"If you don't pay for me to have my own apartment and car, I'll kill myself..."
"If you don't do this for me, I'll never speak to you again..."
These are just three threats -- sent to me recently via email from distraught parents of adult children. There are many variations. But the message in each is that if you don't give an adult child what he or she wants, the consequences will be dire.
It's easy to say "Don't let yourself be manipulated into giving money you can't afford!" or "Don't enable your adult child in his or her dependence on you well into adulthood."
But saying "No" when the threat is suicide, estrangement or never seeing your grandkids again makes it even more difficult.
So what can you do when you're faced with emotional blackmail?
Don't do anything right away. Avoid knee jerk compliance and proffering cash as the panacea for all that is ailing your adult child or your relationship with your adult child. Suggest that you talk about this further when both of you have had time to cool down, think about options and consequences. It's important to let your adult child know that you've heard his or her demand. Ignoring it can only serve to escalate the threats.
Try to understand what feelings are behind the threats. An adult child who is making unreasonable demands and threatening painful consequences if these demands aren't met may be in deep pain and desperate for help and support. You can offer emotional support, love and understanding without bankrupting yourself to meet what may be an unrealistic, impossible demand.
Discuss the situation and alternatives. One daughter of a reader who is 25 years old, still living at home, never employed and attending community college only sporadically, decided that she could get a job if she had a permanent address. So she demanded that her widowed mother pay for an apartment and a car for her so that she could job hunt.
The mother, who was just getting by on her secretarial salary, pointed out that this wasn't financially feasible, that the daughter presently had a permanent address at home, and that true independence had to wait until the daughter was employed and had an income. The daughter threatened to kill herself if her demands weren't met. Her mother made an appointment with a therapist for both of them initially, then insisted that her daughter keep going to therapy, telling her that she was taking the suicidal threat seriously and wanted to help her feel able to get on with her life -- even if her living conditions at the moment weren't her first choice.
Not all unreasonable demands are financial. One reader recently wrote to me to ask how to handle a situation with her daughter -- with whom she has a difficult relationship. She has jumped to her daughter's aid at the first sign of distress for years now, being a full-time baby-sitter for the grandchildren while also working full-time and relocating when her daughter and son-in-law decided to move out of state -- a move that resulted in her being away from her loving husband most of the time for more than three years. After she returned home, her daughter needed her again and she rushed to help. Through it all, her daughter has been surly, ungrateful and critical.
The mother is now wondering how to set boundaries, live her own life and yet be there for her beloved grandchildren. She is mulling the option of occasional visits to her daughter's home, keeping up the the grandkids via Skype, and resuming her life with her husband and her career.
Enlist the aid of a third party to keep your discussion productive. This might be a therapist. Or it might be another family member who has a good relationship with both of you and who can offer support and insight as you review what might be possible. Explore the undesirable consequences of the threat: that grandchildren suffer, too, when separated from grandparents, that by cutting you off for lack of financial support, the adult child is cutting himself or herself off from your emotional support, which may help him get his life together. Your adult child may be more willing to hear such observations from someone who isn't his parent.
Understand that the issues behind the threat will not be solved by throwing money your adult child's way or otherwise caving in to his or her demands. Sometimes the need is a bottomless pit -- like being bailed out of credit card debt yet again, only to have the balances creep up and the crisis repeat itself or paying apartment rent for an adult child who still doesn't actively look for work or return to school and expects that you will continue to bankroll his or her pseudo-independence indefinitely. It may be more helpful ultimately for your adult child if he or she seeks help from a credit counseling organization to set up a reasonable payment plan or for him or her to continue to live at home for a limited time -- utilizing his or her desire for independence as motivation to finish school and get a job to make that goal possible.
Consider the possibility that someone else may be behind your adult child's threats. If your son or daughter has a significant other who is fanning the fires and deciding the threat level, this can be an additional challenge.
Your adult child may feel caught between a partner and you and may be making demands that really come from the partner.
If this appears to be the case, avoid criticizing the partner. You might observe that "I can understand how she feels that the solution is that we give you the family business right now. However, from our point of view, that isn't realistic. We're ten years away from being able to retire. And that's time that you have to thoroughly learn the business."
Make your own well-being a priority. Mothers, in particular, often put others first for a lifetime. But sometimes others ask too much.
Consider that you deserve to have your own time, reasonable financial security and the space to nurture yourself, your marriage and your own dreams. Taking care of yourself may even help you to better help your adult child.
Safeguarding your own financial security and your own health and well-being may spare him or her the burden, down the road, of taking full-time care of you in your later years.
Having the time to spend with your spouse and with your other children as well as with treasured friends can add immeasurable joy to your life. Think for a minute about the uncertainties of life as we age: who knows how long you and your husband may have to enjoy your life together? How long you have to savor a long-time friendships? Do you really want to relinquish these times to repeatedly come to the rescue of an adult child who doesn't value your help or the sacrifices you are making?
Be prepared to live with an imperfect outcome. Obviously, if your adult child is threatening to commit suicide, this is best dealt with by seeking professional help rather than giving him or her money you can't afford to give in the desperate hope that it will strengthen his or her will to live. If someone is suicidal, it's a sign of much deeper problems requiring professional help.
In instances where your adult child threatens estrangement from himself and/or your grandchildren, you can express your hope that this will not happen -- considering the pain it would bring all concerned -- but keep firm in your statement of what you're willing and able to give -- or not.
This may mean some discomfort, even some estrangement for a time.
But what if you cave in to the request? Life could be worse. You could end up with estrangement anyway and a financial crisis of your own.
Jody emptied her retirement savings to bail her son and his wife out of credit card debt and make a down payment on a house for them because they threatened to keep her away from the grandchildren if she didn't. Now that they're in their house, they are effectively estranged -- never calling, never inviting her over, avoiding all contact as she follows their birthday and holiday celebrations on Facebook. "They don't want to know me until their next financial crisis," she says sadly. "And then I don't know what I'll do because I've given them all I have. I'll be working -- if I'm lucky and can keep my job and my health -- until I drop."
Dealing with emotional blackmail takes courage and insight. Some studies have shown that the more dependent adult children feel on you, the more conflicted and problematic your relationship may be with them.
Stepping back with a firm concept of what you're willing and able to do for your adult child and what you are not, expressing support and love without enabling his or her dependence, lack of motivation and initiative or simply bad behavior, is not always comfortable and easy. But it can be the best antidote there is for emotional blackmail -- and, possibly, the beginning of a new and better relationship with your adult child.