Generational shifts and global events like the Covid pandemic have led to more parents and adult children living together than in years past. Many parents find these circumstances difficult to navigate, especially if they want to repair and improve relationships with adult children in order to maintain peace at home.
At Orange County Health Psychologists, a group practice of licensed therapists and psychologists, we have all worked with parents who express frustration or heartache due to conflict and a lack of communication with adult children. The reality of their relationships is drastically different from the expectations they had as young parents.
Restoring healthy relationships is a major undertaking, and many parents find that they are better prepared if they have professional support. That said, there are several ways that parents can start to improve relationships with adult children sooner rather than later.
Five Ways Parents Can Improve Relationships with Adult Children
As noted on a recent APA podcast, about half of 18- to 29-year-old adults in the US still live with a parent. And while many parents are pleased that their nests aren’t empty, maintaining healthy relationships with grown children who are entitled to the autonomy of adulthood can be difficult.
Further, there aren’t many best practices or recommendations for parents and adult children who live together – most parenting advice is focused on making the most of the “pre-adult” years. With that in mind, we’ve gathered five ways that parents can take the initiative and proactively improve relationships with their adult children.
1. Communicate About Communication
Often, the best place to start reestablishing communication is with a conversation about communication. Ask your child how they feel about the state of your ability to communicate with each other and listen without judgment.
Also, it’s important to take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings. Statements like “I feel frustrated” or “I feel overwhelmed” will help to frame the conversation clearly and keep you on a constructive path.
2. Re-Evaluate Your Role
Transactional Analysis, a psychoanalytic theory and method of therapy developed by Eric Berne, states that everyone takes on the role of a parent, child, or adult in every relationship.
The parent/child relationship is a natural one, but friction arises when parents fail to acknowledge their child’s adulthood – both as it emerges in their teenage years and in adult-to-adult interactions. When parents and their adult children hang on to old communication patterns of the parent/child dynamic it can spell trouble.
Gradually shifting to an adult/adult pattern of communication is a difficult but essential shift to establish a healthier relationship. It requires vigilance and awareness of your tone, word choice, and the role you assume when you communicate. Are you coming across as a fellow adult or a scolding parent?
3. Don’t Be Disrespectful
When you’re having a difficult interaction with your adult child, don’t allow yourself to cross the line into disrespect, hostility, or condescension.
This is another important mindset shift. We’re all guilty of crossing this line from time to time as parents of young children – and our children have probably been guilty of it as well.
Make a consistent effort to show your adult child respect first and model the relationship you are looking for. And, when they cross that line, set a healthy boundary by either disengaging or firmly stating “Please don’t talk to me that way.” If you keep at it, that respect will gradually become mutual and your relationship will improve.
4. Understand Your Reactions – And Theirs
Our current understanding of the brain states that full cognitive development isn’t complete until about age 25. Further, the prefrontal cortex – which is connected to judgment and impulse control – is one of the last areas to mature.
For this reason, while it’s still important to maintain stable and respectful interactions with adult children, expecting mature responses in return might be unwise.
That’s also why being aware of your reactions and theirs is so important. When we are triggered emotionally, our amygdala hijacks our pre-frontal cortex and sends us into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. When adult children have this reaction, conflicts are likely to escalate. It’s difficult to engage in a healthy, mature discussion when either person is in fight or flight mode.
As the parent – or at least the more experienced adult – it’s imperative to recognize that nothing healthy will come out of continuing an emotional argument. Step away from the situation both physically and emotionally to reclaim your composure and then continue the conversation more productively.
That said, you can’t use “time-outs” to avoid having difficult conversations altogether. You have to return and resolve them to keep healthy lines of communication open. (More on that below.)
5. Narrative Therapy to Improve Relationships with Adult Children
Narrative therapy starts with the understanding that everyone has their own internal story or understanding of past events and relationships that may or may not be based on reality.
Many children, for example, grow up with an internal narrative that is very different from the experiences their parents thought they had. These stories can contribute to old resentments or challenges like poor self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
“In family therapy, we work on fostering empathy for childrens’ stories instead of disputing them. We recognize that arguing isn’t productive and that one person’s perception is their reality. Healthy communication starts with empathy for that reality; from there, family therapy can help parents and children rebuild a shared narrative together.”
– Kristin Kleppe, PsyD, Orange County Health Psychologists President
Again, enlisting the help of a mental health professional can make it easier to identify sources of conflict and establish a framework to improve communication.
Like all of the tips above, understanding and rewriting your life story with your adult child can be a difficult, long-term process. A family therapist can help you find new ways to communicate and change the dynamic, especially if a child has to move back home.
5 Ways to Resolve Conflict
No relationship is perfect, of course, and challenges may continue to arise as you interact with your adult children. With that in mind, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with conflicts constructively so that you can continue to build a healthy foundation for communicating.
You can resolve conflicts with adult children in one of five ways. As you’ll see, some are more effective than others.
Choosing not to address a challenge or conflict with an adult child is rarely productive, especially if you are in close quarters or share a living space. Over time, resentment and other negative feelings can build up and make the issue larger than it would have been otherwise.
When one or both parties adopt a “win/lose” mindset during a conflict, it becomes extremely difficult to reach an outcome that both sides will be happy with.
Compromise is appropriate in some situations. It’s not always the healthiest form of resolution, however, as both sides have to give up something that they want to overcome the larger issue. (Or as Bill Watterson put it, “A good compromise leaves everybody mad.”)
Accommodation is similar to compromise, but it typically yields outcomes that are slanted more toward one person’s needs than the other. For that reason, this form of resolution is often not appropriate.
Collaboration is by far the healthiest way to resolve conflicts. Begin by defining a common goal or objective and go from there. If you can agree on the objective, solutions will become clear and everyone’s needs will be met.
For a collaborative approach to conflict resolution to work, you’ll need to apply many of the tips listed above. To clearly define your common goal, for example, you may need to communicate about communicating or re-evaluate the role you’re assuming in the discussion.
Improving Relationships & Communication in Therapy
Even if you dedicate yourself to the recommendations above, change won’t happen overnight. Improving relationships with adult children takes time, especially if healthy discourse has broken down.
A therapist or mental health professional can help you learn to resolve conflicts and improve your relationships with your adult children by applying and personalizing the tips above.