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.


  • 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.

  • 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 :)

  • 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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