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Five Complaints Parents and Grown Kids Have About Each Other

The things that bug both generations are surprisingly similar.

Key points

  • Both parents and their grown kids have the same issues with the other generation
  • Faulty boundaries keep trespasses happening
  • Mutuality is the desired dynamic but difficult to achieve when power imbalance is still active.

There are five complaints I hear most often, as a coach, an interviewer, and a parent who remembers making the same complaints against her own parents. I heard them from a 47-year-old woman, a mother herself, levying them against her own still-exasperating 70ish parents. I hear them from 20- and 30-somethings frustrated by frequent parental infringement on their selfhood, their decision-making, and their boundaries. And almost as often, I hear their parents complain about the same things.

At heart is the lack of mutuality on both sides of the generational divide, which is difficult when neither parents nor adult children are able to overcome the power imbalance or dependence of the past. And without mutuality, the interdependence that’s the final evolution of the relationship between the generations is difficult to achieve.

1. They give me advice I don’t want.

Think it’s only grown kids who complain about this? Their parents, especially those golden agers, don’t like it any better when it comes to being told a different (better, cheaper, faster, smarter ) way to do something they’ve been doing just fine for years. Ask any mother sharing a kitchen with her grown daughter, or son telling a father to ignore Google maps and follow his directions instead. But even if the grown kids have our best interests at heart, just as we have theirs, nobody likes unsolicited advice. This is particularly problematic when either parents or adult kids have reason to worry about the other generation’s health, safety, physical or mental competence, and are stonewalled because of #2.

2. They bring up subjects I don’t want to talk about.

This is a frequent problem in a family with boundary issues. Those subjects are usually the private facts of individual life, and both generations are entitled to keep them to themselves. What we share with each other and what we don’t is our choice, and while we may explain it, we don’t have to defend it. Treat it like any boundary trespass, gently at first —“I’d rather not talk about that”—and if it persists, deflect with an obvious change of topic or a non sequitur like “Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” My mother used to fix us with a cold eye and say “The subject is not of general interest,” which worked with us for most of her life.

3. They think they know everything.

The fact is, both generations know a lot of things the other doesn’t. Technology is the most obvious one, along with other things we didn’t grow up with and they did. It helps to listen rather than expound. To ask rather than pontificate. To be clear about what you don’t know about something they may be more familiar with. To know whether your or their experience is relevant. To agree on what’s true and what isn’t. To respect, not patronize. Often there’s one “subject matter expert” in every family, a doctor, lawyer, builder, accountant. Acknowledging their expertise and asking for input, rather than advice, is a useful way to minimize this complaint.

4. They always make me feel guilty.

“They” don’t make you feel anything; it’s all (or mostly) coming from you. There’s not a parent alive who doesn’t feel like they let their kids down in some way—especially among divorced couples, guilt for not having given them a perfect childhood. They feel guilty for sins of omission or commission, real and imaginary, and if the kids have troubled adult lives, they’re sure it’s their fault. Kids feel guilty for not living up to their parents’ expectations, for disappointing them, for claiming their distance when they need it. Guilt can be toxic, but even when it isn’t it’s a negative emotion. There are all things we wish we’d done differently; regret, which is guilt without the neurosis, is a healthier adaptation.

5. They still push my buttons .

Nobody knows where those buttons are better than our kids or our parents, and our reactivity when something they say or do triggers them indicates that we haven’t fully shaken off our need for their approval or don’t feel entirely comfortable about our actions or position. “When my mother glares at me as I help myself to dessert”; “When my son nags me about my extravagance”; “When they ask me why I’m still single,” are familiar buttons. They illustrate a lack of boundary intelligence, which is the ability to understand when they’ve been crossed and respond appropriately, not just in the moment but in the entire context of the relationship.