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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19 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. Martina

      I am so glad to read this post. My three adult sons have grown up to blame me for everything. I can’t believe another mother has issues with all three and my heart goes out to you. I too divorced when they were younger. I got counselling myself as I wasn’t dealing well with the break up. I took my two younger sons to play therapy, the older one to counselling also, to the point that I was almost paying a second mortgage for our care, thinking it was an investment for our eventual well being. My eldest son keeps the minimal amount of contact and I get to see my grandson in a strained situation about every 6 months. I haven’t seen my middle son for 4 years. My youngest son smokes cannabis and drinks constantly and is prone to very aggressive outbursts. I recently obtained a protection order against him, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I’m looking forward to reading Done with the Crying. I hope I will gain some solace from it. I was a good caring Mom. I am a good honest person, but I am crushed and broken now. Your post has shown me a chink of light, Thank you LH.

  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.

  6. Pingback: TOXIC ADULT CHILDREN – Bonnie Blake– Author/Poet

  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

  8. Barb

    I have read each story & after many tumultuous years feeling abused by my ..now..52 year old daughter..I still feel it’s my fault but at least I know I’m not alone… I have had many beautiful cards…I love you mom..you are the best ….then I either say something she doesn’t think I should or don’t say something’s she thinks I should have & it’s on…I’ll never see my grandsons again…or… she will tell them all the dirt she can think of about me…I told her I feel like I’m standing on a train track & the train is coming.. Getting closer every second…I can’t move..I’m totally frozen… She is the train!!!!! I’ll definitely come back to this site & get the book..

  9. Rebecca

    I have three children, two of which I have estranged relationships. My oldest son is 29. A year and a half ago he just quit talking to me. He had quit talking to his dad (my husband) several months prior to that. My son and I were texting and talking daily, and he left for a trip out of state to see a friend, and when he came back he called me once saying we would get together soon, and from that point on he has never answered my calls or texts. He did start a web page with stories and poems, most of which talk about his abusive childhood, and his deceased wife. My daughter, who is 19, has been suffering from drug addiction for about four years now. I was a major enabler to her; giving her money, letting her stay at friends’ houses on school nights, took her to concerts, but four years ago I did not realize she had a drug problem. She did however, sufer from depression and suicidal ideation and would threaten to commit suicide if I did not give her what she wanted. I never said no. Then when she was 17, she started dating a 43-year-old man. I did everything in my power to keep them apart, calling the police, calling children services, grounding her, taking her phone away, etc. Things only became worse from there. This is when she started telling people how my husband and I neglected her and were abusive.
    My husband was a terrible husband and father; he was verbally and emotionally abusive to me and the kids. He was controlling, and would get mad often if I gave more attention to the kids than I did him. He never had a very good relationship with either of the boys, and with my daughter only until she was about 12-years-old. So, yes, there was mental and verbal abuse in the home.
    I have reached out to my son a couple of times in the last two years, telling him that I love him and my grandchildren and that I would love to talk to him, but he has never replied. As for my daughter, I have been the only one in our family to take her mental illness and drug addiction seriously enough to try to get her help. Years of psychiatrists, psychologists, inpatient stays, drug addiction rehabilitation, and all the love and support I could give without enabling. But unless I am buying her stuff, giving her money, and not telling her how much I disapprove of her new boyfriend, who is a 33-year-old heroin addict, and has her prostituting for drug money, she wants nothing to do with me. She has told me I am a horrible person, horrible mother, accused me of driving away my other two kids (although one still talks to me), and some other things that I couldn’t possibly repeat, and not mother should ever have to hear from her daughter. She blames me for all of her problems of course, and calls me psychotic, meddling and abusive.
    I cry alot, I just can’t figure out what happened and where I went wrong. I have started to believe I am responsible for their unhappiness. I am still with my husband, but this marriage is coming to an end, as I have way too much animosity and unhappiness to stay with him. I will look in to getting a copy of the book. God knows I need the support and help in order to let go, and let my children live their lives so I can live mine without guilt.

    1. Lynne

      I have been an estranged parent for many years. My daughter was recently in my life for about a year which ended with her refusing to communicate once again. This last rejection of me sent me into asking myself All the same old questions. What did I do?? What did I say?? How can I fix this?? My thought is that she does not have a natural affection for me. The kind I had for my Mother. I think this is the case for so much estrangement. The world we live in today is so cold and so many people are totally unloving. This generation of our children are without affection for parents. Why?? I believe in what the Bible says. People in these last days will Be unloving and lovers of self. It took many years for me to accept the situation with my grown child. I try so hard everyday to focus on the blessings in my life. I pray for them everyday. Saying a prayer for All of us today…there are so many of us now.

    2. Dina C.

      I hear you. Its exhausting. Grandchildren, that’s a issue when I dont want any thing more to do with my son. I could walk away but I can hear my son. “I told you, you are “blank” of a grandmother ignoring your grandchildren. I’m heartbroken over how my son views me , Yet my daughter is so kind to me and tells me he’s pathetic and self centered . I simply cannot reason with him. I’m so confused, angry, hurt and disappointed

  10. Sarah J

    I’m in a chain of rejected parents. I grew up barely ever seeing my maternal grandmother, believing she was selfish and evil. I didn’t really know her and when I went to her funeral grieved the lost chance of a relationship and not the human being I never really knew. I estranged myself from my mother for a while, she was unable to accept the changing direction of my life, my career, my becoming myself and fought to try and keep the relationship alive by continuing to allow her put downs and her judgement of me although would cut her off when I really couldn’t bear it. I’m now going through the same with my 17 year old daughter who was always at my side until I put my foot down on some bad behaviour and she moved in with her dad. The issues are complex and far more complex than I can convey here. As an in the middle of the chain what do I want? I want validation from my mum of my humaness, and my self as a separate person. I want validation that I’ve struggled and am winning at so many things, my career is something I’m so proud of, I’m an expert in a niche field dominated by men. I want to be seen by her as a person and not the possession that she made to make other people think that she’s great. The issues with my own daughter, I’ve simply just admitted Im human, I’m not always right but I care and anything I’ve done in her life was my best attempt at being a mum that I knew at the time. When we have children we get so caught up in demonstrating to the world we can be a good mum that we often forget we’re raising a human with a mind of their own and that their successes and failures don’t belong to us, we are bystanders, cheerleader, consolers And nothing more. Most of our problems come from no boundaries, passed on family issues that spread through the generations. And a failure on all our parts to admit when things are terrible to others for fear of being blamed. It’s not all about one individual, it’s all about everyone, that’s what we need to learn. This article helped me, it did make me see somethings, some of our woes and our accusations of abuse are our own perceptions and only a small side of the multitude of sides to the story within the dynamics of family. That’s why we spend more time with our friends… boundaries are so much easier in the structure of friends

  11. carla j

    i am a senior living with guilt and regret that my adult child never lets me forget. i was a single parent with good intentions but made mistakes and bad choices. i have tried to make amends with my adult child and move forward for the sake of my grandchild but am constantly being verbally beaten up about the past. if we disagree on anything the past is always brought up, and i am the horrible mother who never did anything for her children and i am a horrible grandmother. we live far apart but i have made trips to visit despite health issues but it always ends the same, with me fleeing to escape the verbal assaults. then that is added to the list of my failures. i still try to help my adult child financially from my monthly pension and i go without and cant afford to do this but its the only thing that lets me sleep at night.


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