d like to talk.”
  • “I hope that once we calm down, we will be able to have a constructive conversation about this.”
  • “I can’t control the way you choose to speak to me [or your sibling, other parent, relative] when you are upset. I think you will feel better by being more respectful.”
  • “It’ll work better for both of us if you can say what you mean without saying it meanly.”
  • “There’s a reactive side of me, as your parent, that now wants to yell and get controlling. Just being aware and expressing this is helping me stay calmer. How about we talk this out so we can understand each other better?”

References

Bernstein, J. (2020), The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions, PESI Publishing, EuClaire, WA.

Bernstein, J. (2015) 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, De Capo Books, New York, NY

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