Parents of abusive or neglectful adult children: Purge toxic mindsets

neglectful adult children

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Parents of abusive or neglectful adult children:
Purge toxic mindsets

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Ancient Romans saw February as a time of starting anew, even though the official year didn’t start until the warmer weather of March. They used the cold winter period to clear out and cleanse. Ancient “Februalia” was a festival time of purifying the physical body and environment as well as spiritually cleansing the figurative heart and soul.

In our modern society, we’re not far past our goal making of the New Year. Let’s use these wintry days to contemplate and then purge our unhelpful thinking. Here, I’ve included five toxic mindsets to release.

#1–Is self-care selfish?

In my coaching work, I can’t tell you how many times a parent will say, “Maybe it sounds selfish but. . . .” They usually go on to talk about a new level of abuse or neglect by adult children that has motivated their shift.  They want to create better boundaries and focus on their own lives instead of the old ruts of trying to fix what they didn’t break.

Self-care is not selfish. Many of us have spent a lifetime putting others’ needs first. Whether we formed that habit in our families of origin or later lost ourselves, a continually depleting cycle leaves us running on empty. It’s dangerous to act as the caboose to a runaway train. We aren’t selfish to detach and learn to care for ourselves. Whether we do or don’t someday successfully reconcile with estranged adult children, if we take care of ourselves now, we’ll be stronger then.

#2–Comparing yourself to “luckier” parents

I have written about this previously but truth bears repeating: Thinking someone has it better than you can hurt. Comparing your life to another’s fosters envy and hopelessness. Besides, what you’re perceiving often isn’t real. People show the world what they want to reveal. A friend’s “loyal” adult daughter you wish you had may not be as dependable and loving as you think.

Frequently, mental illness plays a role in estrangement. With genetics implicated in mental disorders, families with one affected member may have another. The mom or dad you consider “lucky” may suffer behind-closed-door chaos, marathons of patience, and enduring uncertainty or distrust. And let’s not forget the guilt. Even when “loyal” kids truly are great, parents must learn to manage their rejection fears and other anxieties that derive from the estrangement. Thinking another parent has it better only blocks your ability to empathize and further isolates you.

#3–I can’t be happy unless. . . .

For parents with neglectful adult children, the thinking usually goes something like this: “I can’t be happy unless my child is back in my life.” It’s an estrangement-specific version of the broader toxic mindset that starts with, “I’ll be happy when. . . .” The trouble is, when we connect our future to a goal that’s beyond our control to achieve, we may never reach it. Lose this toxic mindset and adopt a healthier one where you hold the power.

Try new hobbies or ones you’ve always loved. Focus on the things that bring you joy, no matter how small. Smile at people you meet. Stop to chat about someone’s pet or garden.

Get out of your head and into the present. There’s a whole wide world beyond the negatively skewed news playing on TV or in our minds. I recently heard some good advice via a mom of difficult and distant adult children. Her dad’s dying message was for her to “have fun.”

#4–Thinking you didn’t do enough

Hindsight isn’t always 20-20. That’s especially true when neglectful adult children spur parents’ analysis of everything they may have ever done wrong. In Done With The Crying, there’s an exercise to shift that mistake-magnifying mindset. Parents often feel responsible for things they had no control over.

The most frequent iteration I hear is about an adult child diagnosed with a disorder. Parents lament that if they’d only understood, they’d have gotten their child help. I believe them. But even when parents did express concerns, they were sometimes met with he’ll grow out of it or it’s just teenage angst assurances. Often, even when something was noticed, treated, and managed, the eventual outcome was the same. One mother of a son on the spectrum outlined all the care she sought for him over the years. Her son is now estranged.

#5–Judging your feelings negatively

“I shouldn’t feel this way,” is how some parents characterize their emotions. After years of unkind treatment by neglectful adult children, parents may contemplate a possible reconciliation without enthusiasm. Then they feel bad about themselves and wonder: Are my feelings normal?

If you’re feeling dread, distrust, or anger, don’t negatively judge and dismiss those feelings. Instead, consider what prompts them. A mother whose adult son or daughter is emotionally abusive may feel physically threatened. She has the right to honor her emotional barometer and protect herself. A father who feels resentful that he’s shelled out all the money for college, weddings, and still picks up the yearly birthday brunch tab (the only invite the adult child doesn’t miss) has a right to close his wallet. The societal tropes about unconditional love and always being there for our children don’t hold water when it comes to unsafe, toxic relationships. For more about emotions and how to handle them, read my books (link).

Not only when in Rome. . . .

No matter where you are in the world, take February and, at least in some ways, do as ancient Romans did. Heat up the Jacuzzi, throw in some purifying salt, and direct your mind to fresh new thoughts. Don’t get caught up in all the shoulds, wishes, and regrets, or hold yourself accountable for things you didn’t know or couldn’t solve.

Related reading

Be kind to yourself

Parents wonder: Does my adult child have mental illness?

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4 thoughts on “Parents of abusive or neglectful adult children: Purge toxic mindsets

  1. Peony

    Thank you Sheri for the reminder that it’s okay to feel the way I do and to resist the urge to “should” all over myself. I am in a better place now. The lyrics of this song, although originally romantic in intention, sum up where I am today better than I ever could. Acceptance is peace.

    I’ve found peace of mind
    I’m feeling good again
    I’m on the other side
    Back among the living
    Ain’t a cloud in the sky
    All my tears have been cried
    And I can finally say

    Baby, baby stay
    Stay right where you are
    I like it this way
    It’s good for my heart
    I haven’t felt like this
    In God knows how long
    I know everything’s going to be okay
    If you just stay gone

    I still love you
    And I will forever
    We can’t hide the truth
    We know each other better
    When we try to make it work
    We both end up hurt
    Love ain’t supposed to be that way

    Baby, baby stay
    Stay right where you are
    I like it this way
    It’s good for my heart
    I haven’t felt like this
    In God knows how long
    I know everything’s going to be okay
    If you just stay gone

  2. Liz P.

    Right now my adult daughter has just finally decided to “go no contact” and I can’t even express the relief and freedom I feel! I was caught in a 25-year cycle of her abusing me and me feeling it must be my fault, trying to apologize, get back in her good graces, bribe her with presents, try talking it over, hearing her side, trying therapy, on and on.
    Even this very week I was thinking, well, maybe if I just send her postcards every week or so? And maybe I can do that just to keep the lines of communication open? Also I realized I was trying to still be “a good mom” and be on the record as never giving up, if anyone cared, and if she tries to accuse me of abandoning her (she is 42 and married). But even as I think about doing it, I feel a sinking feeling and a heavy weariness at having to choose my words so carefully and walk on eggshells even in a silly postcard. I still don’t know whether I ought to try the postcards or not (commenters, please send me your wisdom and advice on this!).

    But anyway: I am DONE WITH THE CRYING and maybe soon I’ll even be BEYOND DONE WITH THE CRYING! Thank you so much for these books, Sheri. I feel as if I have gotten my life back.

  3. Missy M.

    As a parent, we felt unconditional love for our children. Yet, when it is not reciprocated and conditions are put on us and we are made transactional, we feel like we are living under a microscope and picked apart. I experienced this first with an ugly divorce and then parent alienation. The entitlement and disrespect made it easier to walk away. I decided that travel was my self-care and it has opened a whole new world and new travel friends. It has forced me to step out and realize “I am enough!”

  4. Trish

    I know for sure I never want to be disrespected again. Estrangement= no drama. I do not know how or why I put up with it for so long. I pretended it wasn’t happening. Thank you Sheri, for letting me know it’s ok to put myself first.


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