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7 Ways to Cope When Your Adult Child Treats You Like Dirt

Approaching painful conflicts with self-reflection, empathy, and self-care.

Key points

  • Many parents and adult children are in emotional pain related to miscommunications and misspoken feelings. 
  • Strained emotions between parents and adult children include values or conflicts over past events.
  • Acknowledging and understanding underlying struggles helps parents and adult children who are struggling. 

Recently, I wrote a post entitled, 3 Reasons Why Your Adult Child May Treat You Like Dirt. I am deeply moved that this post now is approaching almost 2 million views! This speaks to the many parents and adult children who are in emotional pain related to miscommunications, misunderstandings, misguided intentions, and misspoken feelings.

An Important Point to Keep In Mind

As a coach for parents of adult children for more than 30 years, I have seen how conflicts between adult children and parents are a highly sensitive issue. I am not looking to "take sides" when writing about this important topic. I am not here to blame either parents or adult children. My numerous posts on this topic fall on various perspectives including those of adult children, parents, and the complex societal pressures we face in today's world.

A Brief Recap of Why Your Adult Child May Treat You Like Dirt

1. Unresolved emotional strain

Strained emotions between parents and adult children can occur for many reasons, such as differences in values, conflicts over past events, or struggles with letting go of old roles and dynamics. These strained emotions can lead to stress, anxiety, and relationship issues for both parties.

2. Not acknowledging changes in roles and responsibilities

There can be several reasons why parents may struggle to see their adult children as a grown-up. One is nostalgia. Parents may have a hard time letting go of the memories of their children as young, dependent individuals, and struggle to see them as independent adults.

Another problem is that parents may have a natural inclination to protect and care for their children, even as they become adults, and may have difficulty adjusting to a new dynamic in which their child is more self-sufficient.

3. Expressing criticism and invalidation

Well-intended parents may offer guidance in a critical way that can cause emotional harm. This can make the child feel unimportant or like they can never meet their parent's standards. Continuing to treat your adult child in this way can influence them to feel helpless and incapable. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a lack of confidence.

4. Emotional struggles of the child, the parent, or both

Life is hard for all of us. When children and/or parents have to contend with problematic levels of anxiety and depression, or the stress of addictions, or any other stressors, this can increase tensions between parents and adult children.

There are also times when one parent maligns or even alienates the children's perception of the other parent, which can lead to toxic, biased communications and interactions with vulnerable adult children. Acknowledging and understanding underlying struggles is key to trying to manage relationships between parents and adult children who are struggling in this way.

7 Ways to Deal With an Adult Child Who Treats You Like Dirt

Dealing with a situation in which your adult child treats you poorly can be incredibly challenging and emotionally distressing. It's important to remember that every situation is unique, and the approach you take will depend on the specific dynamics between you and your child. However, here are some general strategies that may help you cope with such a difficult situation:

  1. Self-reflection: Take a step back and reflect on your behavior and actions. Be honest with yourself and consider if there's anything you may have done to contribute to the strained relationship. Acknowledging your own mistakes and taking responsibility for them can be a positive step toward reconciliation.
  2. Acceptance: It can be difficult to accept that your child may not treat you the way you deserve. However, acknowledging that you can't control their behavior and that you're not responsible for it can help you find peace within yourself. Focus on accepting the situation as it is while still maintaining hope for future improvements.
  3. Communication: Initiate an open and honest conversation with your adult child. Express your concerns and feelings calmly and respectfully. Avoid blaming or criticizing them, as this may escalate the conflict. Instead, focus on listening to their perspective and try to understand their point of view. Effective communication can be a powerful tool for resolving conflicts and rebuilding relationships.
  4. Setting boundaries: While it's important to maintain open lines of communication, it's also crucial to establish healthy boundaries. Make it clear what behaviors you find unacceptable and let your child know that mistreatment is not tolerable. Boundaries help protect your emotional well-being and set the foundation for a healthier relationship in the future.
  5. Focusing on self-care: Prioritize your well-being by engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Engage in hobbies, exercise, practice mindfulness, or spend time with loved ones who treat you with kindness and respect. Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally is essential when navigating challenging relationships.
  6. Being calm, firm, and noncontrolling. As I detail in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, adult children need their parents to be calm, firm, and noncontrolling. Being calm, firm, and noncontrolling helps bypass both the parent's and adult child's emotional reactivity. An example of a calm, firm, noncontrolling parental soundbite is, "I value your opinion yet disagree. We both seem to feel strongly about how we see this differently. Would you agree that us having a calm, constructive conversation is going to more likely help us feel better than continuing to argue?"
  7. Seeking support. Dealing with difficult emotions can be overwhelming, and it can be beneficial to seek support from trusted friends, family members, or a therapist. Sharing your feelings and experiences with someone who can provide guidance and empathy can provide you with valuable insight and comfort during this challenging time.

Final Thoughts

It's important to note that the struggles described in the first part of this post can occur in any type of family. However, the impact on the adult child can be significant. So, be aware of your behavior and how it may be affecting your child's emotional well-being. At the same time, be sure to have some self-compassion and not beat yourself up as no parent is perfect.

If you continue to find it difficult to connect with your adult child, seek the help of a therapist or counselor. They can help you work through any underlying issues that may be contributing to your struggles and conflicts.

© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. (All rights reserved)

References

Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd. Ed), Hachette Go Books, New York, NY.

Birditt, K.S. (2009). Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence. Psychol Aging. 2009 Jun; 24(2): 287–295.doi: 10.1037/a0015196, PMCID: PMC2690709, NIHMSID: NIHMS94367

Yang, J., & Zheng, Y. (2019). Links Between Perceptions of Successes, Problems and Health Outcomes Among Adult Children: The Mediating Role of Perceptions of Parents’ Feelings and Intergenerational Relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02551

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