Most parents would do anything to protect their children from pain. So watching a child struggle with an addiction, whether to a substance, behavior or even a relationship, can be an excruciating experience and bring up feelings of guilt, grief, self-doubt, worry and isolation. This situation becomes trickier when the child becomes an adult because parents can no longer intervene or make decisions on behalf of their loved one.
Most people understand the challenges that surround having a child who struggles with a substance addition, but having an adult child in an unhealthy romantic relationship or a relationship in which there may be emotional abuse, such as inappropriate use of control, disrespect or dishonesty, is often considered less “taboo” or more acceptable than a substance addiction. Most people desire the feeling of being loved and accepted, including in romantic relationships. Therefore, parents can sometimes feel helpless when they think their child may be in a toxic and painful relationship.
“I’ve got half a dozen people I’m working with right now who are dealing with this, and my encouragement to someone who has a loved one in an unhealthy relationship is that it’s going to be difficult to talk them out of it because it’s just not rational,” says Ronald Laney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Change Inc. in St. Louis. “The other person is going to feel that that relationship, whatever it is, is filling a void that started long, long ago.”
For counselors, supporting these parents can look similar to working with clients who have loved ones struggling with an addiction. There may be questions around how much to get involved, whether to distance themselves from their child or if they’re doing the right thing.
And depending on the parent-child relationship, helping parents to understand and accept the situation could be challenging. For example, there may be years of unhealthy patterns of co-dependent and enabling behaviors that inadvertently perpetuate and reinforce the child’s addictive patterns, says Laura Whitcomb, an LPC who owns and operates NoCo Counseling in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Parents are willing to do and give everything for their kids,” Whitcomb says. But “they’re often trying to control someone else’s behavior and ensure someone else’s well-being, and that person is not making those same choices.”
Counselors can play a key role in helping parents better understand what their child may be experiencing as well as normalizing the parents’ feelings and experiences and helping them reach a place of acceptance of the situation so as to ensure their emotional and mental well-being.
Meeting clients where they are
While it might seem like a no-brainer, Whitcomb says one of the most important things to remember when working with parents seeking support around an adult child’s unhealthy relationship is to meet those clients where they are, but she admits this can be challenging.
“I care so much that sometimes I get ahead of myself,” Whitcomb says, noting that she has to sometimes stop herself from giving advice or providing feedback that clients may not yet be ready to hear. “I really want [the clients] to be OK. I want them to get some joy back in their lives, and I want them not to be taken advantage of and have all this responsibility that isn’t really theirs. Some of these parents should be looking toward retirement or traveling, and they’re just sacrificing everything.”
Because counselors are trained to examine the big picture, they may recognize things that may benefit the client before the client does, notes Robin Witt, an LPC and director of relationship dynamics at the Better Institute in Pittsburgh. “My biggest piece of advice is meeting the client where they’re at and working at the pace that they feel comfortable because, especially in these trickier situations, we can see the solutions but they’re not always willing or ready to see it, and if we push it, we can lose the client,” she says. “They could get scared or intimidated, and the biggest thing that we can do for them is to be a validating, supportive resource. We might be the only person that they’re talking to about this, and … what’s most important is keeping that professional relationship safe.”
Witt focuses on client goals and knows that change can be gradual because clients do not have control over their loved ones. And truly accepting the fact that they may not be able to change the situation to the degree that they would like often takes time. “This is not a four-sessions-and-they’re-done thing,” she explains. “So keeping a slow pace and being mindful that the client is the driver is important.”
Whitcomb says she has to remind herself as much as her clients that she may be getting ahead of them and that the process of learning how to support and engage with a loved one in an unhealthy relationship — similar to someone with an addiction — is often long and complicated. She uses frequent check-ins and asks clients what changes seem manageable to them and what they are thinking and feeling in order to gauge where they are and what they want to accomplish as well as to help them set reasonable expectations.
Some clients, for example, may take quick or impulsive action to try and fix or ameliorate the situation, such as giving ultimatums to their loved ones, but Whitcomb says those types of actions often just push the child away and have the potential to hurt the relationship. “A lot of people seem to want to do that. They want the problem to be solved. Most of us do,” she says. “So really try and shift their focus back to themselves, less on the unhealthy person and more on them.”
Whitcomb says she draws from her experience growing up with parents who had substance use issues to help clients learn to redirect their focus to themselves. It took her several Al-Anon Family Group meetings before she realized that focusing on herself, not her parents, was one of the first steps toward healing.
“It took me four meetings before I realized, ‘Oh, these people are no longer consumed with what their addict is doing. They are focused on their own lives and rebuilding their own lives,’” she recalls. “It took me a while to get it because people are holding so much intense emotion. We’ve been hurt a lot. That lightbulb doesn’t go on just overnight.” Whitcomb says that she uses this insight to prevent herself from getting ahead of clients as well as to help explain to clients the common tendency to focus on the other person.
The importance of psychoeducation
Another helpful component of supporting parents whose adult children are in unhealthy relationships is psychoeducation, which can include accurately labeling unhealthy or abusive relationships and modeling empathy and understanding.
Witt admits there can sometimes be a fine line between educating clients and validating and supporting them. The clinician, for example, wants to acknowledge the client’s experience and how painful it may be, but they also want to help the client understand the reality of the situation, which may involve exploring uncomfortable truths such as the fact that their child is likely unaware of or unwilling to accept that they are in an unhealthy relationship and subsequently are likely in denial about the effects that the relationship is having on other family members.
Witt finds that naming and defining abusive relationships can help clients better understand what a loved one might be experiencing. Depending on where the client is at, this can be incredibly validating in the moment, or it might be information that clients come back to in the future. “Giving them the vocabulary can be important because we might only get that client for a short time,” Witt notes. “We’re planting seeds. Someone else is watering them, and we also might be watering seeds that therapists or others have been planting and watering.” Then, if the child becomes more open to discussing their relationship or relationship dynamics down the road, the parent will be more prepared to help their child see and understand some of the unhealthy patterns taking place, she adds.
Clinicians can also teach parents the importance of meeting their child where they are, while also modeling this behavior within the therapeutic relationship, says Laura Copley, an LPC who owns and operates Aurora Counseling & Well-Being in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“If I was seeing a mother whose son or daughter was coming home from college and all of a sudden in this toxic or manipulative relationship, I would first need to help teach her how to slow down enough to recognize where her child is at,” she says. To do this, Copley may use open-ended questioning to encourage the mother’s exploration into her child’s mindset. For example, she may ask the client questions such as “What do you think your child is experiencing right now? How do you know your child is experiencing that? What are some of the things they’re showing you that is making you feel like this is how they’re connecting to this relationship? And if that’s the case, what might be something your child needs to hear first from you?”
Copley also advises clients to show an interest in their child’s partner by asking how that person is doing and demonstrating concern for the partner’s well-being. Clients “don’t like this part, but it works,” Copley admits, because it’s a way to show genuine concern and hopefully create a safe space where the child can open up about their own well-being without getting defensive or reactive. “The son or the daughter then starts to trust, starts to feel safe, starts to express what they’re experiencing,” she explains. Then parents can reassure their child that if something bad happens in the relationship, they can stay with them, no questions asked.
Copley says that it can also be helpful to teach parents about the positive and negative personality characteristics that are often present in someone engaging in an unhealthy relationship. For example, a person may identify as being a “savior,” so they are loyal, committed, loving and courageous. On the other hand, saviors are also prone to attracting others who “need” saving, so they may also have a fear of asking for their needs to be met or a fear of being vulnerable or getting hurt, she notes.
“This is all part of the conversation that we could have with parents to help them understand how to bridge the mindset of where their child might be,” says Copley, who adds that she would also role-play and model various ways to approach the loved one. “How we approach another human being, even somebody like our child, around something like this will deeply influence how they receive the message.”
Setting healthy boundaries
Working with clients to set healthy boundaries is another important aspect, but it can be incredibly challenging.
To overcome difficulties with boundary setting, Laney encourages clients to think of it as setting a boundary not only for themselves but also for their loved ones. For example, he says that parents could tell their child, “Out of my care for you, I’m going to set this boundary because it’s not doing you any good to allow you to continue to treat me in that manner.” Framing the boundary as a means of protecting the child has helped many of Laney’s clients overcome their hesitancy to set boundaries.
Another challenge with setting boundaries, especially in the beginning, can be finding the right balance. Clients sometimes move from having no boundaries to the extreme, Laney notes. For example, a parent may go from talking to their child every day to cutting off communication completely, rather than just communicating less. “We have to find that sweet spot,” Laney says.
Therefore, it’s important for counselors to help clients understand the nuance of boundary setting as well as the feelings of guilt and anxiety that can come along with setting limits with loved ones. Witt says that she encourages clients to make values-based decisions around things such as finances, faith, career and physical well-being when setting boundaries to ensure greater success.
“Making values-based decisions leads to those boundaries that actually stick,” Witt explains. For example, a parent may value attending church every Sunday, so if their child asks them to watch their grandkids one Sunday so that they can spend time with their partner, the parent may feel more empowered to say no because it will be a values-based decision.
“If it’s values based, [the client] is more likely to uphold the boundary versus something they feel they ‘should’ do,” Witt says. “And setting a boundary that’s not going to stick is not going to be helpful to anybody.”
Dealing with guilt, grief and shame
There’s also the possibility that parents will feel a sense of guilt while watching a child in an unhealthy relationship dynamic and wondering how their parenting style or the child’s upbringing might have contributed to the situation.
“The reality is that … our early attachment styles can absolutely set the stage for what we expect in romantic relationships, how we expect to get treated, how we get our needs met and if that’s replicated,” Copley says. So she likes to keep clients who may be experiencing these feelings of guilt focused on the present and what they can do now as opposed to exploring past events, at least when it comes to their goal of helping their child.
Copley refers to having clients focus on what they can do in the present as a corrective experience, one in which behaviors and dynamics from the past can be corrected in the present by making another choice and behaving differently. For example, if a parent avoided tough conversations with their child in the past because of their own discomfort around confrontation, they could decide that moving forward they will be more open to having difficult conversations with their child.
“If there’s shame and guilt for something the [parent’s] recognizing, we can either spiral into that shame and guilt and once again make it about us,” Copley explains, “or we can say it’s a signal that another opportunity is present for you to do something different and get redemption over anything that happened in the past.”
Copley also teaches clients how to better manage the uncomfortable feelings that their child’s relationship may be bringing up in them by using somatic techniques to decrease the chances of reacting out of fear and trying to control the situation. Often, “the storm of emotions that are more than likely in them is because they’re so afraid of what their child is going through and the pain that they must be going through,” she explains. “And if we project that fear onto someone who thinks they are in love, that’s going to push them away and make them protect the toxic person more.”
Sometimes parents feel guilty because they were also in an unhealthy relationship when their child was growing up. Witt advises clients who are worried their child may have witnessed unhealthy relationship patterns from them to have an honest and transparent conversation with their child about it. “We can’t go backwards, but we can be mindful of what we can do today to move forward,” she notes. “Whether that’s an apology or having an age-appropriate conversation to explain ‘This is why I handled things the way I did,’ [it] can enhance the relationship that you now have with that adult child.”
To help clients work through some of the shame and guilt that they might feel in these situations, Laney says that he likes to reinforce self-compassion and will often work with clients to explore how they can accept both difficult emotions and realities. For example, he might work with clients on how to hold the sense of sadness that their child might be in an unhealthy situation with possible feelings of guilt as well as possible disappointment around the dynamics of the relationship they have with their children.
Accepting what you can’t change
Although it’s not easy to come to terms with potentially challenging realities, such as a child’s unhealthy relationship and its effects on the wider family, embracing a certain amount of acceptance and equanimity can be one of the healthiest solutions for these clients, Laney says.
“At some point there’s almost a surrender,” Laney says. “We exhaust ourselves trying to change things that we really can’t change. There’s something of a letting go there.”
Whitcomb also emphasizes acceptance, especially self-acceptance, in these types of situations that often involve an element of codependence or a preoccupation over the child and the child’s relationship at the expense of parent and their well-being. “Codependence feeds on avoidance of one’s own needs and difficult emotions because by being consumed by the problems of another, we are better able to ignore and avoid encountering our own,” she explains. “As I encourage parents and family members to shift their focus from the person they are enmeshed (overinvolved) with, I also try to guide clients to identify their own strengths as well as parts of themselves they perceive as flawed.” In recognizing their strengths and taking time for self-care, clients can start to develop not only a healthier sense of confidence and independence but also more self-compassion, she says, which in turn can cultivate more compassion for others.
Contact the counselors interviewed in this article:
- Laura Anne Copley: LauraCopley@aurora-counseling.com
- Ronald Laney: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Laura Whitcomb: email@example.com
- Robin Witt: firstname.lastname@example.org
Katie Bascuas is a licensed graduate professional counselor and a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for news outlets, universities and associations.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
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