Abusive adult children influence parents’ self-image

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

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NOTE: I don’t often use the word “abuse” when talking about estrangement. For some, though, the term fits. Estrangement itself, by adult children toward caring parents, can be viewed as a form of abuse. If you’re not comfortable with this terminology, use the search functions to explore other articles with specific topics relevant to parents of estranged adult children. — Sheri

Abusive adult children: a scary reflection

Have you ever looked in one of those magnifying mirrors that highlights every imperfection? Fine facial hair looks forest-thick, and skin pores appear as large as craters. But there’s a value in looking closely—even if, as a friend says, “Those magnifying mirrors are scary.”

Whose Mirror?

The perverse opinions of abusive adult children can make parents see themselves in a warped mirror. One that distorts them so much they no longer recognize themselves. This might have happened over time, or overnight.

abusive adult children“All I could see were my failures,” recalls Barbara. “My own daughter told me I ruined her life, and she had a million detailed memories of how I did everything wrong.”

Imagine waking up one day and seeing a monstrosity reflected. That’s how parents can feel when an adult child’s abuse includes blame, accusations, and twisted memories.

In the beginning, Barbara spoke up. “It was as if my daughter woke up one day and had brand new memories,” Barbara explains. “She recounted her life with a black cloud of doom over her head, and the cloud was me.”

Because the vast majority of parents want their children’s happiness above all else, they reevaluate themselves through the son or daughter’s perspective. They’re willing to look at how their choices may have been seen through their child’s eyes. All parents make mistakes. Also, it’s possible a child didn’t understand a parent’s choices, the motivation driving them, or what might have been happening behind the scenes. Those sorts of things can be discussed and worked out by willing parties.

Unfortunately, of the one hundred or more emails I receive from parents of estranged or abusive adult children each week, many of them have tried—unsuccessfully. Barbara certainly did. Offers for mediation, counseling, or to just sit down and talk, have been met with such things as flat-out refusals, silence, or more abusive rants.

Seeing the real you

Many parents are surprised to find that there are so many like them who have suffered from cruelty, abandonment, put-downs, and endless blame. And because it’s a controversial subject, they’ve been afraid to tell anyone for fear of judgment. Or, as is often the case, they’re keeping quiet to protect their adult child’s reputation.

Barbara knew she had done her best. She’s like other parents whose self-image can get lost to a flawed reflection provided repeatedly by abusive adult children. I routinely hear from parents convinced they’re failures, deserving of the pain or abandonment their sons and daughters inflict. After all, they reason, if they were a good mother or father, their children would love them.

They may try everything to maintain a relationship. Barbara’s daughter threatened to keep her grandchildren away, so she walked on eggshells.  “If I said anything out of line, which could be anything depending on her mood, then the tirade would begin.” Eventually, Barbara’s then 36-year old daughter began posting lies on Facebook about her. At the time, Barbara was recovering from surgery. At her breaking point, she replied, publicly asking her daughter why she’d lied. The postings were deleted, but Barbara’s daughter went no-contact. “It wasn’t the first time,” says Barbara. “But it has been the longest estrangement so far.”

With a health scare that became a turning point, Barbara knew she had to make a change. That’s when she began to look for help. But after years of warped opinions from an abusive adult child, she had little self-confidence.  “If I raised this person who turned out to be so cruel, then how could I be a successful mother?” she asks.  “My daughter had reminded me what a failure I was every chance she got.”

Take a closer look.

abusive adult childrenWhen suffering parents discover my book, they tell me they’re shocked to read so many experiences that mirror their own. And although it’s sad to know there are so many suffering, the knowledge is also heartening. They’re no longer alone. In reading other parents’ accounts, they get a clearer view. They see themselves in others’ stories, and recognize they were also good parents who did their best.

Once parents have a clearer reflection, they can explore positive changes to help themselves move forward in their own lives. One of the first steps is to look more closely at how much an abusive adult child has affected their lives. The inflicted suffering entails more than sadness and grief. Bitterness, lack of confidence, anger, fear, and anxiety have often crept in. In Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, there are many exercises, and one designed specifically to help with this vital step. Holding the magnifier up to examine changes in themselves is one of the first steps to making positive, concrete plans to regain confidence, find meaning, and happiness again.

Take action.

One woman who found this website and my book after 20 years of grief described her life as a “living death.” Now, she’s glad to have found a way out of the rollercoaster of emotions, the shame and sorrow, and to stop crying and to start celebrating life.

abusive adult childrenBarbara says it’s too late to reconcile with her daughter. There has been too much heartbreak, and her daughter has refused any sort of counseling or mediation. “I miss my grandchildren,” she says, “but I’m hoping to one day see them again.”

Barbara’s expresses the sentiment of many grandparents who, due to estrangement, have lost touch with precious ones. But I sometimes hear from grandparents who have received their wish. There’s a knock at the door one day, and it’s a grownup grandchild with that same sweet smile, wanting to reconnect. When that happens, you’ll want to be ready, so take care of yourself. As one grandmother recently advised, “Get dressed and put on lipstick every day.”

Don’t wait and hope, mired by inaction that only adds to your grief. You can clean the mirrors of guilt and shame and see yourself for the loving parent you have always been. Like thousands of parents who are learning to accept what they cannot change, and see their goodness again, you can be done with the crying. Take action for yourself and your happiness by reading more of the articles at this site, getting Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children and committing to the included exercises. Subscribe to my email newsletter (below) and take the survey using the link on the right. By taking action, you can be like so many parents who have recovered from the sadness and pain caused by abusive adult children, on-and-off or full-on estrangements. Treasure your life. You can find happiness and meaning again.

Related reading:

Rejected parents: Should you tell people?

Parents: Have you had enough?

Elder Abuse Statistics

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14 thoughts on “Abusive adult children influence parents’ self-image

  1. diane

    When my daughter was in her 20s she went through a phase of about a couple years, where she didn’t want to speak to me. I cried a million tears over that, it hurt very badly, but after a couple years she came back and we fell right into place again and have remained close every since. She never said mean things; she simply didn’t want to talk to me (which, at the time, seemed worse…) but my SON who is now 21… he is a totally different story. I considered what my daughter did to be an act of individuation; wanting to find out and claim herself as her own woman. But my son, he is full on FURIOUS with me for having given birth to him. He screamed at me, called me a “whore who couldn’t keep her legs closed” and thus gave birth to his misery. He threatens suicide, saying that it’s all my fault because I’m a terrible mother. I divorced his dad when he was little, we had 50/50 custody, so he spent his formative years equally with his father. The reason I divorced his dad? He used to torture me with suicide threats, tell me that some day the police would find him with a shotgun in his mouth, and that it was ALL MY FAULT because I was a terrible wife. My ex died from ALS when my son was 14, and my son then picked up the mantle and has kept his father’s legacy alive. He told me that he did not feel “safe” with me because I threatened to kick him out when he was over 18, living in my house, not contributing and being verbally abusive. I was raised with a work ethic and expected my kids to also have those values… my daughter is a doctor, but my son… he just wants to sit around, smoke pot (legal in our state) and lament the fact that he has to do ANYTHING because “he didn’t ask to be born”. How do you argue with that?? He went to therapy for many years and spouts the mantra “I am doing self-care” by disengaging completely from his family… and smoking pot all the time. He finally moved out when I completely stopped responding to his abuse; but he still text messages me and tells me that I failed him as a mother, should have accepted him unconditionally, and that I definitely did nothing to help his quality of life. I am so lucky because my daughter is a doctor of psychology and if it weren’t for her, I would have gone right back to the bat-shit crazy woman I was when I finally divorced my suicide-threatening husband. It took years of therapy to deal with that… but my son, it just brought me right back to the dark place I was in during my marriage. I am just shocked that I have a child who thinks it’s alright, even that he is ENTITLED, to speak to an adult like this. But– he watched his father do it! He has done other very bad things to me… things my friends say I should never forgive him for… but isn’t it funny… they come out of our bodies and we could forgive them anything, if they truly meant it.

    Reply
    1. Sherry

      Diane, I truly feel your pain. I have a son who treats me extremely cruelly. He is almost 40 years old, and has had one failure after another. I raised him as a single parent, and also did my very best. I put myself through college, and have offered to help my son in every way possible, even though I have very limited resources. He will take the help, and often calls when he needs to vent over another disappointment in his life, or his unhappiness, but invariably, he always resorts to blaming me, and speaking to me so cruelly and disrespectfully it has broken my heart a thousand times. EVERYTHING wrong in his life always ends up being an abusive rant against me. I always tell him I am thinking of him, praying for him, asking how he is doing, telling him I love him, but he has a chip on his shoulder that has been there since his teenage years. He was always unhappy that we did not live in a fancy house like many of his friends, didn’t get the father in life he wanted. His father abandoned us, and did not try to reconnect with him or his sister until they were adults. He hates him for that, but also feels the same contempt for me, and has made sure to tell me for as long as I can remember how I am why he has issues. No matter what I do, it is never enough. I have begged for forgiveness for whatever it is he feels he did not receive, given him help in every way possible, but he is totally stuck in his anger and abuse.
      He has failed at so many things, and has had 2 DUIs, has never had a meaningful relationship, even though he is handsome and intelligent. It just breaks my heart, but I have been taking his bullying and abuse for so long, it has become part of our relationship. I have made a decision today, that this is the end. My daughter and other relatives have told me so many times to stop taking it. I feel it is easy to beat up on me, because there is no one to call him out on it. His sister has said, stop taking it, and tell him you are done with it. I have said it so many times, but every time we make amends, it doesn’t take long for the next abusive rant to start. I reached out on the internet and found this space. This has given me courage and confidence, that I do not have to continue like this, and put a stop to it once and for all. I have also had lowered self esteem and a continuous since of sadness about his issues, and believing I must be responsible in some way, because why would he heap on so much abuse when I speak to him so lovingly and cautiously. It is very helpful to read what others have been through, and to know I am not alone.

  2. Boundaries at all costs

    I am so glad to have found I’m not alone but so sorry for the great pain I see here.
    Turns out I bought this audio book during the last tantrum estrangement. Guess I have to listen to it now…
    My adult daughter (26) who has been quite dependent on me and her stepfather as she struggles with mental illness, has become delusional in many of her thoughts and memories. As I try to enforce boundaries to protect my own mental health and finances, she becomes more and more abusive. She posted her delusions regarding me, some very serious accusations, on Facebook recently. She tells me no one likes me and they are sick of me. This is not reality. I have loving family members and friends. I am not perfect as that doesn’t exist. I have made mistakes. I wasn’t always emotionally available. I fight anxiety and depression. She keeps insisting I am what she appears to be, narcissistic with borderline personality disorder (likely diagnosis). She uses my granddaughter as a pawn with everyone, including me.
    She has experienced trauma in her life at the hands of abusive boyfriends and strangers too. She desperately needs counselling and to not miss appointments with her psychiatrist (although I have doubts about her ability to be helped appropriately when she is always a victim and NEVER takes responsibility for her own actions and the consequences of.
    All this to say, I’ve had enough. I can’t take anymore. I am unsure if her drug use has escalated but something is going on as food is not a priority and when I try to ensure food in the house, she is enraged I didn’t just give her the money.
    I am going to continue holding my boundaries as best I can while she claims she needs away from her toxic mother (insert eye roll here).
    It has become a relief to be free of her needs and demands and I think she knows it so she will again punish me by withholding my granddaughter.
    My anger is real but the relief I feel in letting this go as best I can is the winner.

    Reply
  3. Linda

    Exact same thing for me. I have 4 grandchildren with the one daughter I believe wholeheartedly I raised a sociopath . From the time she was small she was trying to get in trouble and hurt things from people to pets. Then same thing as an adult always in trouble . I haven’t seen my grandkids going into fourth year now. I suffered greatly from depression then blaming myself and further questioning myself. I hit an all time low in 2018. Enough is enough . No more looking at her abusive posts about me and everyone else. She’s got different fathers to the grandkids and I’m not the only grandparent under estrangement. The twins I know have suffered her abuse and neglect . Pretty crumby the state she lives in is so Lenient on child abuse. ugh ! But all I can do is pray for them. Also No grandparent laws if you are the biological grandmother there either. She knows that

    Reply
  4. Stella

    It’s so unreal how many of you sound so much like me. I thought I was alone in this… Realising that I’m not, after over 15 years of self hatred because of my daughters. I tried so hard to rack my brains on what I could have done differently, prayed that God could see my efforts even if they couldn’t, deemed myself to be this evil horrible mum, convinced myself that I must be going crazy and even sought help from a therapist. Watched my marriage crumble and held on by the smallest thread. One emotionally abuses me by using my grandchildren as a weapon and one has been physically abusive, attacking me, punching me in the face and biting me all in one go. The bite mark is still there after 4 years..Did I walk away from them? Nope. I forgave them and still done all I could to try and be there but it was never good enough. The pain for years could not make sense, but then I read the comments on here and I just thought I’m actually not crazy! The level of mental torture trying to explain to people that your children are lying about things said, you feel like there’s no point. Mine haven’t made any effort with me since last year and so to save myself and what’s left of my sanity I’ve now decided to not have contact with them. As much as it hurts, I just don’t have the energy anymore. Physically and mentally drained. I’m hated and used even when I try, so there isn’t any point anymore. Reading some of the comments breaks my heart and sending love and strength to all who find themselves in these hurtful situations X

    Reply
  5. Linda

    This page from Estranged parents has helped me so much. I feel great sadness and empathy for all of you and I would not wish this scenario on anyone. Unfortunately, we find ourselves caught up in this web of wanting desperately to reconnect with our estranged adult child, but knowing they are creating such emotional turmoil for us all that we can’t imagine having a conversation with them. The accusations coming from my 40 year old estranged daughter has us in shock. It started as an attack on CHristmas morning in 2016, when she was 38, about it being my fault that she couldn’t have children and I should have told her of my medical condition. I have no condition, as I gave birth to 3 very health children. Since that time she has become more and more verbally abusive. I still love her, which she says is a “lie”. She was a very difficult teenager, and we had many issues with her, but we had a calmer relationship after she left to go to UNiversity. She came home every year for Christmas, we provided emotional support as her marriage broke up, packed her up and moved her several time, cared for her when she was sick, gave her money for a condo down payment and always made exceptions for her dietary needs when she was here visiting, and much much more,but she forgets all about that. She has become more and more angry as time went on. SHe now has a child which she refuses to let us see. Her sister and brother has given up trying to have a relationship with her as they claim they can’t tolerate her drama anymore. I am still trying to move on from this traumatic experience, and knowing I’m not alone in this nightmare, and the strength you offer has helped me to realize, for my own self care, that it is time to really attempt to put this behind me and “let go” of any hope of a reconciliation. I can no longer have such a negative influence in my life as it is too damaging to my own emotional and mental stability. Sending you all love and gratitude for being open about your experience and being there. Best of luck with your estrangement and remember to practice self care.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    The way I knew my daughter had gone full no contact was this.

    I was sexually assaulted and texted her to let her know. She completely ignored my text.

    That was the end of twenty years of her opening up and slamming the door in my face, opening up and slamming the door in my face over and over.

    One time she told me, “I have been in town several times and could have visited you but I chose not to.”

    She yelled at me over the phone on numerous occasions. I was once sick for two years because of it. I have cancer and she has nothing more than a passing interest. Then the sexual assault. A few days later I signed up for a Facebook business page. She had banned me years ago. I checked her page for the first time in ten years.

    Then I saw where she has befriended somebody on Facebook who did a great deal of damage to me and I will never collect many thousands of dollars from that are due me. I don’t know how I feel now. But I lost something toward her.

    I never in my heart, mind, or soul did I shut the door on her. She was always my precious baby who had somehow taken offense. Now I am tired of being under her microscope. It has been twenty years of nightmares and trauma and trying to give her space. I’m not as bad as she thinks. In fact I spent years in counseling because of this. None to my credit with her, but it helped me endlessly as a human being.

    Reply
  7. Lynn T

    Your daughter’s behavior towards you sounds repulsive. Does she have no conscience? I am sure you did everything possible to raise her right, complete with the mistakes we all make because we are imperfect humans. Now after everything you’ve been through, and done for her, she can’t even give you a moment of compassion? It sounds to me like she is the one with the serious problems, dear one. She is missing out on a relationship with the only person who truly has her best interests at heart.

    My daughter can be extremely cruel too. We’ve had an on again, off again relationship for over 6 years. But now I feel our estrangement lives in both of us. Perhaps in me more than her. Because of the COVID 19 pandemic I decided to reach out to her via FaceTime. I thought if she could see my face it might make a difference. It did not. The first 15 minutes went well, and I had an opportunity to end the conversation, but I foolishly took a chance to try to talk through her issues. She brought up things from over a year ago, some so far fetched I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My blood pressure started to go up, my mouth went dry, I even lost the hearing in my left ear until the next day! Now all I can think, after having such intense negative physical responses, is that I don’t ever want to talk to her again.

    I hope you don’t feel alone in your estrangement. I am new here, but learning that there are so many of us. My advise is to write back to someone else and include parts of your story. It really helps. You are not alone. We all understand with compassion and open hearts. Be well!

    Reply

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