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Mistakes Parents Make That Push Adult Children Away

December 1, 2013
Bottom Line Personal
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD

Our children will always be our children, but once they turn 18 or leave home, they also are adults with lives increasingly separate from our own. It’s a challenge for parents to step back while also staying connected to their grown-up kids.

Much of the angst between parents and adult children stems from the tug-of-war over whose life it is. There often is a disconnect between parents who still want to shape their grown-up kids’ future course and the kids who are determined to live their lives their own way.

For loving parents, their grown children’s trials and errors, including failed projects and teary breakups, can be anguishing. It can be wrenching to let go of the old parental omnipotence and not be able to fix everything. But when grown kids cope with these ups and downs, they develop into resilient, self-sufficient people with the confidence that comes from standing on their own feet.

Article Continues Below

Seven “don’ts” to keep in mind when dealing with grown ­children…


It takes a long time these days for grown kids to achieve financial independence, and my research shows that money
issues are the number-one topic of conflict between parents and kids 18 to 29 years old.

    • Don’t use your financial support to control your adult kids. If you’re supplying money to your adult child, you certainly can set ground rules about how that money is used—but you should not threaten to withdraw your support if the adult child doesn’t make life changes unrelated to finances.

Example: It’s reasonable to tell your adult child that money you’re providing cannot be spent on a vacation—but don’t tell him that it can’t be spent on a vacation unless he leaves the girlfriend you don’t like.

    • Don’t push your kids to take a job in a field that pays well but that they don’t like. Not only might they hold their unhappiness with the hated job against you, their lack of passion for the field could inhibit their career growth.

Also: Don’t make snide comments about the job prospects of your college-age child’s field of study or the earnings potential of his line of work. It is reasonable to discuss career and earnings outlooks with your kids before they choose a college major, field of graduate study or first job. But trying to control the big decision of what field your adult child will choose is sure to stir up resentment. Keep in mind that although college majors do vary in their future earnings, getting a college degree, in any area, is the most important goal for enhancing lifelong career prospects.

    • Don’t insist that your kids find their own way after college rather than return home. These days, many adult children live at home for a short time. Almost always, their return home is temporary because they prefer to live independently as soon as they can afford to do so.

Helpful: Agree on a division of household responsibilities. The adult child is now an adult member of the household and should do an adult share of the housework, laundry and cooking.


Most adult children like talking to their parents and enjoy having a more adultlike relationship than they did in their teens. But…

    • Don’t ask probing questions about your children’s lives. If they want to share something personal, they will. Adult children vary a lot in how much they want their parents to know about their lives and how much they want to confide in them.

Take special care not to raise subjects that your adult child has historically been disinclined to discuss. Resist the urge to ask follow-up questions on the rare occasions when your child does raise one of these subjects.

Example: Many adult children prefer not to discuss their love lives with their parents.

    • Don’t overdo it. Today’s technology makes it cheap and easy to stay in contact with loved ones, and many adult children and their parents are in contact with one another nearly every day. However, for some grown kids, that’s a bit too much togetherness at a time when they are striving to become self-sufficient. In general, it’s best to follow your adult children’s lead on communications. If they contact you weekly via text message, then contact them weekly via text message, too. Text messaging might not be your preferred communication method, but it’s a great way to touch base with today’s young adults without seeming pushy. You can always slip in a phone call now and then.

Helpful: Don’t feel offended if kids go a few days without answering your text message or voice mail. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care. It could just mean that they are busy—or that they’re not that eager to discuss that particular topic.


An adult child’s romantic relationships can be a minefield for parents…

  • Don’t confide that you “never liked” an ex-boyfriend or ­ex-girlfriend or provide reasons why your adult child is better off without this former mate. Keep in mind that ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends sometimes reenter the picture. That could create awkwardness if you’ve previously expressed a dislike.
  • Don’t overlook your adult child’s romantic partners at family get-togethers. If your adult child has been seeing someone for a while, be sure to include the partner in family gatherings, then do your best to make him/her feel welcome and comfortable. The more comfortable your grown child’s partner is with you, the more you are likely to see of your child.

How to Give Advice to an Adult Child

Many young adults spend their 20s acting in ways that seem irresponsible to their parents. They might change jobs or romantic partners frequently or rely on their parents for financial support or housing.

This is all perfectly normal and does not mean that the young adult is destined to act this way forever.

And while adult children might seem to be in desperate need of advice, there’s a good chance that they will react poorly if their parents offer it. Such guidance makes them feel as if their parents still see them as children. This puts parents in a difficult position—they want to help their grown-up kids avoid missteps, but any wisdom they offer is likely to be poorly received.

Usually parents’ best option is to bite their tongues and not offer their adult children advice when it hasn’t been requested. Such advice might harm the relationship, and there is a good chance it won’t be heeded anyway. But speaking up could be wise if…

You believe your adult child’s safety is at risk. It’s worth putting the relationship at risk when safety is at stake.

Examples: Don’t offer unsolicited advice if you think your adult child is staying out too late—but do if you suspect he’s driving home drunk. Don’t tell your daughter you don’t like her new boyfriend—but do speak your mind if your daughter has a black eye and you suspect that the boyfriend is responsible.

The topic is money-­related and you’re providing financial support. If your money is on the line, it’s perfectly reasonable to voice concerns about the adult child’s questionable financial decisions or even set ground rules for spending. But it will help the relationship if after voicing these concerns or setting these rules, you add something such as, “The final decision is yours, and I will continue to support you emotionally whatever you decide. I just can’t continue to support you ­financially if you make this decision.”

Example: You’re paying your child’s rent while he searches for a job, but you notice that he hasn’t been looking for work lately.

You obtain permission to provide advice. The odds of a negative reaction decline greatly if you ask the child if he would like your input before you offer it.

Warning: Respect the child’s answer. If he says he prefers to work through the problem on his own, keep your advice to yourself.

When you feel you must provide advice, also ask the adult child for his advice on a different topic about which he is knowledgeable. This can keep the relationship balanced.

  • Blankspace

    Good article, but people do not like control too much. It’s best to say what you want but let your child make mistakes, if they won’t listen. It is not a parents job to decide for there child. If money is a issue give them a job with your friend or your business. I really wish people would stop half assing shit. You wanted a child, get them where they need to be. Just don’t force them into things they can decide for themselves.

  • TeamTate

    hi there, I ve been trying to find blogs or anything of the sort for my situation.
    my husband’s mother has been driving us crazy for years now. we keep giving her chances to be an active part in our and our children’s lives. my husband has severe PTSD and gets overwhelmed very quickly, especially when it comes to his mother. she suffers from depression also, and neeeeds to be needed.however, she consistently crosses boundaries that we set for her. for example,, she constantly praises one of our 3 boys. but to the extent of favoritism!! hes better, smarter, stronger,….She also knows that my husband cannot make decisions about our children (plans for her to take them out or times for her to pick them up,while she’s purposely trying to change my original plans…) . we have , on several occasions, asked her to be considerate of my hub’s condition and come to me or at least run things by me. He has made it clear that he does not want to make any important decisions alone, but she still does that. because its HER son and she says she will not control what she she does and doesn’t tell him. it’s to the point where the caller ID sends him into a panic attack! what do you guys suggest we do?

    • annie

      Exclude her. She’ll come around. And if she doesn’t, its best to leave it be and don’t stress the situation. I have PTSD/anxiety and as a young woman, age 25, I can see that my biological mother does not understand the mental effects of nagging, yelling, being fickle, giving a three days notice to move out knowing I have no where to go all while I’m being pregnant. So I deal with her when I need shelter, since my job does not pay enough to get a head start in paying off my own bills. although she is my mother, I know the difference between being needed, wanted , and uninvited, beyond that I concider her mental, she smokes cigarettes on a daily basis and she doesn’t always have weed to smoke, so I guess she goes through withdrawal. I refuse to support her negative habits, so she flips. But that does nothing good for me and my unborn child, she smokes around the house jus because its hers, and it forces me to throw up. All said, do exactly what u believe is best for YOUR family. Now that I have my own, I have to put my children first ,and always will. Favouritism is the worst when it comes to children, that could be detrimental to the children’s relationship between one another. I know, because my mother does it between myself, my older brother, and my younger brother. Remind you she is still a single parent , so I can see why she favorites my older brother and welcomes him into her home with no problem, altho he has messed up his life the worst by putting himself in jail for years, I am the only girl. I believe that had I been a male, it would def be a different relationship between my biological mother and I. Because she has shown who her so called favorite is, my younger brother could care less if she is in his life or not, the only reason why I care that she is in mine is.because she did not have her mother after the age of 15. She has neglected us all for drug use when I was 12, but kept my older brother by her side while she was doing it, she sent my older bro out to find me in the neighborhood to beg for me to come “home” which was then, a vacant house. This maybe too much info for.you, but I believe I had to mention the different circumstances we went through for you to get a fuller understanding of maybe why and how my bio mom acts and does what she does…. BTW,, I am still with my boyfriend, …

  • Lynne

    I have my 29 year old daughter on my cell phone and car insurance. She stopped paying me and avoids talking or texting about it. If I take her off the phone plan there’s an early termination and equipment charge. Plus if I take her off the car insurance she probably will never pay me back the $1200 she owes! What can I do? She lives in Minnesota and I live in Washington.