Our Adult Child is Verbally Abusive and Rewrites Her Childhood
BY DR. JOSHUA COLEMAN
Our estranged daughter is 28-years-old. In limited contacts with us beginning about a year ago, she insisted on bringing up what she perceives as a horrible childhood due to horrible parenting. (Naturally, we see it as quite the opposite.) We tried to listen to her complaints with empathy and have apologized for our inevitable parenting mistakes. It seemed the more we attempted to make things right, the more she ranted on and abused us verbally.
We finally told her we would not discuss the past ever again because we had said everything we could think to say and anything she had to say was extremely hurtful and not productive. We should add that this is the second episode of the same thing we have been through with her; the first being when she was in her early twenties. At that point, we said the same thing and things got better for awhile but then we “slipped up” by allowing her to start again…This time we REALLY mean it.
Or do we?
We heard you say a couple times that we should let our child know we are open to discussing her issues any time but honestly, neither of us wants to open that door ever again because we know what’s behind it and we don’t see the point in allowing her to verbally beat us up yet one more time. (We have offered to discuss it with a therapist but she lives in a different state and refused anyway.) We are hoping to slowly mend the relationship by using some of the strategies you have recommended – but just refuse to discuss parenting issues. Are we on the right track or are we doing the wrong thing by refusing to talk about her issues?
DR COLEMAN’S ANSWER. I think youʼre right to limit or at least to structure these conversations with her. The fact that she has to yell at you as opposed to simply tell you speaks to fragility or an immaturity on her part. From this perspective, a parent has several aims:
- Teach her appropriate response to conflict
- Work toward resolving that conflict
In general, you can say, the next time this comes up, “We are very interested in discussing the past with you and can tell that you feel hurt and misunderstood. But, it hasnʼt felt productive to have the meetings go in the ways that they have so far. Maybe you feel better afterward? It doesnʼt seem like you do. I guess if we really felt like your yelling at us was moving things toward resolution weʼd be open to a few sessions of that. But since weʼve tried that and it hasnʼt worked we have to assume that it may not feel any better or more progressive to you than it does to us. Weʼre happy to talk to a family therapist with you, or maybe you could write out in a letter some of the things that you wish weʼd respond to. We feel like we have responded, but maybe it wasnʼt enough.
About Dr. Coleman
Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization of leading sociologists, historians, psychologists, and demographers dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings of American families. He has lectured at Harvard University, The University of California at Berkeley, The University of London, Cornell Weill Medical School, and blogs on parent-adult child relationships for the U.C. Berkeley publication, Greater Good Magazine.
He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books: The Free Study Guide Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin’s Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin’s Press); When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
He is the co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.