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When Parents “Can’t “ Let Go of Their Adult Chronically Hurtful
The Nourishing Company
Volume VII # 122 Copyright 2016
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Once again we welcome special guest author Roxanne Livingston, M.A.
She's made chronically hurtful people the focus of her professional work, and come out of it with the essential
nuggets we each need to recognize who these people are and to immediately initiate certain key self-care strategies
when we do.
Roxanne K. Livingston,
Close relationships are the most important part of our lives for many of us. At
the same time close relationships can present us with our biggest emotional challenges. In my work with couples and
families, one issue I find especially difficult to address is helping parents let go of an unhealthy
attachment to their adult children.
Often these parents enter therapy because they are worn
out from worry and stress regarding how to deal with their now adult offspring. These parents often seem
“unable” to let go and allow their progeny to take responsibility for their own lives.
I am not speaking here of parents who, on a limited
basis, help their adult children with financial or other problems. I am speaking of those parents who “help” over
and over and over again, and nothing changes. In these cases, it is common for the adult children to be
abusing drugs and or alcohol, but that is not always the case.
What is the case is the younger ones behave in a
self-centered, abusive and /or manipulative manner. By doing so they are refusing 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 have had more than one parent of a now forty or fifty
year old “child” storm out of my office because I informed them that what they are doing was not ever going to help
their offspring, and was, in fact, 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 toward someone to allow that
person to abuse or take advantage of you or others.”
What I’ve discovered, 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 which perpetuate a situation where the adult child may never actually grow
So why do people continue to do what is self-harmful,
and harmful to others? Often the culprit is deeply held beliefs, often unconscious, that, in this case, the
exhausted parents carry. It could be said that the adult CHP ( chronically hurtful person) also has deeply
held 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 do not consider themselves to have problems, so until and unless something gets their
attention, they are not interested in change.
Some of the beliefs that keep parents from taking
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
daughter, who abuses drugs, periodically shows up at the Jones home to crash. Susan offers to help her
daughter get into treatment, and offers once again to help her get settled in her own apartment. Her daughter
claims she is in too much pain, no one has helped, no one understands, and if her mother doesn’t 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 have happened so
I have to make it better. It's my fault. John and Mary Smith are in their late seventies. Mr.
Smith has two sons, now in their fifties, who have never held steady jobs. “The boys”, as John
refers to his sons, live in a house provided by their father. Both have had several marriages that
failed, and whenever they have “struggles,” of any sort, good ol’ dad is there with a checkbook. Mrs.
Smith, the step- mother, has tried to get her husband to stop this rescue mission until the sons show
some interest in actually earning their own way. Dad is easily manipulated by his sons. “You left
mom when we were young and now you are abandoning us.”
3. She/he won’t like me anymore and may never
want to see me again, and I can’t stand that. Sam and Ruth Brown have a 39 year old son who
has a bad gambling habit which is looking more and more like an addiction. The parents continue to see him as
the star athlete he was in high school, the bright kid who has a lot of promise. They cannot bring themselves
to acknowledge that he is not only no longer a kid, and has lied and cheated his way through a number of jobs
and two marriages. They only see the “good” in him, and fear his rejection if they notice to
themselves, or out loud, what a mess he has created for himself. They continue to act as if all is well, and
as if they are a happy family. The thought that their son might think 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 daughter is now a
nurse, is married and the mother of two daughters. Her son began 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 and outpatient treatment, job training and
schooling. Every time she kicks him out of her home, he soon returns, and she takes him back, even
though she “knows” that isn’t a good idea, and that it only makes matters worse. But part of her
believes it is just her job to keep trying to fix this, no matter how much both her daughter, and the
rational part of herself tell her she cannot do anything about his problems, only he
5. I love him/her. Abandoning 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 repeatedly, stolen household objects and sold
them, and leaves her young child with them for weeks at a time, her whereabouts unknown. She then shows up
and acts contrite. Tom Pratt has had it, and told Patricia he will no longer put up with their daughter’s illegal
and irresponsible behavior. Patricia argues that love means one has to go the extra mile, and that God
is on her side. She cannot consider that allowing this behavior is in fact unloving, even when Tom points out
that they have forgiven her already 490 times.
It is interesting that somehow chronically hurtful
people, be they addicts, or otherwise, (addicts most always are CHP’s while abusing substances even if not so when
sober and clean), seem to intuit the exact unhealthy beliefs their enabling parents carry, and are therefore able
to exploit those beliefs by doing or saying whatever triggers the parent to move into a rescuing and enabling
position. The irresponsible offspring once again gets what he or she wants, but no one gets any healthier. Things
actually get worse.
The Parent who continues to enable adult children who
have a long history of disconnected and irresponsible behavior will not likely take the appropriate actions
and set reasonable boundaries for themselves until and unless they confront their own deeply held beliefs that
prevent healthy outcomes.
It is not easy to face what we do not want to look at,
but the chances that anything will change 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
suffering in these ways, is the
Whatever we face we can handle.
For more information, check out Roxanne's
wonderful book on this subject:
Chronically Hurtful People: How to Identify and Deal with the Difficult, Destructive and
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