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 roller-coaster 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. 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:

The Turning Point

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. AvatarDolores F.

    I have held off going with my turning point plans because my abusive adult daughter is also a psychiatric NP and a good one as an adolescent specialist, also is a long time faithful member of AA. One on one with her is “civil” but when others are involved the put downs begin. I am a retired registered nurse who went back to work to help put her through private school and graduate school. As a widow with health issues we worked out a “business” deal that seemed sensible, at the time for me to sell my modest home and build a “place for Mom” on her property along with a pending divorce. Much more to the story…holding on to the hope as a medical professional she will change. Any advice appreciated ASAP.

  2. AvatarCarolyn

    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.
    “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.”
    Sheri’s words describe my thoughts and fears and feelings of failure and guilt, and I am very appreciative to hear the words from someone else and to know I’m not alone even though I would not wish this situation on anyone else. This month will be the first year I have not sent a birthday card and check to my son, and it’s very difficult. I have been sending cards and checks for birthdays and Christmas and getting no response. The lack of response I can deal with, but the berating in between has become too much. I think this year I can let it go. I hope.

  3. AvatarCherise

    I am so thankful I found this article! I have dealt with my now adult daughter being abusive and volatile for years. I have lost relationships with a large number of my family and friends because of the lies she has told. Even innocent trips to the mall or going to coffee are twisted to fit the narrative she wants for the person she is talking to. Things escalated yesterday, when I went to see her after six months of estrangement. She had told the woman she was living with some horrible lies about our past. This was not shocking considering ur past but then this woman became volatile and explosive, call me a child abuser and thrown me out of her home. This took place in front of her three grandchildren and my three young children. It is absolutely devastating to know that others are going through this, but I take comfort in knowing I am not alone. The shame and guilt over this is indescribable. While my daughter does suffer from multiple psychiatric conditions, there is no excuse for the behavior. The hell she has put so many people through is mind blowing and I fear what will happen next.

  4. AvatarSherry S.

    My son cut me out of his life in November 2019. It came out of no where and he did it through multiple texts. It got so ugly and nasty that I was concerned he had had a psychotic break. I asked to see him so we could talk it through, and he said that would be a very bad idea. He verbally attacked my husband (his stepdad) and accused him of all sorts of deviant behaviour. Since then (it is now September 2020), he has left nasty voice messages, even though I have his number blocked. He reached out in an email saying he wanted to talk with me, but he would have nothing to do with his stepdad. I tried to make him see that his treatment of my husband was unfounded, and then he blew up at me again. Months later he reached out to my mother, and arranged to have lunch with her. She said they had a wonderful talk, and went for a lovely walk in the public gardens. He told her he felt remorseful and wanted to smooth things over with both me and my husband. I felt hopeful. Yesterday I got an email of twisting the truth about what happened and he ended the email with ” You deserve no apology. You deserve a gun in your mouth.” I am broken. It has been a long, hard journey with this child. We have seen him through 5 years of drug abuse. I just don’t know what the next step should be.

    1. rparentsrparents Post author

      Dear Sherry, You have seen him through a lot and he continues to abuse you verbally and twist the truth. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give yourself the loving and kind care you have always afforded him. Take steps to be involved in your own life, and let him figure things out in his. You can love him but refuse to put up with abuse. Being someone’s mother does not mean being someone’s rug.

      Hugs to you, Sherry. You’re not alone.

      Sheri McGregor

    2. AvatarDeborah

      Sherry I am so sorry and I do feel your pain. My situation is similar, supporting our son through drug addiction only to be then blamed for it., and blamed for everything else in his life …. Abusive texts and emails … in the end I decided to cease contact with him, very very hard to do, especially Christmas and birthdays. It has eased slightly and my anxiety lessoned, he does contact if he needs something but I keep it brief. I dread seeing his name on an email or text and wish I could control the fear. I keep thinking he can’t be like this forever (he’s 33). For me, less contact or no contact is the way until he figures everything out for himself ..

    3. Avatarzlamana

      Just a quick note- I feel your pain. My firstborn started acting out in high school. At this time, he crashed his first car and did not show any remorse. The first two years of college were a disaster – after spending most of his ” school money,” my kid returned home with a gallery of fancy alcohol bottles ( because they were his memories).
      Then it was military ( very short-lived – court-martial and a lot of money to defend him ). He crashed his second car ( both paid for by my husband and me). Instead of coming home, he stayed in “the big city” and got a job as a bartender in several clubs and casinos. He drank and took everything and anything. He often called me, and quite frankly, I was happy because I knew he is at least alive.
      Over time more drinking – he lost all the right jobs. Traveled to another city for some bartender event – got drunk ( high?), hit a policeman – was thrown in jail (more money to get him out ). He stopped paying his rent and asked me for money… ( and got it). Well, he did not pay rent and subsequently was evicted. ( I have no idea what had happened with all his possessions). In January, he met a girl who is also a bartender and moved in with her into the apartment. After six weeks, he moved again to a house that belongs to the mother of the girlfriend. I was told that the girlfriend is estranged from her parents, and the father is currently in jail. After my son started living with his girlfriend and mother, he became very verbally and emotionally abusive. He was asking for the money from his school fund (which is a long time gone ). He was telling me to start selling stuff because he is reinventing himself, etc., etc.
      What else ?- he was calling and referring to the events that never had a place ( Like, for example-story about me and him smoking pot in front of the house and having a good time). He recently called and told me that I am just high, and I am probably doing cocaine…
      Well… My husband and I are very straight – I never had in my life smoked one joint. ( I do not know how marijuana tastes like) . I have never tried any other drug. ( two beers at the time or two glasses of wine is an extension of my intoxication.
      There is also some religious / nationality related team that was recently brought up. ( I came from another country ) . After my son met the girl, he asked/told me to apologize to the girl because ” people of my nationality” abused the people of her nationality.
      I know I am vague here – but I do not want to go into details right now.
      Now – we are not talking.

    4. AvatarRebecca S.

      OMGosh Sherry, I’m so sorry to see what your son said to you. My 43 year old ED told me that she would come to my Apt. and punch me in my [email protected]@King throat if I ever called her honey again. (I called her honey in a text) I regret that I texted her on Jan 2, 2021 and asked if we could patch things up and start this year off right…she went right into it again and called me all kinds of name. Telling me what a [email protected]@t mother i was and am. Why do I keep going back for more. I’m done. Wrote her out of my will and am going to go on with my life. (she also got one of my other daughters to reject me.) Beyond done. At least I have two other children that seem to like me, but, I’m waiting for the other shoes to drop. So done! God bless you Sherry.

  5. AvatarVal

    My daughter in law bullied me for 11 years-then forced my son to ‘dump’ me-over 4 years ago.-all I heard from her-was DUMP DUMP DUMP- She bragged about ‘dumping’ her own father-saying it was a ‘challenge’= even ‘fun’-she said-then would tell me how i will be ‘DUMPED’-and that it ‘will hurt’ she put me in double bind situation-and i did what she wanted-when she blackmailed me I still-got ‘dumped’ anyway-SHE ACTUALLY MADE AN EVENT OUT OF IT-smiling, happy-she was enjoying the pain she was-and still is-causing me.I am ADHD-so to her-that makes me an easy target-low self esteem to begin with-i found out i have a heart problem-a bad one-but instead of helping-I was kicked when i was down. Her manipulation and all the lies she said about me-alienated me from my whole family-I thought they would-at least one of them-be behind me-they know-and believe that shes lying about me-shes a overt BULLY- who brags about the fact that she was the meanest of the mean-in high school-and how fun it wos-when she hurt others.Then my son began bullying me too-and I was ‘dumped’.[her exact words] I cant stop crying-still 4 years later. im devastated-havent seen my grandkids-for years.People seem to believe-that its no big deal-but to me-my lfe-is over-and has been for over 4 years. i have nobody now.

    1. AvatarLinda

      I have experienced similar situations in my life and I have asked my self why? Do the stars have something to do with it? Was I born during a bad time in the galaxy: one bad thing after another happening and the effect it has on me. It is amazing the sadness and the tears and how it takes over my life. What I have learned is that the person (s) causing my pain is winning if I allow that person (s) to do so … At some point you have to understand that it will not change, you will not win, you will not get what you want and you have to, value your life, the human being you are and move on. I am old and the conclusions I have come to are: you have to learn to roll, you have to learn to pick your battles, and you have to take care of yourself. It is not easy and there will be days when you will fail but pick yourself up and try again.

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