Handling Difficult Relationships with Adult Children

Jennifer Slattery

Updated May 28, 2024
Handling Difficult Relationships with Adult Children

In the moment, our child’s words might feel like rejection, thereby triggering defensiveness within us. In reality, our son or daughter is seeking healthier and more fulfilling interactions with us.

When my daughter reached her late teens and early twenties, our relationship went through a difficult period. Going away to college gave her an emotional distance that allowed her to more clearly perceive her past, including how I’d parented her. She began to recognize ways I’d caused her pain and how those wounds were affecting her and her relationships. 

I’ve since discovered that this frequently occurs when children enter adulthood. If they feel relatively safe with their parent, there usually comes a time when they relay these hurts. Sometimes they do this calmly, and sometimes with the anger that stems from a deeply wounded soul. This can feel terrifying, especially for those who carry unresolved guilt and shame. In the moment, our child’s words might feel like rejection, thereby triggering defensiveness within us. In reality, our son or daughter is seeking healthier and more fulfilling interactions with us.

They are reaching toward us and asking, if not begging, for us to reach for them—in their pain. When we respond well, we help repair relational damage, bring healing to soul wounds, and strengthen joy-filled connections. When we react poorly, however, we tend to widen the fissures between us, deepen our child’s hurts, and make them less apt to reveal their truest selves, happy or sad, to us in the future. 

Here are some six things I learned from my experience and listening to other moms and young adults: 

1. Investigate When You Feel Defensive

According to mental health experts, defense mechanisms are unhealthy ways of coping with challenging situations, thoughts, and emotions. Unfortunately, we tend to exhibit these learned reactions before we can evaluate our circumstances or internal experiences. This makes it challenging to change our behavior. Our inability to do so can lead to increased guilt and shame.

The more we notice these unhelpful reactions and prayerfully consider their roots, the easier it becomes to regulate our emotions during tense and uncomfortable conversations. We’re more apt to speak from what my therapist refers to as our “Spirit-led self” rather than our insecurities and pain. Not only will this keep us from escalating the conflict, but our son or daughter is more likely to feel heard and loved, thereby encouraging calm communication. 

2. Trust Your Child Wants to Retain Their Connection

Due to some of my unresolved, and initially unknown, pain, I viewed many of my daughter’s expressed hurts as rejection. Growing up, I’d learned connections ceased when I failed to meet other people’s expectations. Without realizing it, I carried these subconscious beliefs into my most important adult relationships. Therefore, when my daughter told me of times when I hadn’t behaved like the mom she needed and I longed to be, the unhealed places in my soul feared she was pushing me away. 

In reality, those conversations revealed the opposite. She didn’t want “less” of me. She wanted more of me—the real, healthy me. She longed for us to build a mutually fulfilling relationship, one free of tension, insecurity, and dysfunction. Now, I’m grateful for her courage to speak the truth during that season because it encouraged us both to grow. Those discussions didn’t destroy or damage our relationship. Rather, they healed and strengthened it.   

3. Listen to Their Heart More Than Their Words

While hurt or upset, it can be challenging to express ourselves in a calm, logical, and coherent way. We may not even realize the underlying emotions fueling our pain and frustration. For example, when my husband and I were first married, he would leave dirty clothes on the bathroom floor and dishes in the living room. Hearing my complaints, he assumed I was upset with the mess. My hurt went deeper. Because I assumed responsibility for maintaining our home, I felt devalued by his actions. Once he understood this, he was able to respond to my pain with the assurance and love I craved. 

Young adults might exist in grown bodies, but their brains aren’t yet fully developed. Plus, they won’t be able to regulate intense emotions unless we’ve taught them to do so and have displayed how. Therefore, we can view tense conversations as opportunities to train and model healthier coping. We’ll also find that the more a person feels heard and understood, the safer and more loved they feel, which brings calm to their inner angst. 

4. Seek and Follow God’s Lead

I once read a social media graphic that said something to the effect of, “If you’re still upset after twenty-four hours, address it.” While I understand the sentiment of not allowing a hurt or “offense” to fester, I disagree with the timeline, especially when dysfunction has crept into a relationship. In my case, God had a lot of work to do within me before I’d see the situation with my daughter clearly enough to engage in difficult discussions. 

I didn’t realize how many experiences from my past influenced my present perspective. But God knew. He saw the depth of both of our hearts—our hurts and insecurities—and how and where we most needed growth and transformation. Often, when I prayed, asking Him to heal our relationship, He shifted my focus onto myself and what He wanted to do in me in that moment. He routinely called me to focus not on my desired outcome but simply my very next step. 

At one point, I sensed Him telling me that He was bringing me to a place where I would be okay, regardless of how others reacted to me or behaved. In other words, He was leading me to increased wholeness so that I could love others, my daughter included, more freely and fully. Yielding to Him during that season felt painful and frightening, especially since He didn’t give me any guarantees in regard to my daughter. But I can see now His faithfulness and perfect wisdom for every moment, the most challenging included. 

5. Get Help

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better.” While I receive great comfort from her words, I still carry a lot of regret for the pain my ignorance caused. Borrowing from something counselor and author Gina Berkemeier once wrote, I tell my daughter often, “I wish I’d gotten help sooner.” I wish I’d been more aware of how generational patterns and wounds I experienced as a child impacted my parenting. 

I wish I would’ve done the hard work, with professional help, to be the healthiest and most confident version of myself possible—prior to becoming a mom. Yet, while I carry regret for the wounds my learned dysfunction created, I’m incredibly grateful for where God has brought me—and my daughter and our relationship—now. I wouldn’t have reached this place on my own. I needed someone who loves Jesus and has years of relational education and experience that I lack. 

I needed someone whose perspective of me and my situation wasn’t clouded by past hurts and the faulty thinking that came with them like I was. Both my daughter and I found such a resource in separate but equally Christ-led and wise counselors, and for that, I am beyond thankful. 

6. Persevere

I know parents who have been struggling relationally with their adult child for years and battle discouragement and fatigue. They fear God might never heal their relationship. Even sadder are those who quit trying after a couple of tense years. I don’t say that with judgment as I understand the natural desire to withdraw in self-protection. But I’m also the adult child of a parent who chose to disengage. That left an ache I’m not sure will ever go away. Never wanting my daughter to feel such rejection, I determined to fight for her, even if she continuously pushed me away.

Thankfully, she’s a forgiving woman of God who persevered to bring increased health to our connection. But I hope, were she to have responded differently, I would’ve done all I could to ensure she knew that I would always strive to be her greatest fan and constant support.

Please don’t mishear me. I’m not suggesting a parent enable unhealthy or abusive behaviors. Denying the truth isn’t love, nor does that help anyone, the wayward child included. But one can maintain appropriate boundaries, when necessary, while still communicating, “I am for you, now and always. And I’ll never stop praying for you, reaching for you, or longing to see you thrive.”     

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Daisy-Daisy

Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she’s passionate about helping women experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event  and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE  and make sure to connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.