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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 greatest emotional challenges. In my work with couples and families, one thing I find especially difficult to deal with is helping parents let go of an unhealthy attachment to their grown children. Often these parents enter therapy because they are worn out with worry and stress about how to handle their now adult offspring. These parents often seem “unable” to let go and allow their offspring to take responsibility for their own lives.
I am not talking here about parents who, on a limited basis, help their grown 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 the adult children to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, but this is not always the case. What is the case is the younger ones behave in a self-centered, violent and manipulative way. In doing so they refuse 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’ve had more than one parent in their forties or fifties “kid” storm out of my office because I’ve informed them that what they’re doing will never help their kids, and is actually 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 to allow someone to abuse or take advantage of you or others.”
What I have found, 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 that perpetuate a situation where the grown child may never . actually grow.
So why do people continue to do what is self-harming, and harmful to others? Often the culprit is deeply held beliefs, often unconscious, which, in this case, the exhausted parents carry. It could be said that the adult CHP (chronically hurting person) also deeply held unknown beliefs, but he or she is not the one who shows up in therapy. These grown children are the ones who create chaos and pain for others and do not consider themselves to be in trouble, so until and unless something gets 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 for months and had 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 therapy, and again offers to help her get settled in her own apartment. Her daughter claims that she suffers too much, no one helped, no one understands, and if her mother does not help her (ie give her more money) she may not want to live anymore.
2. I must be a terrible parent for this to happen, so I need to make it better. It’s my fault.
John and Mary Smith are in their seventies. Mr. Smith has two sons and a daughter, now in their forties and fifties, neither of whom had steady jobs. “My girl and the boys”, as John refers to his children, live in houses provided by their father. All three, now single, have had one of several failed marriages, and whenever they have “struggles,” of any kind, good 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 some interest in actually earning their own way. Dad is easily manipulated by his offspring. “You left mom when we were young and now you’re leaving us.”
3. She/he won’t like 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 has an outward history of drug use, and who recently began gambling regularly, a habit that looks more and more like an addiction. The parents still see him as the popular top student he was in high school, the bright kid who has a lot of promise. They can’t bring themselves to admit that not only is he no longer a child, but has lied and cheated his way through two marriages and been fired for stealing from two employers. They see only 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 everything is fine and as if they are a happy family without problems. The thought that their son might think that 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, traveling with his work, and left the family for good after the children were out of High School. Her daughter is now a nurse, married and a mother of two daughters. Her son started 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 care. and outpatient treatment, job training and teaching. Every time she throws him out of her home, he soon returns, and she takes him back, even though she “knows” it’s not a good idea, and that it only makes things worse. But part of her believes that it’s her job to keep trying to fix this, no matter what and her daughter, and the rational part of her tells her that she can’t do anything about her 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 has stolen money from them several times, stolen household items and sold them, and leaves her young child with them for weeks at a time, her whereabouts unknown. She then appears and acts sad. Tom Pratt had it, and told Patricia that he would no longer tolerate their daughter’s illegal and irresponsible behavior. Patricia argues that love means going the extra mile, and that God is on her side. She cannot consider that allowing this behavior is actually hatred, even when Tom points out that they have forgiven her 490 times already.
It is interesting that somehow chronically wounded people, whether they are addicts or otherwise, (addicts are most always CHPs while abusing substances even if not so when sober and clean), seem to feel the exact unhealthy beliefs that their enabling parents carry, and is therefore capable of exploiting those beliefs by doing or saying whatever triggers the parent to move into a saving and enabling position. The irresponsible offspring gets what he or she wants again, but no one gets healthier. Things are actually getting worse.
The Parent who continues to enable adult children who have a long history of disconnected and irresponsible behavior is unlikely to take the appropriate actions and set reasonable limits for themselves until and unless they confront their own deeply held beliefs that are preventing healthy outcomes. It’s not easy to face what we don’t want to look at, but the chances of anything changing 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 who suffer in this way, is the statement: Whatever we face, we can handle.
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