Parents who find that their adult children seem angry or avoid them for no apparent reason may be confusing having good intentions with not being on to themselves. Hidden agendas, rigidity, controlling interpersonal styles, and lack of awareness of anger often are at the root of the problem, causing toxic dynamics.

These issues also create confusion in relationships because the explicit communication and declared intent is different from the metacommunication — the unstated, emotionally-driven message that’s going on behind the scenes. When this happens, negative reactions are out of proportion with seemingly innocuous content, causing the recipient to be left feeling guilty and questioning his or her own mind and interpretations. Being aware of the unconscious intent in these interactions can empower those on the receiving end to disengage and set limits.

A common challenge for parents and their adult children (as well as spouses and siblings) is balancing closeness and autonomy. But, in relationships with the dynamics described here, this normal struggle becomes a platform for the parent to act out an unconscious agenda to ward off separation anxiety and loss:

  • “How come you never call me?” said the mom in confrontational tone. Guilt trip, accusatory, pushy. Not a real question. Self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • “If you’re too busy to visit me, how come you can go on vacation? I’m just saying…” Micromanaging/controlling. Entitled approach to relationships. Egocentric presumption that the failure to visit is personal. If it is personal, then this type of comment and the lack of respect for boundaries will likely add to the reasons to stay away. On top of this, the phrase “just saying” after an off-putting remark apparently gives the speaker a free pass to say anything and then magically negate any ill intent.
  • “If you don’t reply to my email, I’m going to show up at your work so we can have coffee together. It’s only because I love you.” Emotional coercion/blackmail, disguised hostility. Here anger becomes its opposite through the use of “reaction formation,” an unconscious defense mechanism which disguises anger from oneself and others by reversing it and turning it into superficial friendliness.

The first two examples can be a compartmentalized issue or blip in otherwise healthy relationships. However, these communications are often diagnostic of a more pervasive narcissistic dynamic. In those cases, the adult child is used as an object to satisfy the parent’s need for security and validation, leading him or her to forbid normal separation.

The manipulative assault on the adult child’s right to exist as a separate person is revealed to him or her on a visceral level through feelings of anger or resistance, violation, and the need to fend off the parent. These feelings alternate with self-doubt and guilt, as the adult child’s internal sense of what’s true is hijacked by the parent’s projection.

Confusing interactions also occur in these relationships in response to the adult child expressing a negative feeling or disappointment about the past. Hoping to be seen and understood, instead, he or she is barricaded from having an impact, as well as attacked. The examples below depict another confusing, paradoxical quality of these relationships — which are both overbearing (too close) and, at the same time, isolating and rejecting:

Dave said to his parents: “Max (Dave’s son) is angry at me because I put too much pressure on him. It made me remember that you were hard on me growing up.“

  • Dave’s dad: “I’ve never done anything that would make you be mad at me.” Rigidity/lack of responsiveness, failure to consider or even register another person’s experience, good/bad characterizations to maintain a flawless/idealized self-image.
  • Dave’s mom: “Oh so it’s all my fault, I was such a bad parent, that’s why I gave up my career, chauffeured you around… [insert list of good deeds, a/k/a parental responsibilities, here].” Guilt trip, reacting as if attacked — taking an exaggerated, masochistic position and changing the subject.

The inability to register another person’s point of view, as demonstrated here, is like an interpersonal learning disability — blocking outside information from coming in and authentic connection. This can be highly frustrating, enraging, and disconnecting, leading to self-defeating cycles of trying to get through.

What causes people to lose their power and allow themselves to be held hostage?

Confusion, intimidation and self-blame set the stage for dominant people to take power, as in these examples. In mind games where emotional manipulations and distortions are disowned and hostility disguised as caring, it’s easy to buy into the other person’s claims and lose track of who’s doing what to whom, and what’s really happening.

In the examples described, the emotional manipulations are typically unconscious, and the manipulators firmly believe in their stated position. When the other person reacts negatively to intrusiveness, emotional coercion, and denial, the manipulator accuses him or her of being the attacking, hurtful one. Such interactions can be crazy-making, resulting in doubting one’s own perceptions and guilt. It is precisely in these moments when weakness occurs — creating vulnerability to surrendering one’s own mind, merging with the others’ projections, and losing touch with what’s true.

The common fear that setting boundaries will destroy the parent keeps people trapped as well. Acting on this fear is in violation of the basic rule that everyone must put his or her own oxygen mask on first. Further, since rigid, impenetrable defenses enable self-deception, parents are walled off from feeling vulnerable. This is the essential problem in these relationships that causes insensitivity to others and prevents healthy connection in the first place. Finally, setting consistent limits in a firm, dispassionate way can, ironically, have a positive, stabilizing effect on the relationship.

Tips for Protecting Yourself from Being Controlled by Another Person’s Perceptions, Feelings and Agendas:

  • Recognize and identify emotional reactions from childhood (e.g., fear of abandonment, punishment and intimidation) and don’t confuse them with your adult higher mind perspective.
  • Work on developing the courage to let go of unrealistic hope of being validated and face the resulting grief and loss.
  • Establish and internalize a realistic view of the other person and his or her capacities. Be on to his or her manipulations. This will reduce fear of separation and loss, and restore perspective.
  • Give yourself permission to have limits, set boundaries, and have your own life.
  • Establish in advance the basic boundaries and limits that will work for you. This will reduce resentment and the need to act out.
  • Prepare for and rehearse how you would like to respond to predictable interactions.
  • Routinely say, “I’ll get back to you” and buy time before responding to invitations or demands.
  • Set limits in a simple, concise way without defensive explanations. Do this in a firm but calm, dispassionate manner.
  • Disengage quickly from manipulations and emotionally triggering interactions.

Mom on the phone photo available from Shutterstock