Are you pushing away your adult children?

(This article previously appeared on

Ask parents their biggest concerns about their relationships with their adult kids, and many will tell you: not enough time together, not enough regular communication, not feeling needed or wanted unless the kids NEED something and not understanding why they aren’t closer. Barring a child’s serious issues, like substance abuse or mental illness, parents often feel alienated or semi-estranged from the children they raised — and they don’t know why.

“It’s a silent epidemic,” says Joshua Coleman, psychologist, senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families and author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along, “the result of several societal shifts in the past 50 years.” Such as? Parenting styles, for one. “Families underwent a fundamental shift in the 60s, when children became the axis around which the family turned,” says Coleman. “They were raised to be individuals who questioned authority. Their relationships often revolved around what made them feel good or bad, not necessarily how to negotiate them.” Parents whose entire being exists for their children often have unrealistic expectations of their adult children’s duty to them, he says.

Another major shift was the rise of divorce. “Divorce earlier in the child’s life (or even recently) can be extremely detrimental to the parent/child relationship if one spouse turns the child against the other,” says Coleman, “even adult children.”

Is There a Rift Between You?

Societal changes notwithstanding, you, dear Mom and Dad, may be doing things that also push the kids away — not deliberately, of course, but alienating nonetheless. If you notice your adult kids acting in any of the following ways, maybe it’s time for a reality check:

  • They rarely initiate a call to you, and if you call them, they take days to respond.
  • They’re difficult to make plans with — even though they seem to make time for friends.
  • They don’t tell you much about what’s going on in their lives. “Everything’s fine,” is the common answer.
  • They often leave in a huff when you make constructive comments — even though the feedback is totally in their best interest.
  • You were always there for them, but they aren’t always there for you. Your problems seem to embarrass or annoy them, and they blow you off.
  • They refer to you as “Mom the Martyr” or “Dad the Saint” — and neither is a compliment.

Assess Your Role and What You Can Do

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. These are the questions to ask yourself:

1. Do you call the kids so often (or email or text) that you might be considered a stalker? Maybe you call too at bad times (like when the kids are getting their kids ready for bed).

Solve it: If you want to be in touch effectively, ask your kids how they most like to be contacted — phone, email or text and when’s the best time to make contact. Then respect their wishes.

2. Are you keeping score of how often they make plans with you vs. others? Don’t go there, says Coleman. ”Some adult kids prefer being with their friends or their own spouse and kids, and it’s a matter of wiring, not bad parenting on your part,” he says.

Solve it: Plan short specific get-togethers (Sunday bagel brunch or Friday pizza night) so they will be motivated to come.

3. Are you a meddler? Maybe the kids don’t share info with you because you ask too many questions or give unsolicited advice.

Solve it: If your son tells you he’s applied for a new position at a new company, don’t start digging for dirt on the benefits, hours and responsibilities. Assume he will tell you if he gets it, and if you don’t hear after a month or so, simply ask if there’s any news yet. Don’t say, “Maybe you should call them to show how interested you are.”

4. Is your constructive feedback really criticism in disguise? Your son knows he’s overweight and it’s unhealthy. Your daughter is aware that she’s being taken advantage of at work. All kids want their parents’ approval, no matter what their age.

Solve it: Praise generously; appreciate sincerely. Comment on what a great parent your daughter is or how proud you are of your son’s commendation at work. Keep the negative “feedback” to yourself.

5. Do you feel validated solely by your role as a parent? Coleman suggests that parents whose entire being exists for their children often have unrealistic expectations of their adult children’s duty to them. “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.

Solve it: This is when you have to heal yourself. And work on developing your identity outside the role of parent and grandparent.

6. Do you always say “yes” even when you want to say “no?” Nobody likes a martyr, so if you’re always saying yes when you sometimes want to say no, think about this: It’s OK to say no to requests that you don’t want to, or can’t, do without great inconvenience to yourself. But you have to distinguish a real need for help and a kid who only calls when he or she wants something.

Solve it: If your child only gets in touch when he needs help, use a request as a teachable moment, by saying “I’m happy to do this (or I’m sorry I can’t right now). But I’d also love to spend fun time with you and the family because sometimes I feel like I only see you when you need something.” Coleman says it’s better to say no than feel resentful.

The Bottom Line

We are parents until the day we die. It’s our job to take the high road — even if we’re frustrated by a hypersensitive child or a drama queen — because we’re the ones who model and teach how a healthy relationship works. (Which means it’s also OK to set boundaries with difficult kids.)

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 — given any major differences we may have — and if not, what can I do to make it better?

By Sally Stich

 This article is reprinted with permission.  © 2016 All Rights Reserved.


  • boundary fortified

    I am the daughter of a senior mom. My mom does not stick up for herself. She says yes when she really wants to say no to people please. My brothers are terrible sons to her. I was the scapegoat growing up and am now the sounding board. As an adult child, I am putting my foot down. I will NOT be my mothers sounding board for her hurt feelings over how her sons and their wives and children behave.

    STAND UP FOR YOURSELVES! Period. It hurts. okay. get over it. You are not just parents, you are people. You have lives that have to be about you and not about your adult children. We need you to have a reason to live beyond us. We can not stand being your reason for living. It is way too much pressure. We did not force you to have us. You had sex and either produced an accident or planned a life with a child. That was your responsibility because of your choice. We did not ask you to bare us. You can’t put that guilt trip on us.

    If my brothers would call my mom once/week, just to say hi, just to say they love her, it would take some of the burden off of me. I simply can not handle being the only adult child to feel a duty to love. And that is what it is…a duty to love. I will never abandon my mom. But I do have excellent boundaries. Boundaries that she lacks, because she chose to have children with a man she knew was not a good husband, she chose to center her life around them, she chose to give up other things in life for her kids and now that they are all dispersed she does not know what to do with herself. That is not my fault, nor is it my responsibility to fix.

    Go to therapy if you have to in order to deal with your pain and get help in navigating the unfairness of it. Take care of yourselves, really. It is wonderful to cut out people who are not treating you with respect and focus on peace, self care, self love, health and enjoy the beautiful wonder of life. If your children do not treat you well, don’t take it. Just stop. Like you would if any other person were not treating you well. But lordy…DO NOT COMPLAIN about it. DO something! Take care of yourselves.

  • F

    There’s too many parents, specifically mothers, out there expecting too much of their ADULT children. Most of the time, you act like you’re entitled to special treatment because you gave birth to them. Parents are to be respected – BUT – if there’s no respect for the adult children, it’s entitlement.

    I’ve read so many articles where an adult child posts how a mother is too emotionally reliant on their child, or visits unannounced, or having too much opinions on their lifestyle and choices – and then parents would comment on how she or he is being rude and disrespectful.

    How about letting your children figure out their own lives? They deserve that. What they need from their parents is the support without the expectations and the judgements. That’s when they start pushing you away.

    Just because one mom has an article that better fits YOUR opinion does NOT make it realistic.
    Many of you may even see my response as offensive. NO. THIS is realistic. If adult children rather spend more time with their significant other – let them. Don’t resort to poor, manipulative, and guilt-tripping behavior to get them to change their plans. It will make everything worse.

    Want to know what REALLY helps? LET THEM GO.
    Not the whole, “Why aren’t you calling me more?” “How come you’ll make time with friends/significant other and not me?”
    “You’re choices are making me cry every night!”
    That makes them push you away farther and farther.

    Text/Call occasionally WITHOUT expectations or demanding to make plans. Don’t contact simply to make suggestions on where to meet and who should come, etc etc.

    Be cool about it. “Hey, how are things? Just checking in. No pressure. I love you, and hope to chat soon.”

    My mom and I live hours apart, and visit every now and then. She never demands anything from me, or expects anything. She respects my personal life. Our relationship is very tight WITHOUT having to contact each other ALL the time and without having to spend time together all the time. Our bond stems from inner trust. She trusts me. I trust her. That’s where the respect comes from. Heck, there’s even some days I’ll ask to meet somewhere, and SHE’S the one who would rather catch up with a friend. COOL! LOVE IT.
    And I’d like the same relationship with my own child when she comes of age.

    Stop being so bitter about things unless your child IS truly disrespecting you to the point of abuse.
    Just don’t over react on issues that aren’t that big of a deal.

  • Robin Wells

    Oh man… Another ridiculous article on this subject. Take the high road? Give me a break!!! I’m done with walking on eggshells.

    Hey everyone, please read “Done With the Crying” by Sheri McGregor. She’ll turn your life around for the good. She’s the only one that I could find that deals with the subject realistically.

  • Weary Mom-of-a-Millenial.

    Take the high road? Hmmm.

    Our young adult adult daughter was self-absorbed, rude, and entitled while living under our roof. She resented any kind of boundaries, usually refused to even let us know where she was, who she was with, and whether she would be home for meals. At the same time, she demanded all manner of favours, and seemed to require a good deal of financial and emotional support. She expected us to be there for her all of the time, in every way. However, we were rarely invited into her world, questions asked of her were an “invasion of privacy”, the slightest bit of advice was misconstrued as “criticism” and “nosiness”, and calls or texts to her (made at pretty much any time of the day) were deemed intrusive and annoying. She expected us to respond to her texts and calls within minutes, while she would often ignore our texts to her. We were expected to entertain her friends on a moment’s notice. And God forbid that she not get her way, in the manner and fashion expected. In such situations, we could expect threats, rude comments, and accusations of being mean, uncaring, even controlling.

    Despite our daughter’s habitual rudeness, lack of respect, and oppositional nature, we continued to hold firm on some very basic house rules, which she routinely mocked. She was also dating an individual who was rather unimpressive (an understatement), yet if we expressed any concerns to our daughter about him, we were suddenly “toxic”, “controlling”, “mean”, “judgemental” We did our best to be a support to our daughter and to encourage her in her many pursuits. We even bent over backwards trying to get to know her lack-lustre boyfriend, having him for regular meals, inviting him to events, and so on. He had the personality of a wet dishrag, brought her down in countless ways, and generally was difficult to get to know. Still, we were routinely told that we weren’t doing enough to support and express happiness him, and about their relationship.

    The tensions became very emotionally taxing, and took a toll on every member of the household. One day, our daughter announced that she had had enough, and was moving out. While the timing and practicality of her move-out did not seem a smart choice for a variety of reasons, it turned out to be positive for all involved. Since she moved out, we have experienced a peace and stability in our home that had been lacking for some time. We now have more time, energy, and resources for other things and we no longer wake up in the morning wondering when the first bit of drama will arise. The limited encounters we now have with our daughter are generally pleasant. She remains a self-absorbed, immature millennial who chooses to learn her life lessons the hard way on most things. So far, she has mostly only initiated contact with family members when she has wanted or needed something. She has little concept of showing respect or honour to her parents or grandparents, but hopefully this will come as she matures.

    We have recently come to the realization that we have been part of the problem, but not in the way the the author of this article has suggested. In any relationship, we often subconsciously “teach” others how to treat us. Kids who treat their parents badly continue treating their parents badly along as this practice is tolerated. Some adult children treat their parents badly simply because they are ignorant and self-centred, and have no idea what a healthy, reciprocal relationship looks like, and in those cases, there is not much that can be done. Perhaps some of our daughter’s self-centredness stems from us placing her too much at the centre of our family life, such that our own needs are no longer seen as important. Perhaps some of her entitlement stems from the fact that we have done too much for her. Perhaps her demands are partly a result of us stepping in too often to rescue her from negative consequences. We have come to realize that we have put up with more than necessary from her, and it has hurt rather than helped her. So, now when she responds to a simple text or call with rudeness, we disengage, except to express that her response was hurtful. When she behaves like a spoiled child in our home, we ask her politely to leave. When she fails to purchase birthday gifts for other family members, we stop purchasing gifts for her too. Relationships are a 2-way street. When she tells us that we don’t support her enough financially, we give her even less, investing instead in people who are genuinely grateful for our support, and who express their appreciation. When she complains loudly about how hard a given situation is, we listen and empathize but are not quite so quick to step in and relieve her suffering. Life and logical consequences are good teachers! As for me, I am getting on with my life! If my daughter chooses to be a part a my life and make it a reciprocal relationship, great. If not, I will invest more in those who treat me well, enjoy my company, answer my texts more often than not, and bring me joy instead of stress!

    • Angela

      It’s the other way around for me my Mom and other relatives don’t want to keep in touch with me…However, my daughter and I reach out once or twice a month through txt or phone call…

  • No pushover

    Take the high road, huh? It seems more like I”m hearing continue to take their inconsiderate demands and once in a while, feel free to say NO. We gave our children a very good life. We sheltered them as much as possible from life’s painful situations. We gave them more than what we had as children growing up. And what we have come to realize, regretfully, that many are self-absorbed people. Incentivise them to come home or call? Visiting one’s parents and calling them is honoring parents and showing love. As adults, I do believe our children need to find their way in life. They pass through us but they do not BELONG to us. If they are sucking you dry and leaving you worse off after their visits or calls, feel free to allow them to experience the lack of your time, attention and funding. This is an opportunity for their growth and self-awareness and for you to work on self-care. We must make our own happiness and not look to others to make us happy.

  • Bonnie

    I get all of these parents, I was especially close to my younger daughter and after her dad passed away and I remarried that was it for our close relationship. We may see each other once a year(at Christmas) at her sisters house. I can’t seem to get through to them that I call or text you to check on you and that’s it. Sometimes I never hear back.

  • Jenny

    Comforting to know I am not alone. Still hurts. Raised my kids after divorce (ages 4 & 8 yrs). Father moved away with no contact with kids. It wasn’t always this way. I’m not allowed to take pictures of my son’s boy’s unless they give me their permission. My daughter says I’m a bad influence on her daughter age 14 yrs old. My husband and I raised this child age 3 yrs when my daughter joined National Guard or when she wanted to go out and party. She married a man (not father of granddaughter) who was accused of molesting my granddaughter. Hurting grandmother.

  • lee

    I enjoyed the article and comments — life does not stop when our children become independent adults. It truly begins — by giving us a second chance to focus on ourselves without feeling guilty. Stop fretting over your selfish adult children — keep active by staying healthy!!!

  • Gwen

    Im tired of always being the one to text or call. Then i wait for days for a response,if i get one. My kids are 36 and 39. The 39 yr old decided for some unknown reason he doesnt want to call or be a part of our family suddenly. I did not raise my kids to be like this. I would have never been like this with my parents. I am close to retirement age and guess i will be alone. What is wrong with this generation of kids? I have always been there for them and this is the thanks i get.

    • Deb

      You sound like me. I thought I was alone. I was a stay at home mom raised my 3 girls hoping they’d stay close to me like I was with my mom. A day doesn’t go by without talking to my mom. I thought it would follow suit. They all live out of town and I’m lucky they want to see me once a year. I cry… I hate it.

      • Mark

        Wow and here’s me thinking it’s just me. I had terrible parents and vowed I would be a great Dad given the opportunity, I did everything I could for my kids. Their mother decided she wanted to party instead of being a parent and initiated a divorce I fought through it all to protect my kids, nearly bankrupting myself. Now they are adults they never call, i can initiate some things with my daughter but my son has me low on his priority list. I am married again and need to enjoy my life now but i feel dogged by guilt and doubts about how i parented them. The thing is we go through that paradigm shift when our children are born vowing to love and protect them to our last breath and never understanding that the pay back may not equal the investment. Reading this makes me understand their are a lot of us in the same situation and it helps. Learning to re centre on ourselves has got to be the key and without guilt.

  • Robert pirrung

    Divorced after a 30 year marriage, my son, at 21 at time of divorce, claim I cheated, but I didn’t, I gave up, because my ex wife would not share in our relationship, my daughters were different, kept a relationship
    But since the election, we have our differences and I am the bad guy, I used to call in the past every week, even though I would get a message, now I am depressed, don’t call anymore, and feel I not worthy of
    Being their father. I have given up, but I do send cards and gifts to their kids, but never worry about hearing from them, but do worry that they have talked to their kids about me, or tell their kids the gifts came from somewhere else.
    My son and wife never acknowledge receiving gifts, so sad. I have given up, but will keep up with sending gifts to the
    Grad kids birthdays. One day when they get older, they may start questioning their parents, hoping they will come
    To their senses.

    • Kathy

      I am in the same boat. I feel your pain. After reading the internet dry on ‘adult children of divorced’ parents, I find no solution. I seem to be in the wrong most of the time. It is a new world for communication…..none. Yet I watch other families bond. My self esteem is suffering and my happiness. It is true that we need to put our focus on ourselves and just leave them to live their lives. I am 72 and they are going to blow it…..sad for the grand kids, super sad for us. Know that you are not alone…’s referred to as an epidemic. Stay sane :)

      • Dee Berry

        My heart hurts for you. I have two kids and got divorce at 20 years, my son was 16 and my daughter 21. I have been very close to my children but when my son moved out to go to college he asked me to move back to save money to buy his house after a year I told him it was time for him to move out due to he was incredibly disrespectful which he apologized for, A month later he bought a house and I paid someone to help clean it and he was very appreciated, we bought him a brand new bedroom set and all the stuff for his kitchen. I stopped by to say hi and his girlfriend was home and he has cameras because he is a police officer and he called me and yelled at me that he did not want me just dropping by that I needed to call for permission. I felt like he put my heart in a blender at high speed. It has never been the same between us. We all were incredibly close. IM not sure what he is so angry about to this day but I do know I stayed home and raise both of my children and never saw this coming. God knows as parents what we do and one day our kids will be in our position and I pray their kids don’t put them through what they are putting us through. My prayer for you is that someone magical comes into your life that can take some of the time spent on thinking about your children away and allow you to have fun. I know my kids take up way too much time in my mind. Best of luck to you.

      • Ilene

        I’ve been emotionally, verbally abused by my son, my only child. Almost all of this has to do with his actress,liar,controlling, mentally ill other half not married and I have a gkid, I have no almost noncontact witeither ofnthem, because of HER
        I’m done with his abuse, verbal and emotional, he says things I can’t even defend because they’re so in Layla land!,,. I can’t beleive it has come to this. I’m 68 and he is 43.
        I can’t do this anymore, he doesn’t care. I’m not too sure this is his truth, it is mine.
        I have five other Gkids afrom a 23 yr relationship. THEY ARE MY FAMILY. In do feel guilt, don’t feel it is warranted. It is what it is? This is my only life. I deserve to be happy and T peace. I do not feel this with my son”…..

    • Laura

      I see these trends—parents giving to much and desiring a relationship with their adult children.

      I have met elderly parents who when asked about their children assisting them in aging issues, heard I often ”Oh, my children are too busy, they have their own lives.” This results in — the government having to take care of the parents totally!

      My cousins are very, very well off but their parents were left in a lurch at time of aging issues.

      I’m thinking this trend is more due to lack of respect and value of parents. I’m very concerned about selfish kids.

  • still the lucky few

    It’s so true that we are parents forever, and that it is up to us to be the mature and responsible ones in the relationship with our children. It’s most important that we not lean on them, and make demands. I’ve also found that having my own life outside of family is good for my children and me. Good article!

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