Abusive adult children influence parents’ self-image

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.




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

  1. Linda H.

    I feel the pain of estrangement tripled as I have 3 grown sons who have ALL chosen to walk out of my life. I divorced their dad who caused me pain for 25 years and was physically & emotionally abusive to my sons. I remarried a man who they didn’t approve of and now I am dead to them. My 3 sons came to my mother’s funeral 7 years ago & wouldn’t speak to me or acknowledge me. I was humiliated & embarrassed as they did this at my mother’s graveside service. They refused to come to the funeral luncheon and stayed at my sister’s who lives next door to me. They wouldn’t come to see their grandmother at the hospital before she died because I was by her bed side. I see their wedding pics on facebook & their dad is included in all of their life events with his wife. Also, my sister who chose to have no children of her own has taken on being their mother. She has always hated me and used to bully & beat me growing up. She took it to another level as I saw her slowly influence my sons until they completely estranged me. After not seeing my youngest son for 3 years, I called out to him when I saw him in a parking lot. His response was he threw his head in the air, swore and stormed off dragging his girlfriend who was baffled. I was completely devastated as I thought it was going to be a reconnection and that God had orchestrated the meeting. I struggle with reliving all the terrible things that have happened and have done counseling with 4 counselors including one who does EMDR. Nothing has helped and nobody understands. I am so thankful that I have found this website and just finished Done with the Crying.

    1. rparents Post author

      I’m glad you found your way here, too, Linda! I’m sorry you’ve had to endure such cruelty and pain.

      Hugs to you,
      Sheri McGregor

  2. Kona4

    I found this essay very inspiring. We all spend so much time thinking about what we said, how we reacted, and going over every argument and disagreement that occurred between us and our estranged child resulting in feelings of guilt and unworthiness. The truth is that all the parents here have loved their child or children in the best way they could and because we are all human it could never have been perfect. I have come to the conclusion that these adult children had an expectation of us as parents that no one could live up to. This essay caused me to think back on the way my daughter treated me over the years, beginning when she was a teenager. It was always inconsistent, but looking back I now see that I was the best mom in the world on days when she got her way. It was when I said no or when we disagreed or argued that I was the most horrible person ever. Over time, it does begin to become a relationship where you spend your time figuring out which egg is ok to step on. If you have another child or children, like I do, you are able to see the difference. I have no explanation as to why being with one child would be filled with stress and anxiety and then another would be calm and easy and free of conflict. Maybe some people are just born with a mean streak, I don’t really know. It is hard to imagine that level of a lack of empathy and the amount of cruelty that some of these adult children exhibit. It is hard not to think that as a parent you failed in some way. As I continue to read Sheri’s writings and the comments people post here, one thing has become clear. These estranged children are their own people with their own minds making their own choices. It is about them and sometimes has less to do with us than we think.

    I do want to ask you something Linda, Why do you live next door to your sister? It seems like a self imposed punishment. I know that moving is often an enormous undertaking, but it seems that your sister is a source of terrible hurt in your life . Maybe that is something to think about.

    1. Biobabe

      Thanks for writing! It would have been nice if we could have a meet up group. Of course if we were in the same…!

    2. rparents Post author

      Thank you for your perspective here. I think you’re right about it being about them. I do also believe some have a mean streak as you say…

      Sheri McGregor

    3. Happyfeet

      I have just found this group/forum/lifeline a few days ago. It has already changed my perspective. I was a the bottom of the abyss and searched for anything helpful on You Tube. I eventually surfed my way here. I either have multiple personalities or I have finally been given the lifeline I have needed for many years – I feel a twinge of empowerment deep inside. I believed I was alone as an estranged parent. This has been an increasingly devastating and demoralizing belief. I felt like the biggest loser ever to live- I have been ashamed to be me. Now I know I’m not alone in my suffering so I see the potential for the first time to make my way out of the abyss. This is big!!! I plan to be gentle with myself at every turn. After reading many of the stories on this site, I now know I was a good mother too and I know it is okay that I wasn’t perfect. I “hope” I will be able to help other people some day like all of you have helped me already. Thank you for being you and being here for people like me. I so wish there was a meet up group in my area. Should I start one?

  3. Livin

    This story is as close to mine as you can get without it actually being mine. My 45-year-old daughter and I are beyond reconciliation as well. There have been too many intentional wounds inflicted; too many lies spoken; too many days seeing myself as a failed mother. But I do pray, every day, that my granddaughter will contact me. And I, too, wait for the the knock on the door and that same sweet smile.

    Thank you.

  4. ahavah

    This reminded me of the beginning of my son’s 8 year estrangement. We were in fine spiritis and one day, seemingly out of the blue, he calls and tells me of his divorce and then financial downfall. I was sympathetic and he promised to follow up with a call. The call never came, months went by and he never answered calls. Then I start getting rude, harsh and abusive sounding emails from him. I cried a lot and then I printed the emails out and looked at them objectively. They reminded me of a drunk just ranting and raving. Months later someone let me know that on Facebook he had posts of continual partying so I looked at the photos online and saw huge kegs of alcohol in every picture. Ok, confirmed, he was drinking heavily. He had moved back to the mainland and continued his silence for 8 years. Recently he re-established contact and told me that he had to quit drinking because of a bout of alcohol induced pancreatitis. I write this so any parent struggling with low self esteem due to estrangement may realize that there could definitley be a drug or alcohol challenge that your adult child is not telling you about that is the morivating force behind the estrangement. The inital wound of the estrangement is deep but there’s no need to deepen that wound with your self doubts. Try not to muddy the relationship waters by stirring up added emotional dirt. Step back and wait as many years as it takes, learning to nurture yourself along the way. Hard, but worth every effort. This is not a happily ever after story, but it’s also not the worst case scenario. I wish everyone, courage, love , dignity and truth.

  5. Rowen

    I was positive that I was drowning. I was in trying to fall sleep in the middle of my comfy bed, the thoughts were taking over. What did I do wrong? How could I fix it? Will I get to see my grandchildren again?
    When I woke up the next day, I was alive.
    The grandchildren are not mine. They are the responsibility of their own parents. Yes, it is very important for grandchildren to have a good relationship with their whole loving family. Or is it?
    I was exhausted. I was working 7 days a week. Paying for my family. Big deal? I’m the adult. I am the Mom. I could blame the divorce. I had to divorce. Their biological dad said I could leave, dead. I had suffered long enough. When I left the marriage I did not look back. My goal was to take care of my children.
    I have been blamed for everything. For not driving them to their after school activities ( I purchased vehicles for each of my children) To buying the wrong food. ( I gave them cash to purchase groceries) They wanted me to buy a new car instead of braces for their teeth. ( The car I drove got me to and from my job).
    I was a teenage mom. My children do not treat me as an equal. They treat me as though I was put on earth to fill in the blanks. I was accused of going to the club by my oldest child. I was a workaholic.
    I was scolded because I purchased a 13-inch t.v. for my bedroom. ( The consensus was that I spend too much money). I lived within our means. I did not use credit cards. I paid the bills. I did not smoke. I did not drink. I did not use drugs. ( I have considered it, I’m too old now)
    My children got what they needed. I went above and beyond what the so-called outline is as far as providing for a child.
    They each had their own bedroom. They each had their own clothes, nice furniture, car, help with homework. I allowed them to go to shows, ( I thought they were watching movies at the local theatre, they were traveling to Hollywood CA to see Punk Rock Bands) I was tired. I would say goodbye and they were home in the morning, I’m sure that I will be blamed for this too.
    I can’t cry anymore. I don’t want to deal with them.
    I don’t want to see the grandchildren.
    I don’t want to see pictures of their pets.
    I just want to be left alone.
    I love them. I just want for them to go pester their other parent, for once. And, I don’t want to hear about it. It’s not my problem. It’s not my fault.

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  7. mytime

    I’ve just joined this site and this post is just what i needed to read. I do struggle with blaming myself and looking at my faults. My daughter has blanked me and my whole side of the family for the last 8-10 months. Prior to that she had spent the summer vacation with me and my husband and we had been on holiday with her auntie and cousin and had what i thought was a great relationship.
    she spent time with her father at the end of last year and will not speak to me – she seems to be channelling his nasty and negative thoughts on me and has blocked me from all contact.
    It does hurt so much and i get to a point where i think i’m okay, but then when i go out with friends, i feel awkward and inferior. I don’t want to tell them too much because i don’t think people can understand and i feel sad when i hear about their children and what theyre up to.
    I hope in time that i will feel truly good about myself. i am reading Sheri’s book and working hard to get on with my life. It’s good to have this website to offload on and hear what others in this situation are doing.
    hugs to all of you xx


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