Relationships with adult children can be challenging, especially when parents perceive their child’s behavior as disrespectful. It is important to try to understand the reasons for their behavior.
Sometimes, people can have different ideas of what is and is not respectful. As children reach adulthood, they form their own opinions and can make decisions their caregivers do not agree with.
This is a
Read on to learn more about dealing with a disrespectful grown child, including the causes and how to respond.
Although the term “disrespect” generally means a lack of admiration or regard for another person, what people perceive as disrespectful behavior can vary dramatically.
To some caregivers, disrespect may be another word for disobedience. To others, disrespect refers to rude or inconsiderate behavior. For others, it means mistreatment, such as stealing or violence.
Caregivers who have difficulties in their relationship with their child may need to consider what they think of as disrespect. Doing this can help them get specific about the issues in the relationship.
Some examples of behaviors that are not disrespectful include:
- asking for privacy
- voicing different opinions
- choosing a different life than the caregiver wanted
- spending limited periods of time with caregivers
- asking others to respect how they want to raise their child
- not providing unlimited access to grandchildren
- asking them to be on time
- attempting to discuss the relationship or events that occurred in childhood
Some examples of behaviors that are disrespectful include:
- verbal insults
- stealing money or belongings
- manipulation, such as gaslighting or guilt-tripping
- intentionally misusing or damaging property
- knowingly wasting a person’s time, energy, or resources
- physical aggression or violence
Research shows that when there is conflict between adults and their children, there is often also disagreement about the cause.
Many things can cause a loss of respect between children and caregivers, such as:
- Lack of empathy: After years of viewing their caregiver as a caregiver, children may have difficulty seeing them as individuals. The reverse can also be true — caregivers can remain “stuck” in viewing their grown offspring as children.
- Perceived criticism: When adult children begin doing things differently from their caregivers, some may take this as a criticism of their own approaches.
- Disapproval: Caregivers and children can disapprove of each others’ decisions. In a healthy relationship, people can respect the other person’s right to make their own decisions, but this can be harder in some situations. For example, a
2023 studyhighlights a link between children leaving the religion of their caregivers and increased parent-child conflict.
- Control: Caregivers who have had an authoritarian approach to parenting may believe they have a right to control their children or grandchildren, even when they grow up.
- Stress or mental health conditions: Either children or caregivers who frequently feel stressed or anxious may unintentionally take those feelings out on each other, putting strain on the relationship. Addiction can also put immense strain on relationships, as it can affect behavior and, in some cases, cause people to harm others.
- Childhood: As children grow up, they may start evaluating their childhood and the way family members treated them. This could lead to conflict if caregivers do not like what their child has to say.
Improving a relationship with a grown child requires effort. These strategies may help.
Practice clear, open communication
A child’s motivation for their behavior is as unique as the individual. It can be helpful to discuss the behavior with the child to understand their perspective.
To have a productive conversation, caregivers can try:
- asking if the child has time to talk
- using “I” statements, such as, “I noticed you did not seem happy with me last week,” rather than making accusations
- giving them space to explain what has been going on
- listening without interruption
- managing emotions that come up, such as by breathing slowly and deeply
If the child does explain the reasons for their behavior, it may be tough to hear. In replying, try:
- keeping an open mind
- validating their feelings, such as by saying, “I can see why you feel that way”
- avoiding the temptation to immediately give advice or try to “fix” things
- focusing on love and concern for them
- using clear, upfront statements rather than hints
Evaluate one’s own behavior
If a child alleges that their behavior is the result of something the caregiver has done or not done, it may be necessary to confront this.
Sometimes, conflict runs in two directions, with both parties behaving unkindly. In other situations, such as ones that involve abuse, the fault lies with the perpetrator.
Spend time reflecting on the relationship, and ask for outside input from someone impartial, to assess this. This could be a mutual friend or even a therapist.
For relationships to heal, people need to offer sincere apologies for things they have done wrong or mishandled.
It can take time for people to be ready to apologize. In some cases, the other person may not feel they have done anything wrong. In time, one or both parties may make amends, but a caregiver cannot control this.
Set clear boundaries
Boundaries are guidelines for the behavior a person finds acceptable or unacceptable. They are not rules that a person imposes on others. Rather, they are clear instructions for how someone will personally respond in a given situation.
For example, “You cannot speak disrespectfully to me” is not a boundary, but, “If you yell at me, I will ask you to leave” is.
Some examples of boundaries a person might set include:
- “Please call before you visit. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee I will be able to see you.”
- “I understand that you are angry with me, but if you cannot communicate without name-calling, I will end the conversation.”
- “If you steal from me, I will not continue this relationship with you.”
Estrangement can be very painful. Caregivers can invest their lives in their children, and estrangement may feel like a rejection of that effort.
But becoming angry or attempting to punish the child will only worsen the estrangement. Consider that a child who refuses contact is, in their own way, setting a boundary. Respecting this boundary may actually help heal the relationship by showing that the parent can honor the child’s wishes.
A parent cannot change their child’s emotions or feelings. They can only alter their own behavior. Considering their own role in the estrangement, or trying to understand the child’s reasons, may help.
Research from 2023 suggests that caregivers who blame the child or attribute the estrangement to external sources rather than internal ones may miss the opportunity to heal the relationship.
It may help to reach out one final time to offer a chance to heal the conflict. In this conversation or message, caregivers can try:
- telling the child they love them
- offering to talk about what they can do to fix things
- taking responsibility for past actions
- emphasizing that, if they still choose not to respond, the caregiver will respect their decision
If the child reaches out, a caregiver can be warm and loving, and again offer to work together to heal the relationship.
Conflict with an adult child can be very painful. Psychotherapy can help a person learn coping strategies and deal with the pain. If the child is willing, family therapy may also help.
Some people also find relief from:
- online support groups
- reading books about relationships with adult children
- focusing on enjoyable activities
- spending time with friends
If a person begins to feel consistently down, numb, angry, or anxious, or they develop new physical symptoms, they should speak with a healthcare professional.
A disrespectful grown child will have reasons for their behavior. Trying to understand these reasons is key to healing the relationship. This means both parties need to listen to one another and, depending on the situation, try to see things from the other’s perspective.
Relationships can change and evolve, so one that is mired in conflict now can become happy and healthy in the future. People who are struggling with the impact of their relationship challenges can speak with a therapist, either alone or with their child, if they are willing.