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Parents Who Don’t Let Go of Adult Children Who Are Chronically Hurtful People
For many of us, close relationships are the most important part of our lives. At the same time close relationships can present us with our biggest emotional challenges. In my work with couples and families, one issue I find especially difficult to address is helping parents let go of an unhealthy attachment to their adult children. Often these parents enter therapy because they are worn out from worry and stress regarding how to deal with their now adult offspring. These parents often seem “unable” to let go and allow their progeny to take responsibility for their own lives.
I am not speaking here of parents who, on a limited basis, help their adult children with financial or other problems. I am speaking of those parents who “help” over and over and over again, and nothing changes. In these cases, it is common for the adult children to abuse drugs and / or alcohol, but that is not always the case. What is the case is the younger ones behave in a self-centered, abusive and manipulative manner. By doing so they are refusing to grow up and usually blame their parents for their failures and irresponsibility. The parent responds to this tactic and other power plays by enabling more of the same.
I have had more than one parent of a now forty or fifty year old “child” storm out of my office because I informed them that what they are doing was not ever going to help their offspring, and was, in fact, contributing to the problems they claim to be worried about. One thing I might say is some version of, “It is loving to hold people accountable, and expect respectful behavior from them. It is not loving toward someone to allow that person to abuse or take advantage of you or others.”
What I’ve discovered, over time, is that even when the older people understand what I am saying, that alone is not enough for them to cut the cords that bind them to their offspring and which perpetuate a situation where the adult child may never actually grow up.
So why do people continue to do what is self-harmful, and harmful to others? Often the culprit is deeply held beliefs, often unconscious, that, in this case, the exhausted parents carry. It could be said that the adult CHP (chronically hurtful person) also has deeply held unacknowledged beliefs, but he or she is not the one who shows up in therapy. These adult children are the ones who create chaos and pain for others and do not consider themselves to have problems, so until and unless something gets their attention, they are not interested in change.
Some of the beliefs that keep parents from taking healthy action:
1. If I don’t do X, he might kill himself.
Susan Jones hasn’t slept well in months and has lost a lot of weight. Her 35- year- old daughter, who abuses drugs, periodically shows up at the Jones home to crash. Susan offers to help her daughter get into treatment, and offers once again to help her get settled in her own apartment. Her daughter claims she is in too much pain, no one has helped, no one understands, and if her mother doesn’t help her (i.e. give her more money) she may not be willing to continue living.
2. I must be a terrible parent for this to have happened so I have to make it better. It is my fault.
John and Mary Smith are in their late seventies. Mr. Smith has two sons and daughter, now in their forties and fifties, none of whom have held steady jobs. ” My girl and the boys”, as John refers to his offspring, live in houses provided by their father. All three, now single, have had one of more marriages that failed, and whenever they have “struggles,” of any sort, good ol’ dad is there with a checkbook. Mrs. Smith, the step-mother, has tried to get her husband to stop this rescue mission until the younger generation shows some interest in actually earning their own way. Dad is easily manipulated by his progeny. “You left mom when we were young and now you are abandoning us.”
3. She/he won’t like me anymore and may never want to see me again, and I can’t stand that.
Sam and Ruth Brown have a 38-year-old son who has an off and on history of drug use, and who recently started gambling regularly, a habit which is looking more and more like an addiction. The parents continue to see him as the popular top student he was in high school, the bright kid who has a lot of promise. They cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that he is not only no longer a kid, but has lied and cheated his way through two marriages and been fired for stealing from two employers. They only see the “good” in him, and fear his rejection if they notice to themselves, or out loud, the messes he has created for himself. Despite confrontations from their other son and their daughter, they continue to act as if all is well and as if they are a happy family with no problems. The thought that their son might think they dislike him means he won’t like them anymore, so they stay stuck in big time denial.
4. I have to keep trying. I just do. I have no choice. This is my child.
Jane White raised her two children mostly alone. Her passive husband was away often, travelling with his work, and left the family for good once the kids were out of High School. Her daughter is now a nurse, married and the mother of two daughters. Her son began using drugs and alcohol as a teenager and now, as a 45-year-old adult, has yet to stay clean for any length of time, or stay in any kind of job despite the many times mom has paid for his inpatient and outpatient treatment, job training and schooling. Every time she kicks him out of her home, he soon returns, and she takes him back, even though she “knows” that isn’t a good idea, and that it only makes matters worse. But part of her believes it is just her job to keep trying to fix this, no matter how much both her daughter, and the rational part of herself tells her she cannot do anything about his problems, only he can.
5. I love him/her. Abandoning him means I don’t love him. God tells us to forgive seventy times seven. I can’t give up.
Tom and Patricia Pratt have a 30-year-old daughter who has stolen money from them repeatedly, stolen household objects and sold them, and leaves her young child with them for weeks at a time, her whereabouts unknown. She then shows up and acts contrite. Tom Pratt has had it, and told Patricia he will no longer put up with their daughter’s illegal and irresponsible behavior. Patricia argues that love means one has to go the extra mile, and that God is on her side. She cannot consider that allowing this behavior is in fact unloving, even when Tom points out that they have forgiven her already 490 times.
It is interesting that somehow chronically hurtful people, be they addicts, or otherwise, (addicts most always are CHP’s while abusing substances even if not so when sober and clean), seem to sense the exact unhealthy beliefs their enabling parents carry, and are therefore able to exploit those beliefs by doing or saying whatever triggers the parent to move into a rescuing and enabling position. The irresponsible offspring once again gets what he or she wants, but no one gets any healthier. Things actually get worse.
The Parent who continues to enable adult children who have a long history of disconnected and irresponsible behavior will not likely take the appropriate actions and set reasonable boundaries for themselves until and unless they confront their own deeply held beliefs that prevent healthy outcomes. It is not easy to face what we do not want to look at, but the chances that anything will change in these parent/adult child relationships are slim to none if deeply held and very limiting beliefs are not challenged and changed. What is true, and something I often share with clients suffering in these ways, is the statement: Whatever we face we can handle.
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