How Midlifers Can Manage Toxic Adult Children
You expect the spite and tantrums with teenagers – it come with the territory but you don’t expect them to become toxic adult children. Once your children become young adults, though, they shouldn’t still be demonstrating toxic traits. How do you cope if your adult child constantly makes you feel like sh*t?
Teenagers’ brains are more malleable, so they’re more likely to grow out of their toxicity. But young adults have settled on their opinion and will defend it whatever the cost. Logic and reason aren’t requirements for these defenses either – many times, they’re just looking for a punching bag.
If that punching bag ends up being you, you’re completely trapped. Toxic adult children will do that to you.
On the one hand, giving them the “punching bag” license hands them an invitation to keep attacking you remorselessly. Then, they’ll continue to use the same attack any time you argue. Alternatively, you defend yourself – but suddenly you’re “belligerent” and “out-of-touch”.
How do you know if you have a toxic relationship with your adult child
You might refuse to believe it at first – your own children? Where were the sweet little humans you used to cradle and burp? Now turned into a toxic adult children? How? Why?
It helps knowing ways to recognize toxicity in someone you love.
Unfortunately, no giant neon sign appears telling you that this person is bad news – you have to really sit with your feelings and develop an awareness of how you feel after spending time with them. It could be that your child is toxic if you feel these ways:
- Apprehensive about seeing them again
They may possess these characteristics that leave you feeling this way:
- Casting constant judgment on others
- Being extremely needy and placing insane demands on your time and energy
- Refusing to acknowledge or apologize for their actions or the harm they’ve caused, or consistently assigning the blame elsewhere
They may have dangerous addictions that lead to their constant borrowing of money, or they’re extremely needy. People aren’t always toxic with malicious intent – but the effects are very real.
And as your child, lessons won’t be learned until you take decisive action to create distance.
They’re grown now, and although you know you’ll always be there for them, you also have to attend to your own needs. This sometimes involves finding space from the toxic people in your life. Yes, including your toxic adult children.
How dare you contradict your adult child when they know they’re right? To hell with different opinions and personal circumstances.
The fact is, you can’t and won’t win when you’ve got a child who’s showing signs of toxicity during young adulthood. They’ll find a way of making their behavior your fault.
Did you work hard to provide everything they needed and give them a comfortable life? They don’t appreciate it – you “coddled” them and “kept them in a bubble”, making your child the way they are.
Did you spend all your time with them during early childhood to provide a loving environment, without being able to provide much beyond the basics? They don’t appreciate it – you gave them an “impoverished upbringing” and “smothered them”, and they felt deprived compared to their peers, making your child the way they are.
You see the pattern?
With all the gurus, mentors, life coaches, and mental health labels in the world, they still find a way to blame you for their emotionally draining, confrontational, and ugly behavior. They’re impossible to communicate with, have around, or converse with on a superficial or deeper level.
Team Vippi joins you in saying enough.
Not every parent gets it right – but it’s time to confront and overcome patterns of toxic behavior that keep sinking both you and your kid to horrible new lows.
Steps to take
There is no doubt in our minds that you’ve encountered toxic people. But when it’s your own offspring, it can sting in a different way, and the steps for dealing with the relationship don’t come as easily. Making the decision to create space from your child can be really tough.
Here’s how to manage a toxic relationship with your adult offspring.
Establishing firm boundaries is perhaps the most important step you can take to help both yourself and your adult child.
It’s assumed that because you’ve always been their guardian (and caved in to their demands) that you’ll continue to do so. But you know that there’s only a limited time you can go on like this.
They might try to convince you that you’re insufficient as a parent if you don’t help them, or use past events like a divorce against you. How long can they trample your boundaries before you say no?
No-one else can tell you where that line is. But you have to be ready to listen to and act on the inner voice telling you it’s not right. A simple “no” without justification is more than enough to start drawing your line in the sand.
Learn your weaknesses so they can’t be used against you.
Toxic people are master manipulators. They’ll use aspects of your own life and personality against you as leverage.
Being self-aware about your own weaknesses can help beat back the tide of toxicity. They can’t launch a surprise attack if you already know about every weapon they’re going to unleash on you.
The worrisome aspect of your own child being toxic is that they’ve known you their entire life. There’s a heap of material, past traumas, and guilty moments they can use to twist your arm and get what they want. Don’t let them.
Sometimes, toxic people don’t even want anything. They just want to create drama and project their negative feelings, and they’ll use your weaknesses to get you where it hurts the most.
Forgiving yourself for your own flaws is important for building happiness in general, but it can bolster you against those with ill intent – especially those who know your weaknesses as well as you do.
Know your motives.
With toxic people, there’s always a balance between knowing you need to stand firm and fearing what’ll happen if you do. That’s even more reason to put your foot down. You need to make absolutely sure that you take solace in your motives, especially as far as your children are concerned.
They’ve made it absolutely clear what they want from you – more money, a space to stay indefinitely, carte blanche to do whatever they like, the list could be endless.
But you also want something from them, whether it’s relief from the constant toxic behavior or simply a sign – any f*cking sign – that they’re growing as a person. And you should make it clear what you want from them, too. No manipulation. Just communication.
Whenever you’re making decisions that involve your child, weigh up why you’re doing it:
- If you’re agreeing to something they’ve asked of you: Are you doing it because you’re worried they’ll lash out if you don’t? Or have you arranged leverage? (“This is the last time.” “If I do this for you now, this is what I expect in return.”)
- If you’re declining and refusing to budge: Are you establishing that enough’s enough and regaining control over the situation? Is your child’s life immediately threatened if you say no? What will their backlash be – and how will you work through it?
Your child is an adult. You don’t have to bend over backwards for them anymore, and you don’t have to explain yourself when you refuse – especially when they show no acknowledgement or gratitude for what you’ve given them. But knowing why you’re reaching any decision can help you feel more centered amid the chaos of interacting with them.
Focusing on problems never helped anyone. Very often, dealing with a toxic person isn’t about working out what to do – that’s usually pretty clear. It’s just that what needs doing is often painful in and of itself. Cutting someone off isn’t easy.
What’s important is focusing on the solution you’re providing, not the problems around it. That will help you pluck up enough courage to stand by your boundaries in spite of any possible backlash. You know you’ll stay stuck if you don’t act.
Stop focusing on their negativity, and focus on the cleanup you can now start in their absence.
Spend time around people who nourish you.
During your healing process, spend time with well-meaning folks who have the exact opposite effect on you. If your adult child made you feel tense, anxious, and angry all the time, dedicate your time to people who make you feel good.
Very often, toxic people can change the way you relate to others in your life, having absorbed much of your time and energy. Once you’re free of that influence, create a sunny contrast by being around people who make you smile, laugh, think positive thoughts, and feel loved.
You’ll know that this is how you should be treated, and that you needn’t ever put up with that behavior again. Sometimes you don’t see the wood for the trees – when you’re surrounded by toxicity, it’s easy to lose sight of the people that give you purpose.
Things you don’t need to do
You might want more from the solution that it can give you. You wish so many things for your child, but they always seem to act out of spite and make you miserable. Here’s what to avoid when cutting them out.
Don’t blame yourself.
When you’re making tough choices like stopping contact with a toxic adult child, you might feel the urge to self-examine and apply labels like “neglectful” – your child might even apply those labels for you.
Stop. You did not fail as a parent. Maybe you made mistakes or spoiled them – but mistakes aren’t failures. People develop toxic traits for all kinds of reasons.
Understanding, compassion, kindness, and respect are all virtues – but you deserve them, too, and from yourself most of all. You can be firm while showing respect, and compassionate while making tough choices.
Your adult child has had the chance to take accountability for their actions, and they chose not to. They chose. So you’re not being horrible to them, you’re being kind to yourself.
Don’t expect them to change.
Change comes through accountability. If your adult offspring is constantly looking for ways to undermine you and never owns up to their mistakes, making you feel terrible in the process, they’re not about to change their ways.
Hoping for change can lead to further disappointment down the line – a prologue in an optimistic but sad story. Have the stopping of contact serve as the final word (literally). If they change on their own terms, that’s a bonus.
Until then, they’re functioning outside of the boundaries you set, and that will have to be enough.
Don’t hold their hand through every crisis.
You will not be the only person affected by your toxic adult child – maybe they got themselves into another fight this weekend, or they feel terrible after another weekend of partying, drugs, and risky behavior. Perhaps they just need another $500 to get them through till payday due to their actions.
They may not be lying or trying to manipulate you – they might have created real problems for themselves that led to severe consequences. You’re always the one they come to for an easy fix, though. They never turn inward and fix the actual source of their troubles: their own decision-making.
This might be the most difficult part of getting through a toxic relationship with your child – switching off the immediate protective instinct in your brain. Deep down, you have to know that you’re protecting them by not providing an easy solution to their woes.
This forces them to confront how they actually behave. The problems your adult child creates for themselves should be theirs to fix.
Don’t be a victim.
We’re a “take the punishment and complain to our friends” generation, and we shouldn’t be. You have to take decisive action and be strong enough to enforce your decision.
If your adult children are being truly violent and destructive, threatening physical assault, or throwing things around, resist the urge “not to get them into trouble” and call the police. They can help you defuse the situation.
There are also groups you can join on Facebook like “Toxic Adult Children” where you can speak to people in the same dire situation. This may help you find empowerment.
Don’t be satisfied with victimhood. You’ve put up with your adult child’s toxic behavior for too long. Own your decisions, even if they’re steps you’d rather not be taking.
Don’t forget. But do forgive.
In this context, forgiveness simply means disengaging any further attempts to change your child. You can’t – so let them change on their terms and remove the pressure from your immediate list of concerns. The forgiveness benefits you more than them.
Do not, however, forget how you’ve been treated. Let it add to your resolve and shape how you approach relationships in future. Put your time and energy into people who add to your life rather than destroying parts of it, and always remember how approaching the situation with strength helped you.
Don’t seek their approval.
Your child is not going to like being told they have to move out, can no longer have an allowance, or will no longer be invited over for the holidays.
You don’t need their approval, and you won’t get it – so don’t go looking for it. Make this decision for you.
What to understand
To really put a pin in it, it’s best to develop your understanding of your child’s toxicity through a 4-step process:
- Their behavior is mostly projection. Their attacks on you are coming from parts of their personality they aren’t happy with. This will help you frame your decision as a way to help them find self-love and acceptance.
- This is a cycle. They will keep projecting, then they’ll hurt you. They’ll feel bad, apologize, and then manipulate you all over again. It’s not going to stop just because they seem to feel bad. Stick to your guns.
- Their behavior will get worse before it improves. If you keep facilitating their behavior, it’s only going to get worse, whatever you try to do. You don’t have to keep allowing for it at your own expense.
- You need to pick your battles. You can only try to “fix” them for so long before you run out of energy – and even as a parent, it’s not your responsibility to do so.
Once you’ve been through this process of understanding, you’ll have more mental strength to reinforce those all-important barriers.
We know you love them – and that’s exactly why you should let them go (for now). The more you try fixing your adult child and rushing to their aid every time something goes wrong, the worse they’ll get.
Let your child know they’ve crossed a line, then reinforce that line. Whatever your solution entails, it’ll involve setting boundaries and standing by them without feeling guilty.
It won’t be easy. But remember – it’s your child who put you in this situation. You are a damn fine human being in your own right, and you also need space, self-respect, and time to heal.
Langslet, K. (2020). 3 signs a person with toxic qualities Is manipulating you (and what to do about it). https://greatist.com/live/dealing-with-a-toxic-person
Young, K. (n.d.). Toxic people: 16 practical, powerful ways to deal with them. https://www.heysigmund.com/toxic-people-16-practical-powerful-ways-to-deal-with-them/