- Adults in their early to mid-30s often struggle in their relationships with their parents.
- The struggle comes from looking at the past through new lenses, stirring up old wounds, and becoming independent and empowered.
- The key is upgrading the relationship and redefining old roles to fit your needs as an adult.
I work with a wide range of families, and on any given week, I’d estimate that up to a third of my adult clients are struggling with their parents and, consequently, the parents with their adult children. The children feel frustrated or fed up, resentful of how they were treated growing up, and have pulled back or cut their parents off completely. And I notice that most of these adult children are in their early to mid-30s. Why that age? Here are some of the common sources:
You have time to reflect on your past.
For many of us, our 20s are a decade of building—leaving home, getting an education, starting a career, and finding a partner. It’s in our early to mid-30s that life levels out, and you have an opportunity to take the pulse of your life. Here, perhaps spurred by career or parenting, you compare yourself to your parents and look back on your childhood now through an adult lens.
You become aware of old wounds.
This reflection often leads to a surfacing of old wounds – times you felt hurt or abused, neglected or dismissed. You may worry that you will inherit your parents’ negative traits or look at where they are now and decide how you don’t want to be.
You are becoming your own person.
You’re at a time in your life where you are moving from the dependency of childhood, beyond the counter-dependency rebellious nature of teen years, to coming into your own sense of independence. But those beginnings of independence are often fragile, and it’s easy to overcompensate by being self-sufficient. As a result, you are particularly sensitive to micromanaging, advice, and intrusion by your parents into your life, and you push back.
Other aspects of your life empower you.
In your 20s, when you were still trying to get your sea legs and build a life, you likely still leaned on your parents for support and didn’t have the self-confidence and power to speak up and say what you needed. Now, from being a parent or being taken seriously in a job, you feel more empowered overall and can use your self-confidence to speak up and say what you don’t like.
All this leads to frustration with parents—their interference, their weekly interrogating phone calls punctuated with 100 questions, or their old habits and way of life. There’s a feeling that they don’t “get” you or are still treating you the same way they did when you were 16. Sometimes, this leads to a retreat into minimal, often obligatory contact, or if your backlog of resentments and hurts are deep, full-blown cut-offs.
Closing the Gap, Upgrading the Relationship
The central challenge here is upgrading the relationship. No, you don’t want to continue being treated like you were 16, but your parents, in their minds, are just "being your parents" and often don’t know what to do differently. They struggle to understand your frustration because you both operate from different realities and unique memories.
They remember the sacrifice they made and the good time you had when they took you to Disney World, while your memory of the trip is how they yelled at you for not staying in line, for dropping your ice cream, or wouldn’t let you get a souvenir. When they respond with “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” they often don’t.
If you don’t want to avoid the cutoffs or the awkwardness, it’s time to speak up, not as a ranting teen but as an assertive adult. Here you can email them or have a conversation about the wounds left from childhood so they understand your perspective. Here you go into family therapy together to have a safe place to be heard and understood. Rather than taking what you get, you proactively reshape those weekend conversations so they don’t leave you feeling interrogated, dismissed, or frustrated.
And if their intrusions or advice are wearing you down, say so, but don’t just tell them what not to do, but what they can do instead. They may be clinging to their old ways of showing concern and care, but if they need to show it differently, you need to be the one to tell what that might be. You may not need parenting, but if you still want parents, you may need to give them a new job to replace the old one.
Usually, this upgrading of the relationship is not a one-shot fix but more of a bumpy ride. You both are trying to step into new ones, and the process takes time, trial and error, accepting that they may slip back at times, but with patience and persistence, you both can get there.
There are lessons to be learned here that may come in handy down the road when it’s your turn to be on the other side of the relationship equation.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Facebook image: Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock
Taibbi, R. (2022). Doing family therapy, 4th ed. New York: Guilford.