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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 our greatest emotional challenges. In my work with couples and families, one issue that I find particularly difficult to deal with is helping parents to let go of unhealthy attachments to their grown children. Often these parents enter therapy because they are exhausted from the worry and stress of dealing with their now adult offspring. These parents often seem “unable” to let go and allow their offspring to take charge of their own lives.
I’m not talking here about parents who are limited in helping their adult children with financial or other problems. I’m talking about those parents who “help” over and over again, and nothing changes. In these cases, it is common for adult children to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, but this is not always the case. What is the case is that younger people behave self-centered, abusive and manipulative. In this way, they refuse to grow up and usually blame their parents for their failures and irresponsibility. The parent responds to these tactics and other power plays by enabling more of them.
I’ve had more than one parent of a now forty or fifty year old “kid” leave their office because I informed them that what they were doing was never going to help their offspring, but was, in fact, contributing to the problems they claimed to be worrying about. One thing I might say is some version: “Love is holding people accountable and expecting them to behave respectfully. It is not loving someone to allow that person to abuse or exploit you or others.”
What I’ve found over time is that even when older people understand what I’m saying, that alone is not enough to cut the cords that bind them to their offspring and that perpetuate a situation where the adult child may never actually grow up.
So why do people continue to do what is harmful to themselves and harmful to others? Often the culprits are deep-rooted beliefs, often unconscious, which, in this case, are carried by exhausted parents. You could say that the adult CHP (chronically injured person) also has deeply held unacknowledged beliefs, but he or she is not the one showing up for therapy. Those grown children are the ones who create chaos and pain for others and don’t think they have a problem, so until something catches their attention, they are not interested in change.
Some of the beliefs that prevent parents from taking healthy actions:
1. If I don’t do X, he might kill himself.
Susan Jones hadn’t slept well in months and had lost a lot of weight. Her 35-year-old daughter, who abuses drugs, occasionally shows up at the Jones house to crash. Susan offers to help her daughter get treatment and once again offers to help her settle into her own apartment. Her daughter claims that she is in too much pain, no one has helped, no one understands, and if her mother does not 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 happen so I need to improve it. It’s my fault.
John and Mary Smith are in their late seventies. Mr Smith has two sons and a daughter, now in their forties and fifties, neither of whom has had a steady job. “My little girl and boys,” as John says of his offspring, live in the houses provided for them by their father. All three, now single, have had one of several failed marriages, and whenever they have “struggles,” of any kind, good old Dad is there with a checkbook. Mrs. Smith, the stepmother, tried to get her husband to stop this rescue mission until the younger generation showed interest in actually earning their own money. A father is easily manipulated by his offspring. “You left mom when we were young, and now you’re leaving us.”
3. She/he won’t love me anymore and may never want to see me again, and I can’t stand it.
Sam and Ruth Brown have a 38-year-old son who is a frequent drug user and has recently started gambling regularly, a habit that is increasingly resembling an addiction. His parents still see him as the popular top student in high school, a bright kid with a lot of promise. They can’t bring themselves to admit that not only is he no longer a child, but he has lied and cheated through two marriages and been fired for stealing from two employers. They see only the “good” in him and are afraid of his rejection if they see for themselves, or out loud, the mess he has made for himself. Despite the conflicts of the other son and daughter, they continue to act as if everything is fine and as if they are a happy family without problems. The thought that their son might think they don’t love him means he won’t like them anymore, so they stay stuck in a great state of denial.
4. I have to keep trying. I just work. I have no choice. This is my child.
Jane White raised her two children mostly alone. Her passive husband was often away, traveling with his business, and left the family for good when the children graduated from high school. Her daughter is now a nurse, married and the mother of two daughters. Her son started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager, and now, as a 45-year-old adult, he has yet to stay clean for any length of time, nor hold any job despite his mom paying for his inpatient care many times over. and outpatient treatment, job training and education. Every time she kicks him out of her home, he soon returns and she takes him back, even though she “knows” it’s not a good idea and only makes things worse. But part of her believes that it’s her job to keep trying to fix it, no matter how much her daughter and the rational part of her tell her that there’s nothing she can do about his problems, only he can.
5. I love him/her. Leaving 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 repeatedly stole their money, stole household items and sold them, and leaves her young child with them for weeks at a time, her whereabouts unknown. He then appears and acts contrite. Tom Pratt had it and told Patricia that he would not put up with their daughter’s illegal and irresponsible behavior any longer. Patricia claims that love means moving on and that God is on her side. She can’t believe that allowing this behavior is actually unloving, even when Tom points out that they’ve forgiven her 490 times already.
It’s interesting that somehow chronically hurt people, whether addicts or otherwise, (addicts are mostly CHPs while abusing substances, even if they’re not when they’re sober and clean), seem to sense the exact unhealthy beliefs of their parents who support them, and are therefore able to exploit those beliefs by doing or saying anything that prompts the parent to move into a rescuing and enabling position. Irresponsible offspring get what they want again, but no one gets healthier. Things are actually getting worse.
A parent who continues to enable adult children who have a long history of disconnected and irresponsible behavior is unlikely to take appropriate action and set reasonable boundaries for themselves until they confront their deeply held beliefs that prevent healthy outcomes. It’s not easy to face what we don’t want to see, but the chances of anything changing in these parent/adult child relationships are slim unless deep-seated and highly limiting beliefs are challenged and changed. What is true and something I often share with clients who suffer in these ways is the statement: Whatever we face we can handle.
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