The tug-of-war between parents and adult children

Written by Rebecca Yauger
Published on July 15, 2022

Being the parent of an adult child is like playing tug-of-war. 

As a parent, part of you knows when to set your child free to live their own lives. The other part may desperately try to yank on the rope and pull them back in time to where they needed you and were your “baby.” 

Whether you are the parent of an adult child or the adult with parents, all must learn to create a new relationship and treat each other as adults. Making the transition can be difficult, but there are ways to do this successfully. 

Biblical instruction 

The Bible speaks of the parent-child relationship through several books. One of the clearest is in the book of Ephesians. Chapter six begins by saying, “Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do” (Ephesians 6:1 NLT). 

It goes on to say, “‘Honor your father and mother.’ This is the first commandment with a promise. If you honor your father and mother, ‘things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on earth’” (Ephesians 6:2–3). 

Parents also receive instruction with the next verse, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them” (Ephesians 6:4). 

What if you are provoked? 

Growing up, my dad was in the military, and he ran our house with a certain precision. There was no backtalk, and the correct answer was always “yes ma’am” or “yes sir,” depending on which parent was asking. 

My father’s expectations for our lives loomed over everything we did. In his view, it was his responsibility to make sure we lived proper lives, even after we left home. And that is the kicker. 

My siblings and I are now grown and have families and grandchildren. My father still feels that responsibility to control our lives to this day. 

He has struggled to transition to a better relationship with his adult children. 

The transition is hard 

When you have an authoritative parent, it’s difficult not to feel like a child again when you walk back into their home. But, for my own sanity, boundaries needed to be set when visiting my parents, whom I love. 

In Psychology Today, Sarah Epstein wrote an article “5 Ways Parents and Adult Children can Improve Their Relationship.”

Epstein states that parents and adult children need to take responsibility for the relationship. They need to learn constructive ways to diffuse a conflict and to accept feedback so the relationship can grow stronger. 

It’s not easy to take responsibility and have honest conversations today when I was taught to not talk back while growing up. But to transition to an adult relationship, you must hold those conversations. 

Time hasn’t changed my dad too much. If he tries to dig too deep into my business, I say, “Thank you for caring, Dad, but we’ve got that handled.” I don’t yell at him to mind his own business. It makes a difference in how you communicate. 

When I show appreciation for his interest without answering the question, it shows respect for him while still conveying that my business is my business. I may have to repeat this often, but that’s okay. I can hold my ground without friction. 

It’s my turn 

As my kids left home, I didn’t want to dominate them as my father had with me. I did my best to stay out of their business, let them make their own decisions, and find their way. 

Recently, my daughter and I were talking over lunch. She told me that I went too far the other way. At times she felt like I didn’t care. Oops. That may have stung, but I don’t think she was wrong. 

We were able to talk through this, and she knows that I care for her, and thankfully, our communication skills with each other have improved. I know there are times when I drive her crazy, and there are times when she exasperates me. 

We don’t always agree with the decisions we each make. But we don’t have to. We can talk it out and reach an understanding. 

I try to be much more open with my daughter and truly listen. That is a big key. She’s a wife and mother, and I need to respect that, whether I agree with everything she does or not.

Breaking it all down 

When your children leave the nest, parents need to be supportive and validate their good decisions and console them when they make poor choices. Elizabeth Fishel and Dr. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett wrote an article for AARP called, “Parenting Adult Children: Are You a Good Friend to Your Grown-up Kid?” 

Fishel and Arnettt say there are steps you can take to have a strong relationship with your kids. 

  1. Observe respectful boundaries
  2. Listen more than you talk
  3. Set ground rules for how to disagree
  4. Make room for the significant others in your children’s life

Sometimes these aren’t easy guidelines to follow. 

I may have to be patient and repeat more than once to my parents, “Thank you for caring about that, but….” I can do that with a respectful attitude. With my daughter, we’ve learned to communicate and accept feedback from each other. 

We’ve made mistakes, but we give each other grace and keep those lines of communication wide open, especially the listening part.

Grace is the key 

I do my best to be an example, both to my children and parents. But there are times when I need patience and a lot of grace. The book of Ephesians says, “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2). 

Parenting an adult child or being the adult child yourself may feel like a tug-of-war as you learn to respect time, boundaries, and diverse ways of doing things. Sometimes all you can do is grit your teeth and get through the more challenging times. 

Clear communication plus understanding and grace on all sides can prevent situations that lead to hurt feelings and lack of trust. With respect, boundaries, and patience, both the parent and the adult children can put down the tug-of-war rope and grow into a satisfying new relationship. 


Consider a few extra resources:

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Rebecca Yauger

Rebecca Yauger is a writer and blogger, who writes about real friendship and relationships, and all the ties that bond us. She is a three-time cancer survivor, and church life group leader. Rebecca grew up in a military family, and now after living all over the world, she makes her home near Dallas. She is married to her high school sweetheart, and is a proud mother and grandmother. Visit her at www.RebeccaYauger.com or on social media: @RebeccaYauger.

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