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Manipulative Adult Children

Troubled adult children are often the masters of manipulation of their desperate feeling and frustrated parents. These children know how to trigger guilt by their comments to their emotionally tired and vulnerable parents. "If you don't help me, I'll just kill myself or end up on the street dead." As the parent, your guilt is not justified, but rather makes you vulnerable to be more manipulated by your troubled adult child.


As parents, it is important to set limits. The adult who is struggling needs to either sink or swim or the parents will have to be okay with nurturing the struggling adult along. I highly encourage the latter...Let go, let God.

If you, the parent, feels guilt for not helping your troubled child, then that guilt will play tricks on your mind. Guilt can convince you that your child's struggles are your fault. Rather, you ought to gain some self-compassion.

If you've actually done something you're ashamed of, apologize and move on. Avoid dwelling on the situation before your adult child recognizes this as a manipulation tool to continue to use on you.


You've noticed red flags and in this new situation, you might have looked over them due to guilt and perhaps this pressure concerning what love really looks like. Dr. Bernstein created this list and I highly suggest you read this intentionally as to avoid further manipulation and to set your limits.


If your adult child is in trouble, it is wise to let go and allow them to take responsibility for their actions and for their situation. It is wrong for your mental health and for their maturity, as a parent, to continue enabling them. As you read these five red flags, consider what is true and set your boundaries!







Following are five red flags that your adult child is manipulating you:  

1. Your adult child holds you emotionally hostage by threatening to hurt or kill herself or himself. Adult children who are truly at risk for self-harm need to be taken seriously. But repeated, guilt inducing, manipulative, toxic plays for attention or leniency to get out of facing responsibilities needs to be directly called out and addressed.


2. Your hear lying through "selective memory. You swear you had a conversation about a plan and everyone was pumped up and on the same page, But then one day, your adult child pretends to remember the conversation completely differently, if at all. 

3. Your adult child does not take life on—but you do. You are shouldering his or her debt, taking on a second job, or taking on additional responsibilities while your adult son or daughter is caught up in inertia, being seemingly endlessly non-productive. You and your spouse or other family members feel strain created by the excessive neediness from this overly dependent adult child.


4. Your adult child "borrows" money from you because she or he can't maintain solid or consistent employment. He says he intends to pay you back but that never happens. Yes, it is okay to help adult children out financially at times, as long as you are not being exploited in doing so.

5. You're resigned to disrespect. You think that because your adult child has "problems" that lets him or her off the hook from showing heartfelt respect. You may notice that he or she seems respectful when wanting something from you.  Your adult child, however, turns on a dime or gets passive-aggressive if you refuse the request. You feel worn down and accept this emotional chaos as normal.


Tips for Breaking Free From Your Adult Child's Manipulations

  • Be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations below to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:

  • Set limits on how much time you spend helping your child resolve crises. Encourage the child to problem-solve by asking, "What are your ideas?” If he or she reflexively responds with, "I don't know." then politely say something like, "I believe in your resourcefulness and know you'll feel better about yourself when you give this some further thought." 

  • Set firm boundaries with your child if he's constantly using your guilt to manipulate you.

  • While living with you, encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board. If unemployed, for starters, have them help out around the house with gardening, cleaning, or other chores.

  • Don't indiscriminately give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on adult children’s efforts toward independence.

  • Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. Agree that you won’t give an answer for certain time period whether it be the next morning or at least for 24 hours. For example, the next time you get an urgent text that says, “I need money,” respond by saying, “I’ll have to talk it over with your father [or, if you are single, 'I’ll have to think it over'] and I'll get back to you tomorrow.” This will allow you time to consider it and give you a chance to think and talk about it beforehand. It will also show that you are remaining steady in your course while presenting a united front.

  • Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise. 

  • Remember you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. He or she will most likely come around later.

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