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  Parents and their Adult Children  
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William ("Dr. Bill") Gaultiere, Ph.D.
Director of New Hope & Psychologist with
(714) 971-4213,
New Hope Counseling Ministry Special Seminar, July 2007

Everyday in the Crystal Cathedral’s New Hope Counseling ministry we talk to parents struggling in their relationship with an adult child.  When children grow into adulthood a seismic shift occurs in the parent-child relationship.  It’s not that children don’t need their parents anymore (though it may feel that way to the parent!), it’s just that the needs and roles have changed.  It’s important that we understand the dynamics of this relationship.

How many of you are an adult child to a living parent?  How many are a parent to a living adult child?

I’m an adult child to my parents.  And I have three adolescent children who are moving toward adulthood at the speed of light! 

Also, on a number of occasions I’ve had the honor of offering family counseling for a parent(s) and an adult child.  One of the most fulfilling things I’ve done is facilitate reconciliation in these relationships.

I’m going to introduce our topic and then we’ll have time for discussion.  So as I’m talking please write down your questions!  You may have questions from your own family relationships or from calls you’ve taken at New Hope. 


Society has Changed

Because people are living longer today relationships between adult children and parents are far more common than in the past.

  • In 1900 22% of 40-year olds had both parents alive
  • In 2000 59% of 40-year olds had both parents alive and 80% of 50-year olds had at least one parent living
  • Today most parents will spend twice as much time as a parent to their adult child than they did when their child was young

Not only are relationships between adult children and parents more common and lasting longer, but they must negotiate some other stressful changes in society:

  • Today many children live at home with their parents well into adulthood
  • More and more grandparents are stepping in to raise their grandchildren for an adult child who is having problems
  • Families are much more likely to live in geographically dispersed locations
  • Most adult children in contemporary society depend on a vast and varied labor market rather than on their farm or business owning parents
  • Elderly parents who are in poor health are kept alive longer by medical science
  • Society no longer expects adult children to be the primary care-givers for their elderly parents and we have many choices for types of paid professional care for seniors

General Characteristics of Parent and Adult Child Relationships

There has been research on parent and adult child relationships that has indicated some important characteristics:

  • Age: As adult children become older there is generally less conflict and more closeness in the parent-child relationship.  Usually, as adult children negotiate the transitions that their parents have gone through they become closer.  This includes things like getting a job, establishing separate households, getting married, and becoming parents themselves.
  • Gender: Of the four parent-child pairings, father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, and mother-daughter, which do you think has the strongest affectional tie and least conflict?  Mother-daughter.  Father-son has the most problems of the four.
  • Ethnicity: Parent and adult child contact is closer among Hispanics than whites, blacks.

Common Stressors in Relationships between Parents and Adult Children

Over the course of the twenty to forty years that adult children and parents have relationship a variety of stressful and painful things may challenge the relationship:

Perhaps the hardest stressor to overcome are family of origin hurts from when the parent was raising the child.  This could be partially due to a personality conflict.  But usually there are painful issues that occurred in the relationship.  In that the bigger problem is often that the issue wasn’t resolved or reconciled in an honest, loving, and helpful way…

If the child experienced (or felt this way)…

  • Was abused or neglected
  • Raised in an alcoholic home or dysfunctional family system: “Don’t talk.  Don’t feel.  Don’t trust.”
  • Family broken up by divorce
  • Was criticized or like he/she couldn’t measure up
  • Parent was over-busy

If the parent experienced (or felt this way)…

  • Unappreciated for all his or her sacrifices
  • Criticized
  • Rejected

Stressors also occur later in the family cycle when the children are adults…

If the adult child…

  • Loses their job (especially a son)
  • Engages in criminal behavior
  • Returns to live in the parents home
  • Has alcohol or drug problems
  • Suffers from mental illness – parents are likely to experience substantial psychological distress and reduced marital quality
  • Goes through a divorce – may actually lead to a closer bond with parents

In these kinds of situations the adult child may need, but not want, the parent’s support or advice.  Because the adult child wants to learn to be independent.  Also, the parent’s help may come with guilt or strings attached.  These dynamics adds to the stress of the situation.

If the parents…

  • Divorce – can be very detrimental to the parent-child relationship.  For instance, research shows that on average both divorced and remarried parents have less contact and provide less emotional support to their adult children
  • One parent dies – widowhood has been found to be one of the most stressful life events and the adult children become especially important sources of emotional support
  • Become elderly and need physical care

Care-giving for an Elderly Parent

When elderly parents need care their expectations may differ dramatically from what adult children are prepared to do to help.

  • In 2001 2.2 million relatives provided unpaid help to an elderly disabled relative.  More than one-third were adult children, usually daughters
  • Caregivers of the elderly experience increased depression and psychiatric illness

Understanding the Transition: Parent-Child to Adult-Adult to Adult Child-Elderly Parent

Think about how being a parent to a child is a unique relationship.  It’s the one relationship which has to negotiate a dramatic change in roles.  Friendships and relationships with siblings and cousins are mutual and stay that way.  Other family relationships with grandparents, uncles, and aunts are fairly stable.  Relationships with pastors, doctors, counselors, and other helpers have fixed roles and limited duration. 

But the parent-child relationship is for life and goes through a total role reversal. 

  • In the beginning the parent has total responsibility for the child
  • When children become adults the parent must let go of responsibility and encourage the child’s independence, which may feel like a rejection.  The parent isn’t needed in the same way.  Ideally, a more mutual, adult-to-adult relationship develops and there is reciprocity of give and take and shared respect.
  • Then when the parent becomes older he or she becomes increasingly dependent and needs care so that now the adult child may need to parent the parent.

Understanding the Ambivalence of Parents and also their Adult-Children

The transition that parents and adult children must negotiate in their relationship is complicated by the ambivalence they both feel.  What do I mean by “ambivalence”?  The definition of ambivalence is: “fluctuation caused by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.”

All people have personal needs to be bonded in loving relationship and to be independent, to be connected in caring relationships and to develop their unique individuality.  These two needs seem to contradict one another.

Bonding in the parent and adult child relationship (or any relationship): time together, caring, mutual concern, reciprocal help; shared values, beliefs, and interests.  Bonding is connectedness.

Boundaries/Independence: space, respect, free choice; individual expression of values, beliefs, and interests.  Healthy boundaries are seen in the person who has the capacity for a strong sense of personal identity in the midst of close relationship.  For instance, this person can be aware of and concerned about others feelings and his/her own feelings at the same time.

Imagine a teeter totter with bonding and boundaries.  Overweight the boundaries side and you have detachment, perhaps workaholism.  Overweight the bonding side and you have enmeshment or co-dependency.  Many people go back and forth between the extremes.

These contrasting needs and the expectations that come out of them come into play in a multitude of issues: how to spend money, approaches to raising children, choices in friends and partners, religious beliefs.

Even these sensitive areas can be negotiated.  They key is integrating the needs for bonding and boundaries.  Healthy bonding will always include good boundaries and vice versa.  In reality, you can’t have one without the other.  The Bible teaches this integration:

“Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load” (Galatians 6:2-5).

More specific examples of integrating bonding and boundaries in family relationships…

  • Warm conversation about their different approaches
  • Listening calmly and respectfully to one another’s views
  • Agree to disagree (The relationship is more important than the issue!)
  • Showing love by respecting a boundary for space
  • Being willing to meet with a Family Counselor

Improving a Strained Relationship

Who is going to step forward to be humble and loving?  You can’t wait for the other to make the first move!  Focus on your part!  Be responsible to work on yourself with God’s help.

This is critical in marriage counseling for instance.  Learning good communication skills is not enough.  There has to be a growing generosity (love) of heart for one another instead of selfishness and tit for tat.

Some teachings from the Bible on what the parent must learn to do…

  • “[Jesus] called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.  But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea’” (Matthew 18:2-6).
  • “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
  • “Children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Corinthians 12:14).

Some teachings from the Bible on what the adult child must learn to do…

  • “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
  • “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12; and Matthew 15:4).
  • “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God… If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:4, 8).

Jesus taught us: “Love enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27-29).  This is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s how he lived.  It’s the fruit of the Greatest Commandment he taught. 

But you can’t bless those who offend you and do good to those who are mean to you by trying harder to do it.  You can only do it by relying on the Lord and his love for you and through you.

More specifically, to improve a strained family relationship here’s what YOU must learn to do (whether you’re the parent or the adult child)…

  • Say I’m sorry – be honest and come to terms with your mistakes!
  • Forgive (is a process of working through hurt, anger, and letting go)
  • Learn to listen without being defensive or interrupting
  • Continue to offer help (not enabling of destructive behavior) even if it’s not appreciated
  • Give affirmations of strengths – personally, in cards
  • When you share your feelings use “I statements” (not “You statements”) to invite your family member to understand what it’s like to be you
  • Respect requests for space – pray, pray, pray!

In my counseling practice I’ve worked with a number of parent and adult-child relationships.  God can do amazing things to restore relationship when people trust him and follow his teachings.  I’ve seen…

  • Parents listen empathically even when their adult child was being unfairly critical
  • Adult children forgive and bless a parent who was abusive

Additional Resources

“Think with your Heart and Feel with your Head”:

“New Hope Notes” articles on “Family/Relationships”:


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