- As children grow, they may develop values or beliefs that conflict with their parents', leading to tension.
- Even well-meaning parents may act in ways that hurt their adult children and make it hard to communicate.
- Parents with a growth mindset can learn from their mistakes and better connect with their adult children.
Parents who have high levels of tension with their adult children feel sad, anxious, frustrated, and empty inside. When I coach these struggling parents of reactive, hurtful adult children, a question often arises: Why do they treat me like crap?
The are many reasons that account for negative attitudes and strained relationships between adult children and their parents. Before we take a look at three of them, let's remember that no parent is perfect. Perhaps most frustrating for many parents is that underneath the intensity of how they communicate—perhaps making intrusive comments and showing problematic listening skills—they typically love their adult children and want the best for them.
The encouraging news is that no matter what your adult child's age, having a growth mindset—the willingness to learn from setbacks and mistakes—is the best way to get to a better place in your relationship. Now let's take a look at three primary reasons your adult child may be treating you poorly.
1. Unresolved Emotional Strain
Strained emotions between parents and adult children can occur for many reasons, such as differences in values, conflicts over past events, or struggles with letting go of old roles and dynamics. These strained emotions can lead to stress, anxiety, and relationship issues for both parties.
Some further powerful issues can lead to strained emotions between parents and adult children. As children grow up and develop their own identities, they may develop values or beliefs that conflict with those of their parents, leading to disagreements and tension. Old conflicts or traumas that were never fully resolved can resurface later in life and cause tension between parents and adult children. Another big source of unresolved emotional strain between parents and adult children is a pattern of poor communication, which can lead to misunderstandings and hurtful arguments.
What you as a parent can do: To address strained emotions with your adult child, prioritize positive communication, empathy, and understanding. Strive to communicate openly and honestly, listen actively to your child's concerns, and make an effort to understand their perspectives. As I detail in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, adult children need their parents to be calm, firm, and noncontrolling. Being calm, firm, and noncontrolling helps bypass both the parent's and adult child's emotional reactivity. An example of a calm, firm, noncontrolling parental soundbite is, "I value your opinion yet disagree. We both seem to feel strongly about how we see this differently. Would you agree that us having a calm, constructive conversation is going to more likely help us feel better than continuing to argue?"
2. Not Acknowledging Changes in Roles and Responsibilities
As children become adults, parents may struggle with their transition from the role of a child to that of an independent adult. This means some parents have a hard time letting go of their parental role.
There can be several reasons why parents may struggle to see their adult children as a grown-up. One is nostalgia. Parents may have a hard time letting go of the memories of their children as young, dependent individuals, and struggle to see them as independent adults. Another is that parents may have a natural inclination to protect and care for their children, even as they become adults, and may have difficulty adjusting to a new dynamic in which their child is more self-sufficient.
Some of my parent-coaching clients erroneously feel that they have the need to feel in control of their adult children's lives and may struggle to relinquish that control as their children become adults. Another issue that I often see get played out is parents having certain expectations for their children's lives and struggling to adjust to changes that deviate from those expectations. Furthermore, parents may not have enough exposure to their adult children's lives and may not fully understand the level of responsibility and independence they have achieved.
What you as a parent can do: You and your adult child need to communicate openly and honestly with each other to build mutual understanding and respect. Remind yourself that your child is now an adult even if you don't agree with some of their choices. Encourage your adult child to show independence and responsibility in their actions, communicate—listening first—about their goals and aspirations, and coach them to set respectful boundaries with you when necessary.
3. Expressing Criticism and Invalidation
Parents who are highly critical or dismissive of their adult child's feelings or accomplishments can cause emotional harm. This can make the child feel unimportant or like they can never meet their parent's standards. Continuing to treat your adult child dismissively can make them feel helpless and incapable. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a lack of confidence. If you have been emotionally distant or neglectful, this can further cause your child to feel not valued or unwanted.
When adult children sense criticism and invalidation, they can develop feelings of abandonment or rejection. Using guilt, shame, or other manipulative tactics to control an adult child's behavior can cause significant emotional harm. This can make the child feel like they are not in control of their own life and lead to feelings of resentment and anger. Lastly, parents who do not respect their adult child's boundaries and independence can run the risk of having their adult children alienate them. This is because your adult child likely feels like they cannot escape your influence or control.
What you as a parent can do: Put yourself in your adult children's shoes and try to understand their perspective. This can help you be more empathetic toward them and less critical. Instead of pointing out what your adult children are doing wrong, focus on what they are doing right. Positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator. Recognize that your adult child is an independent individual capable of making their own decisions. Give them space to make their own mistakes and learn from them.
It's important to note that these behaviors can occur in any type of family and can even be unintentional on the part of the parent. However, the impact on the adult child can be significant. So, be aware of your behavior and how it may be affecting your child's emotional well-being. If you continue to find it difficult to connect with your adult child, seek the help of a therapist or counselor. They can help you work through any underlying issues that may be contributing to your struggles and conflicts.
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Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd.Ed), Hachette Go Books, New York, NY.
Birditt, K.S. (2009). Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence. Psychol Aging. 2009 Jun; 24(2): 287–295.doi: 10.1037/a0015196, PMCID: PMC2690709, NIHMSID: NIHMS94367
Yang, J., & Zheng, Y. (2019). Links Between Perceptions of Successes, Problems and Health Outcomes Among Adult Children: The Mediating Role of Perceptions of Parents’ Feelings and Intergenerational Relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02551