If the harsh criticism, broken promises, and trampled boundaries came from any other adult, you’d probably cancel the relationship for good.
But when it’s your child treating you with contempt, quitting isn’t really an option.
You’ve got decades of your life invested in this person, plus a vast store of love that motivates you to keep trying.
Still, dealing with a disrespectful adult child can be one of the most confusing, infuriating, humiliating, and heartbreaking challenges you’ll face as a parent and a person.
There may be as many answers to this question as there are people asking it.
One reason disrespect hits hard is that it can feel as though all your years of sacrifice are being devalued and cast aside.
While your child is listing your many failures, you’re silently tallying the dollars you’ve spent, soccer games you’ve watched, laundry loads you’ve folded, homework projects you’ve supervised.
Another difficulty is that so much of your identity as a human being seems to be bound up in what your children think of you.
Few parents are strangers to guilt and regret over some aspect of their parenting — and your child is more aware of your faults than anyone. Their assessment of you weighs more than almost anyone else’s.
And perhaps most importantly, disrespect from your adult child touches on the deepest parental fear: You don’t want to lose them.
“Many parents are unprepared for the degree of hostility and antagonism that they get from their adult children and find that they have little experience from their prior relationships to prepare them for how hurt, betrayed, and angry they feel in response,” he said.
Adult children, on the other hand, are increasingly invested in their own careers, relationships, and children.
That gradual loss may help explain why disrespect from an adult child feels so much harder to bear than the tantrums of a toddler or the acerbic sass of a defiant teen.
U.S. Census reports indicate that roughly a third of young adults (ages 18 to 34) live at home with their parents — that’s around 24 million people.
A quarter of those in the 25 to 34 age bracket are neither in school nor working, giving rise to a new name for this life stage: emerging adulthood.
With many of the milestone markers of adulthood postponed, frustration and stress may be affecting every relationship in the house.
For some families, a very different kind of independence is at stake. When an adult child helps care for an older parent, the shift in roles can cause a host of complicated feelings.
What the parent wanted (e.g., “I intend to drive to the grocery store on my own”) sometimes conflicted with what the adult child wanted (“I’m driving — you’ll wreck the car”), sparking emotional fireworks.
The more stubborn the parent is, the more negative the adult child’s mood may become.
These two ends of the spectrum certainly don’t encompass all types of conflict, nor can they fully explain hostile disrespect.
Cultural perspectives, family dynamics, and individual issues may also contribute. Below are some possible explanations to consider.
As reluctant as we may be to hear harsh criticism from our children, no one parents perfectly.
Your choices and even your personal characteristics may have created hardships for your children whether you intended them or not. The anger aimed at you (even if it feels disproportionate) may be the result of past events or injuries.
If you’re parenting someone with a serious mental health condition, you’ve probably already experienced significant stress over their well-being. The anxiety may have even affected your
A mental health condition, Coleman says, can affect:
- how your child perceives you
- how your child communicates
- whether your child can consistently manage emotions
- whether your child can correctly pinpoint the cause of the conflicts between you
If your adult child has an alcohol or substance use disorder, the impact on your relationship can be profound.
Substance use can ramp up emotions, increase the tendency to blame others, and impair the ability to communicate in a healthy way.
Influence of others
It’s possible that your adult child’s animosity toward you is being stoked by someone else in their life — a friend, spouse, or significant other.
It’s also possible that your spouse or former spouse has shaped their opinion of you, or has exerted pressure on them to separate from you.
“Current research shows that children who have been victims of parental alienation syndrome are far more likely to see the other parent as bad or unloving. Therefore, it’s easier to develop a narrative of the estranged parent as contemptible and not worth respecting,” Coleman explained.
A history of abuse
If your spouse spoke to you or your children in an emotionally abusive way, your child may take the same liberties with you.
The tide has definitely turned. Once, you might have laid down the law and demanded courtesy or accountability. Your rules were enforceable: You’re grounded. Give me the car keys. Hand over the phone.
But when your children are adults, more of the power is in their grasp. They now have a choice about whether to be in relationship with you, and they can establish some ground rules for interaction.
This shift in the power dynamics can be utterly disorienting, and you may need to take steps to process your feelings about it.
Still, if someone else is treating you with disrespect, there are things you can do to find out what’s causing it and build a healthier way of communicating.
Consider adjusting your parenting style
Because emerging adulthood is a relatively new concept, research is limited.
The researchers found the adult child’s well-being was best promoted by permissive and authoritative styles during this life stage.
Researchers emphasized the need to give guidance and advice, rather than issuing rules or trying to assert control.
They further recommended that parents consider how they deliver guidance and advice: Emphasizing warmth, affection, and support should be the goal. Keeping unsolicited advice to a minimum is another good strategy.
Acknowledge the hurt you may have caused
If your child expresses (however inappropriately) that your parenting left something to be desired, it’s important to take responsibility for any harm you may have caused.
“As parents, we have to accept that we may have created problems for our children, even when we were making sacrifices and trying to do our absolute best,” Coleman said.
“You should have compassion for yourself for doing the best that you could, and you should try to have compassion for your child’s complaint that it wasn’t enough.”
When you accept that you (knowingly or unknowingly) hurt your child in the past, you’re opening up the possibility of a healthier future relationship.
“Parents who can acknowledge their children’s complaints without excessively defending themselves have a better chance of repairing their relationship,” Coleman said.
Learn to set healthy boundaries
It’s possible to listen, accept responsibility, make amends — and still protect yourself from abusive or disrespectful treatment. That’s a tall order, but parenting is almost always a challenge.
There’s a difference between allowing your child to express anger or air grievances and allowing your child to abuse you emotionally or verbally.
While most disrespect probably falls into the category of rude behavior rather than outright abuse, you have a right to set limits and ask for more respectful conversations.
Centers for Disease Control and Preventiondefines emotional or verbal elder abuse as intentionally inflicting:
- mental pain
If you’re expecting a conflict, here are some tips for keeping the conversation as healthy and productive as possible:
- Think about your goals and limits in advance.
- Start the conversation on a positive note — maybe by expressing confidence that you can work things out.
- Prepare an exit strategy so you can table the topic or get out of a situation that’s getting too intense.
- Show your child you’re listening. Keep calm, stay engaged, repeat your child’s concerns out loud, and minimize self-defense.
- Set limits. If name-calling is a problem, let your child know you’ll hang up or walk away if it happens.
- Follow through and follow up. If you have to hang up or walk away, do so. When a day has passed and tempers have cooled, call back. Find out if you can make more progress.
Some adult children respond to continual conflicts by withdrawing entirely from the relationship, either temporarily or permanently.
In some cases, estrangement from your child may also include estrangement from grandchildren. This can be very difficult for some people.
If you’re in this situation, deeply reflect on the causes. Consider working with a therapist to explore your child’s reasons for cutting contact.
These organizations can help you find an individual or family therapist or support group in your area:
If it’s OK with them, send your adult child emails, texts, or voicemails, whatever they’re comfortable with. Respect their boundary and decision while communicating that there’s still a pathway back to you when they’re ready.
“Continuing to reach out is a parental act. It’s a demonstration of concern and dedication. It keeps the door open,” Coleman advised. “It humanizes you. It shows that you love your child enough to fight for him even when you’re getting back — literally — nothing but grief.”
Because estrangement can be extremely painful, you may find it helpful to talk about the loss with a therapist or a support group in your area or online.
You may also consider letting your child know that you’re working with a therapist to overcome the issues that brought on estrangement. Doing so can show you’re serious about repairing the relationship.
Communicating with a disrespectful adult child can leave you feeling guilty, hurt, and angry.
Lots of factors can cause or worsen disrespectful conduct: mental health conditions, your parenting style, substance use, other family members. Your own family history can all complicate matters, too.
If your goal is to stay in a relationship with your child, it’s important that you keep calm during upsetting encounters. Your ability to listen to their concerns may be the key to staying connected.
But it’s also important to set and safeguard your own boundaries. You shouldn’t have to accept abuse to preserve your relationship with your child.
If you need help processing the complex emotions a disrespectful child can provoke, or if you want to learn how to set and keep healthier limits, you may find it helpful to talk to a therapist or to other parents who’ve gone through a similar challenge.
If, despite your efforts, your child chooses to leave your life for a brief or lasting period, let them know you’re still present, still love them, and ready to reconnect when they are.