Domestic violence is most commonly associated with intimate partner violence – abuse that occurs between spouses, dating partners, or former intimate partners. However, there are additional relationships that fall under the same term. Other relatives or even unrelated people in the same household also qualify as “domestic” relationships. One that can be painful to identify and difficult to deal with is that of adult children abusing their parent(s). As with any abusive situation, this may or may not take the form of physical violence. With this particular familial relationship, abuse commonly manifests as emotional, verbal, and/or financial. It is especially difficult for parents to identify abuse and seek support when it is their child who is victimizing them. Why is this and what are some helpful measures to end the abuse?
Parents naturally feel a responsibility for their children. They have raised them from helpless infants and cared for their many needs over many years. Once children become adults able to care for themselves, it can be difficult for parents to let go of that sense of duty. Adult children may be struggling with larger issues of mental health, substance abuse, or trauma that contribute to abusive or delinquent behavior. Parents may feel that this is ultimately their responsibility as the ones who are supposed to prepare their child for adult life and help them through difficult times. They may feel they have failed in some way and must continue to be accountable until their adult child changes their behavior or gets through a challenging period. It is natural for parents to want to help their children. There is a difference, however, between parents choosing to assist adult children while setting reasonable expectations and believing that they must help no matter what.
In addition to feeling responsible for their children, parents may feel an obligation to financially support their adult children or “bail them out” as needed. How will they survive without money? How can I abandon them in their time of need? Adult children may insist it is a loan they will pay back but never do. Or it’s just to bridge the gap until they find a job, but they never look for one. They may justify it as an infrequent necessary purchase such as a car or piece of furniture or a one-time outlay such as a fine or medical expense. There is a thin, tenuous line between helping out an adult child with a genuine financial need or enabling them to continue unhealthy demands. Parents may choose to use their money to bail out or support their adult child(ren), but they should not feel it is their duty to do so. Financial support is a gift, not an obligation.
Emotional Abuse & Manipulation
Abusive adult children take advantage of of their parents’ deep sense of obligation in order to gain power over them and get what they want from them. They may use emotionally abusive language to harp on parental “obligations”. They blame their failure to manage their money on their parents for never having taught them to do so. Their parent(s) “nagging” them to get a job makes them too overwhelmed to look for one. They play on their parents’ sympathies and responsibilities by pointing out what horrible fate might befall them if they don’t receive help. They threaten to harm themselves if parents push too far. This kind of emotional abuse often makes parents highly anxious, overwhelmed, exhausted, guilty, and remorseful. They may feel they made mistakes raising their child or believe that if they had done something differently or worked harder this would not be happening. It can be challenging for emotionally abused parents to focus on all the positive things they have done for their children and recognize aspects that are/were beyond their control.
All of this adds up to parents feeling guilty that no matter how hard they tried, they somehow failed their children and created this situation themselves. Guilt can be a powerful motivator that prevents parents from setting appropriate boundaries. It is an easy target that abusive children can manipulate to their advantage. Everyone makes mistakes. Parents who learn from their experiences and try their best should not let guilt drive their actions with their adult children.
Another factor that keeps parents under the control of their abusive adult children is the fact that they love them. The parent-child bond runs very deep, which can sometimes cause to parents to neglect their own needs and comfort in favor of their child(ren)’s demands. Parents want the best for their children and don’t want to cause them harm if they believe they can be helpful. It may be difficult to imagine that short-term help could be causing long-term harm by not forcing adult children to rely on themselves and contribute to the household and/or society.
So, what can parents of abusive adult children do to mitigate feelings of responsibility and guilt and make positive changes in their relationship with their children? There are several actionable items psychologists recommend that may be helpful:
Create a List
Writing out a list of all that they, as parents, do and have done for their child(ren) can useful. Putting down on paper all the love and support, life necessities, education, events, activities, and listening that they provided through their children’s formative years and continue to provide to them as adults makes them more tangible and easier to focus on. When feelings of guilt or failure creep in, this list serves as a reminder of all the ways they did not fail.
Parents should let child(ren) know where the line is in what they are willing to put up with and how much they are willing to help them out. Tell them their abusive language is out of line and not accurate. Parents need their personal space and can tell adult children to leave, be it the room or the house.
Parents should be clear about what they are willing to give. They can outline how adult children must contribute to the household if they continue to live there and/or mandate how they must pay back or work off any financial support. Adding a timeframe for how long parents are able to help may encourage adult children to move forward with making changes.
Letting adult children know how much their parents love them does not have to mean giving in to their every demand, sacrificing their own self-care, or putting up with abusive behavior. Parents can verbalize their love while remaining strong and confident in their limits. They can express how much they care but also stress that their child(ren)’s behavior is unacceptable. They must be prepared to follow through with consequences if their children cross the line.
It can be very helpful to talk to a friend, family member, or trusted person in the community. DVSN is one of many organizations available to listen and provide resources. Advocates, therapists, medical professionals, police officers, and social workers, among others, are prepared to assist parents who are struggling with conflicted emotions or with implementing changes in their relationship with adult children. No one has to do this alone.
It’s Never Too Late
Even if parents never have before, it is never too late to implement these strategies. It can be challenging not only to set but to maintain boundaries and limits. Even if adult children ignore them initially, parents are modeling healthy behavior and showing that they will not be manipulated. Referring to that list they created and receiving support from others can help them stay strong and improve the situation.
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