When Parents & Adult Children Do Not Get Along

As parents, it is hard to acknowledge and accept responsibility for how much influence we have over the development of each of our children. Through my work with older clients and their adult children on a daily basis, I am frequently reminded of this influential power over a life time.

Typical Family Dynamics


As a Life Care Manager, I have counseled many adult children who resent their role in caring for their parents at the end of their lives. Not deliberately, of course, Mom and Dad may be doing things that alienate and push adult children away. Adult Children confide that their parents were never there for them when they were younger and now they resent being there for their parent. Parents don’t understand what they did to make the adult child turn away from them. My education and experience as a Registered Nurse, Aging Life Care Manager and mom of three typically leads me back to the parent and the adult child with perceived mistreatment by the parent.

Instead of offering advice to adult children on care of their parent, I decided to instead address the parent themselves with some advice that will benefit both generations over time.

Parenting Warning Signs

Parents whose entire being exists for their children often have unrealistic expectations of their adult children’s duty to them. Are you the parent who calls (text or email) your adult children so often that they ignore your calls? Are you a meddler always offering unsolicited advice?  Is your constructive feedback really just plain criticism? If any of the above sound familiar, treat them as red flags that cannot be ignored. Your goal is a better relationship and, as the parent, you’re in the driver’s seat.

In his book, When Parents Hurt, psychologist and parent Joshua Coleman, Ph.D advises parents in recognizing what they can do to improve the relationship and how to let go of what they cannot. Do you feel validated solely by your role as a parent? Coleman suggests that parents who exists for their children often have unrealistic expectations of their adult children. “It’s particularly difficult for parents who expect their kids to fix emotional problems from their (the parent’s) childhood, by being a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board, a confidant,” he says. Kids generally don’t want that role.

The establishment of an open environment of respect and valuing of your adult child’s lifestyle choices can help set the tone when the adult children need to gather together and help the older adult(s) in the aging process. As I have frequently told my aging clients’ adult children; your mom or dad will consider themselves your parents until the day they die. Your parent most likely modeled and taught you how relationships work, be that healthy or unhealthy. This means it is okay for both you and them to set your own boundaries.

Parents Should Use Gratitude

Dr. Coleman recommends parents can change this relationship by practicing the principles of gratitude; give thanks! The problem is, gratitude doesn’t always come naturally. The negatives in our lives—the disappointments, resentments, and fears—sometimes occupy more of our attention than the positives. Below, I highlight a number of practices for cultivating gratitude:

  • Count your blessings:

You can do this through mental imagery or writing it down in a diary. This simple practice is effective because it not only helps you remember and appreciate good things that happened with your children in the past; it can also teach you to notice and savor positive events that are currently happening.

  • Mental subtraction:

In the words of Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” But sometimes just imagining that something is gone is enough to make you appreciate what you’ve got. Mental Subtraction involves focusing specifically on important relationships, such as those with your children. Although it may be painful to imagine your life without them, doing so once in a while can serve as a reminder not to take that person for granted and may improve your relationship as a result.

  • Savor:

Ever notice that the first bite of cake is usually the best and then less and less so? Savor your relationship with your children. In the age of smartphones, it’s a common experience to see an entire family together with all their eyes glued to a screen of some type. Really notice your adult children, connect with them without distraction, praise generously; appreciate sincerely.

  • Say “thank you”:

Gratitude can be especially powerful when it’s expressed to others. Writing a thoughtful, detailed “Gratitude Letter” to your children is a great way to increase your own feelings of gratitude and happiness while also making the adult child feel appreciated and valued. Comment on a specific time you noticed what a great parent your daughter or son is. Tell them how proud you are of your their commendation at work. Each of these can make a huge impact on your relationship.Parents encourage

In the end, we are parents until the day we die. It’s our job to take the high road — even if we’re frustrated by past actions of our children.

None of us is perfect, but we can always check in with ourselves to ask: Is my relationship with my child as good as it can be? What can I do to make it better? The daily practice of gratitude is a great place to start. As a Life Care Manager, our goal is to help heal the entire family unit in whatever way we can.  We have counseled many families in developing more positive ways of healing themselves and their final years of a relationship with their parent.


Leave a Reply