November 1, 2010

Relationships between Parents and Adult Children

Not surprisingly, parents and their adult children often experience some problems in their relationships. For the parents, the change from being the primary influence to something less in the child's life isn't easy. For the adult child, the roles become blurred. Are my parents still authority figures? Friends? Something in between?  What about how they interact with my children? My in-laws?

Various studies have highlighted several areas in a parent-adult child relationship that could cause problems:
  • Differences in communication styles
  • Lifestyle choices of the adult child
  • The way grandkids are being raised
  • Political and religious differences
  • The employment status of the adult child
  • How the household is run and maintained 

Parents wouldn't be parents if they didn't compare what they see happening in these areas with how the child was raised. The child wouldn't be considered a mature adult if he or she hadn't developed some differences from the parents. There may be a shared DNA, but each of us is unique and each responds differently to situations and what life throws at us.

It is a given that there will be some rough spots between parents and their adult child. But, a blog reader asked that I look at some ways that may help parents improve this important relationship. My research to prepare for this post lead me to several sources that were remarkably consistent in their advice. Not all of these suggestions will apply in your situation or even be workable. But, it would be wise to think about each point listed below and determine if a particular answer fits your situation.

Accept differences. This is probably the most important suggestion and the toughest. Your adult child is not you. As he or she grows life experiences will result in changes that you may not fully approve of. At this stage of the game it isn't your job to approve. It's your responsibility to accept them.

Don't judge. At least not out loud. Obviously, this closely follows the first suggestion. You are no longer judge and jury. The child is looking for approval, acceptance, or at least tolerance for what they have done. They are not looking for you to tell them what they are doing wrong.

Timing is not under your control. While the child may still need and solicit your input and guidance, it will be less frequently than you may want or think necessary. Interactions of this sort should not be initiated by you. You may not see your grown child as often as you'd like. Remember, he has his own schedule and life.

Respect new traditions and ways of doing things. The way your adult child and his significant other or family celebrate a holiday, decorate the house, plan their vacations, even dress themselves may not be your way. Remember, it is their way and deserving of your acceptance.

Blending two families can be tricky. If married your child is now part of two families. He or she must attempt to keep two sets of parents happy. That can be quite difficult. Take the high road and don't insist on a perfect balance of time and attention. That will only make things tougher on your child. 

Respond to questions or pleas for help like you would any other adult, not your child. When I read this in more than one study it struck me as a crucial part of having a healthy relationship. Do you talk with your adult child like you would a co-worker, or a friend? Or, do you talk at him? Unsolicited advice-giving  or lecturing won't work on another adult. Why would you think it would work on your grown-up child?

Learn good listening skills. This is something that can improve all our relationships, not just with an adult child. Most of us, myself included, are thinking about our answer while the other person is talking. We aren't truly listening to what they have to say. I made reference to a particular skill called reflective listening in an earlier post. It is a way of listening that will instantly improve any relationship in which you apply it. Click here if you'd like to know more.

Decide that a healthy relationship is more important than the disagreements. Do you want to score points and win the argument while losing the war? Accept that your adult child is not under your control anymore. Accept that he or she is an adult with opinions, ideas, and beliefs that may differ from most of the rest of the adult world. That acceptance will gain you a much better shot at having the  healthy, nurturing, and loving relationship you desire.

If your adult child hasn't really grown up yet, the challenges you face are very different. This isn't the post to tackle that issue. But, I can refer you to this link which may help you with the concept of boundary setting when your generosity is being taken advantage of.

Personally, I can report that these suggestions work. In the case of our grown daughters my wife and I have been extremely fortunate. Areas of conflict and differences have been very minor. Nothing has taken place to harm a tremendously close bond between parents and kids. In fact, both girls moved back to Phoenix to be close to us (and other friends & extended family).

I can't tell you exactly why we have escaped any problems so far or claim we never will. We have tried to keep most of our opinions to ourselves. We have respected their choices and allowed them to build their own lives. While we may question some things that occur, we only do that in the privacy of our home, not in front of them. One thing we do is actively look for things we can do together. Picnics, watching football or sporting events together, movies at a theater or at a home or apartment, seeing plays and musicals together, meals out...any excuse to spend quality time together in a relaxed and enjoyable setting goes a long way to smoothing over the bumps that are going to occur.

Thanks to Don, the reader who asked that I explore this topic. It is important and worthy of our thoughtful consideration. It has been helpful to me to look at all the pitfalls and problem areas that can arise. I sincerely hope that something in this post helps you make your relationship with your adult child all it can be. If you an are adult child attempting to improve the relationship with your parents, much of this can be helpful to you, too.

Comment time. Did I gloss over or miss any important areas in this type of relationship? Have you struggled to build a meaningful bond with an adult child? What if the parents and adult child live in separate parts of the country...does that create special challenges? I encourage your sharing thoughts and ideas.


  1. Good points that are definitely helpful! I think that it comes down to a willingness to accept our parents and others as independent, unique individuals with their own motivations and issues. Trying to force our thoughts and beliefs into their lives will not work and likely only cause problems. Holiday time for many is very stressful as everyone wants some of your time and as families grow, there is less time available. We make a point of not putting pressure on anyone. You can only be one place at a time and we do not take it personally if you cannot make it to our dinner table this year. Better to relax and enjoy the season than put undue pressure on everyone and ultimately invite anger and frustration to the table. Take it easy, don't sweat the little things, enjoy your time together and accept family as unique individuals. Good advice for the holiday season and any other time as well...

  2. You've identified one of the reasons for the timing of this post: the holiday season. Studies make it clear that the period from now through the end of the year can be stressful for families.

    That stress is magnified if there is a disagreement over who spends which days with whom. If troubles are already evident, they can easily boil to the surface under that extra strain.

    Don't sweat the small stuff: a key piece of advice (and a great little book to read sometime). Thanks, Dave.

  3. I raised 3 step daughters and while they were growing up, felt like I did most things wrong. However, now that all the girls are grown up, we have the sort of relationship you described above. I learned a thing or two along the way and so did they about the importance of family.

    When you say that a healthy relationship is the most important thing, you are so right. I decided I'd rather be a doting grandma and only give advice when asked for. Even then any advice is given with a lot of love for all parties involved. I've found that making my own opinions heard isn't really a priority.

    After years of turmoil as they grew up, I consider us all very blessed now to have the relationship we have and minor disputes just aren't worth ruining that.

  4. All is well that ends well! Thanks for sharing your story, Joan. It is an example of how things can work out in the long haul if the goal is clear. Having a loving relationship and being a doting grandparent are so much more important than "winning" an argument.

    Obviously, your step daughters were raised with love and an understanding of family.

  5. My parents blew this one and left me trying to be a good son while my wife felt betrayed when I talked to them. If either of my sons ever marries, those girls will be my priority.

  6. The situation you describe, while not pleasant, was not all that unusual I'm afraid. Your dedication to handling it differently is a wise choice. I wish you and your wife luck if the situation ever arises.

    You didn't mention it, but I certainly hope you and your sons have a meaningful relationship. Dads and sons can sometimes butt head. It is often a male-territory thing!

    Thanks, Ralph, for your openness.

  7. This is an important issue especially among retirees who choose to live in 55+ communities away from their adult children. Sometimes it can't be help that parents and adult children live far from each other. Priorities and opportunities usually differ. One has to stay near the workplace, the other has found an ideal retirement community. Creating meaningful bond is definitely the biggest challenge. We've seen many families who were able to adapt to lifestyle changes. Adult children mostly set aside time off from work to visit their parents. Families don't have to go elsewhere since the community is fully equipped with recreational facilities (arts and crafts groups, shopping trips, fishing and boating and nearby golf courses).

    It also helps that we're located between NY, Philadelphia and Baltimore where major highways can be reached in minutes.

  8. The issue of long distance relationships between grown children and parents can be difficult As you point out often there is no choice but to live with this setup. Things like Skype or web cam communication helps, but the is no replacement for actually being together.

  9. Hi, Bob... I was especially interested in your mentioning that you and your wife respect the choices which your daughters make and keep most of your opinions to yourself. I think that keeping your opinions to yourself is a good, general "rule of thumb." I would add, however, that when the adult kids (sons, in my case) ask for (or probe for) our opinion, that we offer it "softly." That is, we stop short of actually telling them what to do.

  10. I like the term "softly" to describe how to offer opinions to adult children. When my wife or I are asked, we do give our opinion to our daughters, but not as as a "must do" or "should do."

    It is an interesting balancing act, isn't it. Thanks, Bill

  11. I started to respond to this post a couple of times but hesitated because our relationships with our children are so personal. I'm going to try writing about it without much detail.

    My situation involves an adult child who has come for advice and solace, but now needs me to back out of this part of his life. It is difficult to find the right level of involvement as they learn to stand on their own again.

  12. I sincerely appreciate you sharing something as personal as any relational issues can be. You have provided enough information to know this is a struggle for you and your adult child to find the right balance between involvement and separation.

    I imagine there have been, and will continue to be, false starts and stops. That is part of the relationship-building that must be gone through.

    I wish you and your family all the best as you work through this important situation.

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  15. As an "Adult Child" I would like to softly remind the parents that the challenges that children face today to raise a family are very different from the 60's/70's. In the 70's you could get into a decent new home on somewhere around 25% of one parents income, not to mention gas was $1 a gallon. Companies offered full benefits with holiday packages. Now it is very common for both parents to work full time jobs with over 70% going to skye rocketing mortgages. As jobs are less available the competition is rising, with foreigners offering lower pay and longer hours and no holiday. I feel a tremendous pressure to offer my own child the amount of quality time and family hang outs that was provided to me as a child, but having a roof over my head always takes presidency. First chance I get time off, my first thought is how to make time up with my child, and how to cram mass information into her little head. After all this time is soaked up grand parents time crumbs could not feed a small mouse. I feel very sad that they think I do not pay attention to them because I do not care. I would just like to kindly remind grandparents not to associate the amount of time your kids give to you as a measure of how much they love you.

    1. Excellent points, Rozelle. Each generation has its own pressures and expectations. The important measure is the amount of love shown. A good dose of tolerance is certainly helpful, too.

  16. My partner and his parents have always had a turbulent relationship, but they have now stopped speaking for almost 2 years. My partner and his brother have both been cast aside by their parents. The family do have a lot of issues, however, surely I feel that either the parents or my partner should make the first move.? Please help any advice would be greatly appreciated as my partner is so unhappy.

    1. As we get older we become more rigid and fixed in our ways. That is just an unfortunate reality. Not knowing what triggered these problems, and not being really qualified to give you specific advice for your partner's situation, I can suggest that he try to take the first steps. It is less likely that the parents will adjust on their own.

      What sends up real red flags is that the parents have thrown away both sons. That almost suggests a problem that is seriously deep-seated beyond normal disagreements. It is often the case that one parent has the problem with the adult children and the spouse goes along with that situation out of a sense of loyalty or even fear. I have no idea if that describes your situation but should be considered. If so, the unwilling partner in this break could be approached more easily for a discussion as to the real reason(s) for this 2 year break.

  17. I think this article about healthy relationships between parents and adult children is very one sided towards the Adult child, yes it has some very salient points but is very overly unreal and idealistic!!

    Everyone reaches a point in their life where enough is enough I think the phrase here is "Flogging a dead horse"! Bob how many Adult Children do you have?

    1. I have two adult children. Thanks for asking.

      It seems like you are complaining that the article takes the side of the adult child. I thought it was more slanted to the parent's side, giving them more tools to deal with an adult child in a way to remove as much friction and unpleasantness as possible.

      Reading between the lines I conclude that you have a less-then-ideal relationship with an adult child. I am disappointed this article didn't give you some useful information to help you.

  18. I know I'm commenting very late (just saw that this article is more than 10 years old). I'm a 33 year old and just realizing that I've lived a third of my life without making the choices I really wanted to due to intense fear of rejection from one of my parents. I end up reading all sorts of articles about how parents should be dealing with their adult children just to feel sad that I'm the one reading them instead of my parents... Recommending this article would infuriate my parent extremely as disobedience is not accepted. At the same time, all your points spoke to my heart: I wish they would happen.


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