How to Deal with Disrespectful Adult Children

parents arguing with confused and worried adult son

One of the most difficult challenges you can face as a parent is dealing with disrespectful children. 


And that can become an even greater challenge when it’s adult children.


It can be infuriating and heartbreaking at the same time. And it’s hard to imagine anything more painful than being treated with contempt by your own child, especially when they’re out of the house living on their own, and already physically distanced from you.


After all, you’re the one who’s always been there for them, defending them and advocating for them. Treating you with disrespect can make you feel like you don’t matter. 


Yet, for many parents, this is a daily reality. 


Whether they say hurtful things, break promises, or ignore your boundaries, this can hurt you the most. 


According to research, conflicts between parents and their adult children are more likely to affect the parents than the children. So no matter the situation, it’s essential to know how to deal with disrespectful adult children.


Let’s quickly dive into why this even happens.


Why Are Adult Children Disrespectful?

If you’re left wondering, “why is my grown son or daughter so mean to me?” know that you’re not alone.


It’s a common question, and often there isn’t an easy answer. Family dynamics and relationships are complex. When you add in the fact that people change and grow over time, it can be difficult to understand why your grown child is behaving in this unexpected way.


But first thing’s first — it’s not your fault. You didn’t cause your child to be disrespectful. Yes, you may have contributed to the rift, but you are not the root cause.


The reality is that several factors can contribute to a child’s disrespectfulness, and it’s vital to understand what they are so that you can address the problem effectively. 


Aside from the obvious and difficult ones like substance abuse, mental health conditions, and physical or emotional abuse, here are just a few possible reasons (not excuses) why your grown child is disrespectful:


4 reasons why adult children are disrespectful: lack of boundaries, unresolved anger or resentment, they feel criticized or judged, they're overwhelmed


#1 Lack of Boundaries

If you have never set clear rules and expectations for your child’s behavior (or your own), then it’s natural for them to push against boundaries in an attempt to establish them.


This is especially true when they reach adolescence and adulthood when they’re seeking to individuate themselves from you.


#2 Unresolved Anger or Resentment

If you notice that your adult child has been acting more and more disrespectful towards you, unresolved anger or resentment may be simmering beneath the surface.


It’s not uncommon for adult children to hold onto resentment if they feel like they weren’t given the childhood they needed and deserved. Maybe they felt neglected or unsupported, or perhaps they felt like you were too lenient or strict with them. 


Either way, research shows that things like resentment and anger are passed on from generation to generation, so it could be unresolved issues that you inherited as well.  


#3 They Feel Criticized and Judged

This can be tough to hear, but it’s important to be open to this possibility. If you’re quick to criticize your child or point out their flaws, they may start to feel like they can never do anything right in your eyes. 


In fact, studies show that parents tend to criticize their children three times more often than they praise them. And too much criticism can lead to them feeling resentful and disrespectful. 


Of course, this isn’t an excuse for their bad behavior. But it can help you to respond in a way that will improve the situation rather than make it worse.


#4 They’re Overwhelmed

As a parent, it can be difficult to see your adult child struggling. You want to help (and it’s natural to worry), but you also want them to be independent. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to conflict. 


There are a lot of demands placed on adults, and sometimes it can all be too much. When someone feels overwhelmed, they may lash out at the people closest to them. So if your adult child is disrespectful, they may be feeling stressed and taking it out on you. 


Now that we’ve got some understanding behind why it happens, let’s dig into some effective ways to resolve the parent-adult child conflict.


5 Ways to Deal With Disrespectful Adult Children

Regardless of the reason, it hurts when your adult children are disrespectful. You may feel unappreciated, rejected, and even invisible. If you’re struggling to deal with disrespectful adult children, here are a few things that may help.


5 Ways to deal with disrespectful adult children: don't take it personally, go straight for empathy, focus on yourself and acknowledge your role, set healthy boundaries, and stop enabling behavior


#1 Don’t Take It Personally

Although it may be difficult, try not to take it personally when your grown children are disrespectful. It’s important to remember that their behavior is not a reflection of you as a parent.


Instead, it’s a reflection of their own personal issues and problems. Keeping this in mind will make it less painful and easier to deal with their behavior calmly and constructively.


And as we mentioned earlier, there’s a good chance that learned behaviors — including the bad and ugly — are like generational hand-me-downs. 


According to a growing body of research, learned behaviors around parental trauma and extreme stress are passed on through generations and can even alter how genes are being passed down.


It’s up to the person willing to do the hard work and behavioral uprooting to stop the familial pattern.


#2 Go Straight for Empathy

It’s tough dealing with disrespectful adult children. And it’s even more challenging when you’re not entirely sure what’s going on. However, a little bit of an empathetic mindset can go a long way.


As Brene Brown defines empathy:


“Empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle. And it’s a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through.” 


And pulled from an Entwine article, these are three top ways to give emotional support in your communication:


  1. Use self-disclosure and share your thoughts and feelings with your adult kids
  2. Perspective-take by being subjective and non-judgmental about their point of view
  3. Layer in the empathy by actively listening and accurately identifying their feelings


As children become adults and parents become older, it’s common for there to be some tension in the relationship. 


When you’re used to being the authority figure, it can be challenging to suddenly be on the receiving end of criticism from your child. Similarly, when you’re used to being cared for by your parent, it can be difficult to adjust to the reversal of roles.


No matter which side of the coin though, truly understanding the other perspective relieves tension. After all, the coping strategies are bound to be drastically different.  


Research suggests that conflict strategies vary. While middle-aged individuals are more likely to use active strategies like discussing problems and offering solutions when communicating with adult children, they tend to rely more on passive strategies like avoidance or minimizing problems when dealing with their aging parents. 


passive and active conflict strategies middle-aged individuals take when dealing with parents or with children


By being aware of these dynamics, you can take steps to recognize if this is happening in your relationship and take steps to improve it. 


Try to choose a good time to talk, and be honest about how their disrespect affects you. Be courageous and address the elephants in the room. Just try to come from a place of love vs. fear. 


#3 Focus on Yourself & Acknowledge Your Role

We’ve seen it numerous times repeatedly – when you work on yourself from the inside out, your kids (and people in general) are drawn to you. The more you become your best self, someone who is independently happy and fulfilled, the more you become a natural role model.


And one of the most effective ways to step into the best most authentic version of yourself is to work on personal development. A cornerstone move is to adopt a growth mindset, embrace challenges, and find the golden lessons and ways to better yourself hidden in every conflict. 


(By the way, this is exactly what we focus on in Rewire My Retirement in case you want to short-path your way to your best life with total support and a clear process.)


Studies have shown that there is often something positive to be found in even the most negative emotions. For example, a recent study on guilt and shame looked at how these negative emotions can actually help us to resolve conflict. 


According to the study, feeling guilty or shameful about a situation or action can make you much more likely to try and fix things and address your mistakes head-on.


What this also means is you can take responsibility for your part. No one likes being wrong. And as hard as it is to admit to yourself, you may have contributed to the problem, even if the root issue is not your fault.


So, when the timing’s right, have an open and honest conversation with your child about what you will do differently. It takes two to tango, and it will take both of you to fix the problem – but a big internal shift from one person alone changes the whole dynamic for both.


If your child is unwilling to talk or listen, remember you can only control your part of the relationship. And that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. You can still take responsibility for your role in the situation to feel better about yourself. Another way to do that is by setting healthy boundaries, our next tip.


#4 Set Healthy Boundaries

It’s not easy to set boundaries, especially when it comes to family. You want to be there for your loved ones, but you also need to care for yourself.


Unfortunately, some family members can take advantage of your goodwill and end up crossing the line. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to remember that you have a right to set boundaries.


For instance, you may want to be crystal clear about when and how you’ll support your child in a financial bind. Or maybe the boundary is drawn around holding them accountable for rent, school loans, or other bills. 


Alternatively, the boundary can be time-based. For example, if your child is demanding an immediate response or expecting you to be “on-call”, you can draw a boundary around how and when you’ll get back to them. 


It can be challenging to know where to draw the line, but setting clear boundaries is essential for maintaining a healthy relationship with your adult children. And, what’s more, they can look to you to model healthy behavior and unlearn some of the inherited bad behaviors.


One study shows that boundaries enhance your competence and well-being at work. It can do the same for your relationships.


Conversely, another study revealed these negative effects when lacking boundaries:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Reduced happiness
  • Resentment among family members
  • Greater family conflict


consequences of having no boundaries: emotional exhaustion, reduced happiness, resentment among family members, conflict among family members


Just because someone is related to you doesn’t mean they have the right to be disrespectful or treat you poorly. By setting healthy boundaries, you can protect yourself from emotional harm and preserve your relationships.


#5 Stop Enabling Behavior

As your children grow up, you want them to become independent and responsible adults. And while it’s natural to want to fix things for them, there comes the point where you need to let them figure things out for themselves.


There’s a  balance between empathizing with your adult children and enabling their bad behavior. You want to be supportive and understand what they are going through, but at the same time, you don’t want to enable their disrespectful or destructive behavior.


6 signs of an enabling parent


“Help” can turn into “harm” very quickly. It’s only natural for parents to want to protect their children from harm. But if you’re constantly shielding your child from adversity, they may never get the opportunity to learn how to deal with hardship. 


Believe it or not, experiencing adversity will benefit your child. And your relationship.


It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s also important not to give in to demands or threats. If your child starts making ultimatums, calmly reiterate your position and stick to your guns and come from a place of love vs. fear. They may not like it, but it’s best for everyone involved in the long run.


Connect With Yourself First

Having disrespectful adult children can be extremely difficult and emotionally draining. With any conflict, though, a deep look inward to understand your own emotions first is guaranteed to help the dynamic overall. 


While many things could cause your children to treat you in less than ideal ways, some of the most common are:

  • #1 Lack of boundaries — when children are raised without any rules or boundaries, they can become disrespectful when they don’t get their way and/or they model their parents’ lack of boundaries
  • #2 Unresolved anger or resentment — when kids hold onto anger or resentment towards their parents, it can manifest as disrespectful behavior; unresolved anger and learned behaviors are passed on through generations
  • #3 They feel criticized and judged — when children think they’re constantly being judged or criticized by their parents, they may lash out
  • #4 They’re overwhelmed — when children are dealing with a lot of stress in their lives, they may take it out on the people closest to them


To preserve your relationship with your adult kids and protect your well-being:

  • #1 Don’t take it personally — the root of the issue is not about you. It’s about their anger, fear, or hurt and learned behaviors around expressing it
  • #2 Go straight for empathy — ask questions to get to the root of their feelings and be open to hearing and truly understanding their side
  • #3 Focus on yourself & acknowledge your role — if you’ve done something to contribute to the problem, self-reflect and take responsibility
  • #4 Set healthy boundaries — make it clear what behaviors are acceptable and what are not, and stick to those boundaries
  • #5 Stop enabling behavior — don’t do things for them that they can and should be doing for themselves, even if it’s hard to let go


And to reiterate one more time — you can’t change their behavior, you can only manage your own emotions and work to change your own reactions.


May you find a well full of empathy, mindfulness, and compassion to better connect with both yourself and your adult children.

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portrait of Cyn Meyer, founder of Second Wind Movement and a certified retirement life coach

Cyn Meyer 

Retirement Life Coach

As a certified retirement life coach since 2018, Cyn has helped thousands of older adults turn their retirement years into remarkable years full of growth, purpose, and passion (beyond the stereotypical financial planning side of retirement). 

She combines specific life coaching tools, neuroscience, and her extensive background in marketing (spanning 17 years) to make a powerful impact with Second Wind Movement – an organization dedicated to providing educational resources and coaching for seniors.

With meticulous research, insight, and passion, Cyn’s mission is to usher in a new wave of positive experiences for generations of retirees.

portrait of Cyn Meyer, founder of Second Wind Movement and a certified retirement life coach

Cyn Meyer 

Retirement Life Coach

As a certified retirement life coach since 2018, Cyn has helped thousands of older adults turn their retirement years into remarkable years full of growth, purpose, and passion (beyond the stereotypical financial planning side of retirement). 

She combines specific life coaching tools, neuroscience, and her extensive background in marketing (spanning 17 years) to make a powerful impact with Second Wind Movement – an organization dedicated to providing educational resources and coaching for seniors.

With meticulous research, insight, and passion, Cyn’s mission is to usher in a new wave of positive experiences for generations of retirees.