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Parents Who Don’t Let Go of Adult Children Who Are Chronically Hurtful People
For many of us, intimate relationships are the most important part of our lives. At the same time, close relationships can present our greatest emotional challenges. In working with couples and families, one issue that I have found particularly difficult to resolve is helping parents let go of unhealthy attachments to their adult children. Often, these parents enter therapy because they are concerned and stressed about what to do with their now adult offspring. These parents often seem to be “unable” to let go and hold their offspring responsible for their own lives.
I’m not talking here about parents who help their adult children with financial or other problems on a limited basis. I’m talking about parents who “help” over and over again, but nothing changes. In these situations, it is common, but not always, for the adult child to abuse drugs and/or alcohol. The reality is that young children behave in self-centered, abusive and manipulative ways. By doing so, they refuse to grow up and usually blame their parents for their failures and irresponsibility. Parents respond to this and other power plays by enabling more of the same.
I’ve had more than one parent rush out of my office with “kids” who are now in their 40s and 50s because I told them that what they’re doing will never help their offspring when, in fact, they’re claiming it for them Worry about the problem. One thing I might say is some version of, “Holding people accountable and expecting respectful behavior from them is a form of love. Allowing someone to abuse or take advantage of you or someone else is not love.”
Over time, I’ve found that even if older people understand what I’m talking about, that alone isn’t enough of a reason for them to sever the cord that binds them to their offspring, a cord that the adult children may never be able to Survival situations actually grew up.
So why do people keep doing things that hurt themselves and hurt others? The culprits are often deep-seated beliefs, often unconscious and, in this case, carried on by exhausted parents. Arguably the adult CHP (chronic victim) also has deep-seated 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 they don’t see a problem with themselves, so they aren’t interested in changing unless something comes to their attention.
Some beliefs that prevent parents from taking healthy actions:
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 substance-abusing daughter regularly showed up at Jones’ home to break down. Susan offered to help her daughter get treatment and again to help her settle in her apartment. Daughter claims she is in too much pain, no one helps, no one understands, if mom doesn’t help her (i.e. give her more money), she may not want to move on with her life.
2. I must be a terrible parent for this to happen, so I have to make it better. it’s my fault.
John and Mary Smith are in their seventies. Mr. Smith has two sons and a daughter, who are in their 40s and 50s, and neither has a steady job. “My girls and boys,” John refers to his offspring, who live in a house provided by their father. All three are single now, have had multiple failed marriages, and whenever they have a “struggle” of any kind, the good dad is there with the checkbook. Stepmother Mrs. Smith tries to get her husband to stop this rescue mission until the younger generation shows some real interest in earning a living. Dad is easily manipulated by his offspring. “You left mom when we were little, and now you’ve abandoned us.”
3. She/he won’t like me anymore, may never want to see me again, I can’t stand it.
Sam and Ruth Brown have a 38-year-old son who has a history of on-and-off drug use and has recently started gambling regularly, a habit that is increasingly resembling an addiction. His parents continued to see him as the popular top student in high school, a bright kid with a bright future. They couldn’t bring themselves to admit that not only was he no longer a child, but he had lied and cheated in two marriages and had been fired for stealing from two employers. They only see the “good” in him and fear his rejection if they notice themselves or speak out about the mess he’s creating for themselves. Despite their other son and daughter’s conflict, they continue to act as if everything is fine, as if they are a happy family with no problems. Their son probably thinks that they don’t like him, which means he won’t like them anymore, so they’ve been locked in severe denial.
4. I must keep trying. I just do. I have no choice. This is my child.
Jane White raised her two children mostly alone. Her passive husband traveled a lot, took his work with him, and left the family for good once the kids graduated high school. Her daughter is now a nurse, married and the mother of two daughters. Her son started doing drugs and alcohol in his teens and is now a 45-year-old adult who hasn’t been clean for long and hasn’t held a job, even though mom paid for his many hospital visits, outpatient treatment, job training and schooling . Every time she kicks him out of the house, he returns soon enough and she takes him back even though she “knows” it’s not a good idea and will only make things worse. But part of her thinks it’s just her job to keep trying to figure this out, no matter what her daughter and the rational part of herself tell her, there’s nothing she can do about his problem, only him.
5. I love him/her. To abandon him is to not love him. God tells us to forgive seventy times seven times. I can’t give up.
Tom and Patricia Pratt have a 30-year-old daughter who repeatedly stole money from them, stole household items and sold them, and left young children with them for weeks at a time, her whereabouts are unknown. Then she shows up and shows remorse. Tom Pratt has had enough and told Patricia he will no longer tolerate their daughter’s illegal and irresponsible behavior. Patricia argues that love means one has to go the extra mile, and God is on her side. She can’t argue that allowing this behavior is actually unloving, even though Tom points out that they’ve forgiven her 490 times.
Interestingly, people who somehow hurt people chronically, whether they are addicts or otherwise (addicts are mostly CHP, which is not the case even when sober and clean), seem to sense that their parents carry unhealthy beliefs and are therefore able to capitalize on those beliefs by doing or saying anything that triggers the parent into a position of rescue and support. The irresponsible offspring gets what he or she wants again, but no one gets healthier. Things actually got worse.
Parents who continue to help adult children with chronically incoherent and irresponsible behavior will be less likely to take appropriate action and set reasonable boundaries for themselves unless they confront their deep-seated beliefs that hinder healthy outcomes. Confronting what we don’t want to see is not easy, but if deep-rooted and very limiting beliefs are not challenged and changed, the chances of any change in these parent/adult child relationships are slim to none. What is true, and what I often share with clients who suffer from these patterns, is: No matter what we face, we can handle it.
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