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How Parents of Adult Children Can Let Go of Faulty Expectations

I hold a degree in theology with an emphasis in human behavior. I have studied relationships and behavior for more than twenty years.


Tensions in Parent-Adult Child Relationship

Let me start by explaining my credentials. I am not a so-called "expert" in relationships. I do not have a doctorate in human relations. I do, however, hold a degree in theology with an emphasis in human behavior. I have studied relationships and behavior for more than 20 years.

The majority of what I have learned has been through "real-life" interaction, not just theory taught in a classroom. I believe that understanding people and building healthy relationships is the key to success in life. When I say success, I do not mean wealth or reaching a certain level of status. Those things can be attained through relationships, and rightly so. I define success, however, in terms of enriching others, and being enriched by others in turn. With that said, I would like to speak about a particular kind of relationship that, if not handled properly, brings a lot of bitterness to all involved.

I am referencing the relationship between a parent and an adult child. In 15 years of counseling and observation, I have found that this relationship is one of the most skewed. In most relationships, tension usually comes two ways: when there is a simple misunderstanding between two people, or when one person’s expectations of another are not lived up to.

In the parent-adult child relationship (which I will refer to as the PAC), the latter is always the case. The former can cause light tension, but family usually moves past simple misunderstandings. That is not always the case with non-family relationships, which I will discuss in another blog. It is in the area of expectations that we find bitterness brewing with the PAC.

So is there one party at fault? As with most relationships, it takes two to tango. That being said, what I have seen repeatedly is that more times than not, the parent is to blame. I will discuss the child's issues in another blog, but for now, let’s look at the parents.


The Faulty Expectation of the Parent

Parents have a lot invested in their child…money, time, memory, and most of all emotions. To most parents, their children are their world. What I have seen, though, is that most parents refuse to acknowledge the separation that occurs as their child moves into adulthood.

Lack of Respect for Child's Boundaries

It is the fact that they have so much invested that leads them to believe, subconsciously, that there are never any boundaries to be observed. To put it bluntly, after a child reaches 18 years of age, the only rights a parent has in regard to input in that child’s life are the rights that the child gives them. When a child is underage, a parent is free to give advice and direction whenever they choose. They can lecture at any given time. They can give their opinion at any given time.

However, if that pattern continues after that age, it leads to bitterness. The child is sensing their independence and wants the freedom to live their life. So only at invitation does a parent of an adult child have the right of voice or opinion.

If They Still Live With You

What if they live in your house? Well, certainly there have to be rules. Chaos should never be tolerated. With respect to your property, you always have the final say. My son just turned 18. He lives at home, but there is an understanding. I do not intrude in his life unless he asks my opinion. I do not tell him whom he should date or not date, whom he should have as friends, or what career path he should take.

I do, however, have the right to determine who is allowed on my property, as well as the boundaries of using my property. He can’t just take things as he wishes, nor leave things lying around. The point here is that parents of adult children need to learn that the rules have changed. A continuance of unsolicited intrusion will cause a major disruption of the relationship.

I find it amusing that most parents I talk to whose PAC is strained honestly think their child is ungrateful. The truth is the PAC is strained because the parent has overstepped their bounds. The faulty expectation is that they should always have uninhibited boundaries with their child, no matter the age.


Overcoming Faulty Expectations

So how does a parent overcome this faulty expectation? First, acknowledge the problem. Ask others, not the child, if you behave in this manner. Take the criticism, and adjust accordingly. When you feel the urge to give your unsolicited advice, simply stop and keep your comments to yourself.

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Recognize that your child is not a child anymore. They should be free to succeed or fail on their own. Here is a good way to look at it: how would you like it if someone did that to you? Finally, apologize to your child for your behavior. You would be surprised how far an apology would go.

What if you do not have an adult child yet? When your child reaches age 12 or 13, begin to prepare yourself for that change in life. Recognize that they are getting older and determine how you are going to react when they reach adulthood. I call this ‘preparing your heart’. It is a simple meditation exercise that is very effective. The best part is that no one needs to know but you. It really is that simple.


Life Examples

I want to give you some ‘real-life’ examples of this faulty expectation. I know a man who has two daughters. He is very wealthy and is used to people doing what he tells them to do. I had a conversation with him and during the course of the conversation, I asked him if he still had plans to sell a business he had. He said no, because when his youngest daughter married he was going to make her husband run the business.

If this occurs, and the young man does not want to run the business, do you think it will cause some tension? He then went on to tell me how he decided which house his oldest daughter and son-in-law should buy. What is amusing is how he doesn’t understand why some people do not like him. He actually told me he thought it was because he was successful and wealthy!

Another example is of a couple I did premarital counseling with. Now, going into this I knew she was a 'daddy’s girl'. I have known this family for a long time so I knew that about her. I talked to her about that during counseling. I explained that getting advice was okay, but not at the expense of her husband. She agreed.

A couple of years later, I discovered they were getting divorced. I talked with both of them separately at their request. I got pretty much the same story from both. Her father was giving advice on everything. It began to make the husband angry because he did not ask for the advice. In his words, he got advice from him when he needed it, but did not want it on everything. Basically, the father gave his opinion on everything. It caused problems in the marriage two ways: first, the daughter should have stood her ground when advice was given without being asked.

Second, the father should have kept his mouth shut until asked. The second would have prevented the need for the first. What happened was that when the father gave advice contrary to the husband, the daughter always sided with ‘daddy’. All of that could have been avoided by the parent. The marriage ended in divorce. They had a child together, so now we have a family that is split. I could go on and on with more examples, but you get the gist.

Let me say this so no one will misconstrue what I am saying. If you know your adult child is being abused, by all means, step in. I have a 14-year-old daughter. When she becomes an adult she will be free to date and marry whomever she wishes with no unsolicited input from me. However, if her boyfriend and/or husband of choice manhandles her, I am getting involved for her safety. So I am not saying to overlook extremes. I am saying to let your adult children be adults.

I hope this has been informative. Please look for my other posts about relationships.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: How to deal with manipulative and lying mother as an adult daughter?

Answer: You may have to remove yourself from the relationship.

Question: Our adult daughter has chosen to live a different life style (gay). I as her mother don't have a problem with what she has chosen. I was and am very heartbroken the way I found out. Her father and I have been divorced for many years. I am curious and wondering if her father is aware of what our daughter has chosen. Should I contact her father to see if he is aware or what he thinks or feels about it?

Answer: I would not contact him. That is a personal decision on your daughter's part. I would leave it alone. I think it would be alright to ask her if she has told him, but I would not ask him. I see it as a boundary issue.

Question: Was I wrong in asking my 23-year-old son to move out if he wanted to see a married young lady with a child who said she filed for divorce 3 weeks ago?

Answer: If it violates your code of ethics or religious beliefs you have every right. Just understand the consequences.

Question: My daughter is 45 years old, bipolar, divorced 3 times from bad relationships. She always rushes into new relationships and has just told me she is getting married again. I have always picked her up in the past and I think she is making a mistake now. She has only been seeing this man 4 months. What should I say to her?

Answer: Just ask her if she has thought it through and leave it alone.

Question: I stopped talking, texting, or dropping by to my young adult children's houses, does that make me a bad parent because I am not willing to tolerate disrespect?

Answer: If they are being disrespectful you have every right to determine how to interact or not interact. You determine your boundaries.

Question: Our son’s girlfriend gets her feelings hurt about comments that are truthful. For example on a trip the mother and son took together, the son was on the phone with the girlfriend most of the time. When a comment was overheard staying he was on the phone with her a lot during the trip, she was offended. What should the mother do when the girlfriend gets angry or her feelings get hurt easily?

Answer: I am not sure there is anything she can do. In that situation she could have waited until the call was over and spoke to him about it. In other cases, a person needs to weigh out whether saying anything in a given moment is necessary. I suspect there is more going on with the girlfriend. Either she is very immature or there are other issues she is dealing with emotionally. How old is your son, and does he live at home? I would add that if he was on a trip with his mother to spend time with her then that should have been his focus. But, you can't dictate that either. These things are rarely easy.

Question: I was a terrible Mother, now I am estranged from my adult daughter. It is heartbreaking. I can find no help. Everything written is about good parents who are estranged. Surely bad parents need forgiveness. Are there any articles for bad parents?

Answer: I am sure there are articles for that. But, you have to realize in your situation that they have the right to not respond to you. Even a good parent can have that happen to them. I have seen it happen. You are dealing with another individual's will. They will have to make the decision to have a relationship with you. All you can do is apologize, ask for forgiveness, and show them you have changed.

Question: Would you step in if your 19 year old daughter began dating a 42 year old man who is a heavy drinker, drug pusher, and has 2 children with two different young women and fails to pay child support?

Answer: In that situation, I would speak up. The safety of your children is important regardless of age. Be prepared for some pushback though.

Question: I got in trouble some years back with drugs. Now anytime one of my daughters thinks I look high or acts funny they get together and decide that's what it is. I shut down because I've asked them to stop. I don't answer either way because they think they are right. How can I get them to stop?

Answer: The short answer is you can't. If they are violating boundaries you may have to limit your time around them. If they ask why, tell them. You determine your boundaries.

Question: What do you suggest when you have adult children and my husband is an enabler. He tells me one thing and does what the child wants and never backs me?

Answer: I would speak to him privately about it. If that doesn't work you may need to seek marital counseling.

Question: I struggle with my 19 year old daughter. She lives at home and we have basic house rules and chores she must do. She rarely engages or spends time with us, which I know is because she is 19 and living her life. But I’m struggling. I expect to know when she will be home and where she is and who she is with. I can’t seem to let it go and I lose so much sleep. Plus tension between her and I. Help me, please. How do I let this go?

Answer: I went through the same thing with my oldest. I never asked him who he was with or what he was doing as long as it didn't affect the whole family. I did have a midnight curfew because we worked early and didn't want to be woken up by someone coming in the house at all hours. If they weren't going to be home by midnight they had to find somewhere else to stay the night. It is a common courtesy for her to communicate whether she will be home or not. The rest of it simply is her business as long as it doesn't affect the family.

Question: Does my mother have the right to keep reminding me and reminding me over stupid things that I don't require being reminded upon for simple tasks (I understand that she likes cleanliness in the house, but am I the crazy one to keep asking her to stop giving me so many reminders about taking a shower even when I do do it on my own)?

Answer: If you live in her house, then yes. While it may be annoying that is just the fact. I would add that a little balance would be better. I had adult children who lived with me while going through school. My house, my rules. But I get where you are coming from.


rose on December 24, 2019:

I have adult children that don't speak to each other so when holidays come I don't know what to do if I invite one the other one wont come.

Randall Rittenberry (author) from Cookeville,TN on November 17, 2019:

Hmmm...on the surface, this seems like a very snarky comment. But, I also know that when communicating in text that tone can be lost. Would you care to elaborate? Are you dismissing what I am saying because of your perception of 'qualifications'? Are you using 'layperson' in a snide manner? Or, am I missing your intent here?

Karen on November 17, 2019:

Theology? So you have no pertinent qualifications. Thanks for your layperson opinion.

Sonia Rodriguez on May 23, 2019:

Just very curious if a parent has or should communicate with exhausband about their adult daughter's choice of being gay. I am a confused mother. I don't have a problem with my daughter choosing this life style. I am very heart broken the way I found out about this. I love my daughter dearly and would never jeopardize my relationship with my child.

NM on January 01, 2019:


I have read and understood all that you have said. I am just in a quandary, and I hope you won't mind giving me some advice. My daughter two years ago graduated with her Masters of Music in Operatic Performance. She has had my support since the age of 3 years beginning with her piano lessons then, Voice lessons starting at 10 years of age, member of a classically-trained performance group throughout her teen years, then her three degrees in music, followed by two trips to Italy where she performed the lead role in Young Artist operas and concert programs. The problem is now she is at a standstill and is not even singing anymore, but instead is working in a bowling alley. I understand and agree with all you are saying about letting adult children choose their own life, but for an artist who makes it, it is because they have experienced the support of their parents, and also with singing, the voice is not fully-developed until a singer's late 20s, early 30s.

I am writing this note to you to ask you how I can 'let go' of all this. Her first word was sung at 10 mos. of age, and this has been her dream her whole life, and now she is just letting it all die. I am heartbroken, and I don't know what to do about it. I try very hard to say very little, but I find this is next to impossible. 27 years of musical training seems to have now only been for an occasional 'singing in the shower'.

Please advise me. I would greatly appreciate learning how to move on from this great sadness, and accept her life choice. Thank you!

clare oregan on September 10, 2018:

I disagree whole heartedly.I have four adult children. Two live at home one with a baby.I am disgusted with their bickering when we are all together.There is always a blow up at xmas and easter.They are always positioning to be the most important.Lately their disparaging comments are misguidedly directed at me....Mom.My 21 year old who lives at home, said she is as equal to me in the family home yet she does not pay rent.The lady with the baby has taken me down with sarcastic comments like "Great Parenting".She also does not pay rent.I have an elderly father I look after and I babysit for my daughter while she is taking her drivers test with my car.I am so finished being a mother!!!!!!

Anthony.gus73 on September 02, 2018:

Randall. I must admit, when i first read this article i thought you missed something out, and not "just" referring to the "Learning To Let Go, Part 2"

It's about the "struggle" learning to grow up, and helping children become responsible people in adult life.

Maybe the reason they're not hearing this is because of the tendency to blame others and our resisting to grow up "which is part of the problem to begin with" but it is the job of the parents to help their children become independent and resposible, for that reason they will "always" blame the parents "untill" or "if" they grow up and become responsible in adulthood.

Anthony.gus73 on September 02, 2018:

Just read that "Learning To Let Go, Part 2"

Which answered my previous question.

Quote. Yours. "It seems they want independence and freedom, but they want Mom and Dad to foot the bill. If not in money, then in other ways"

So true. Also understand where the conflict comes from as well.

"Adult children, however, who assume that their parents own them help, without repayment, will always struggle when the parents don't give in. They will always feel less of a person, and then blame Mom and Dad" SO SO True :)

Wish some adult children could understand these things, but when they really do grow up, they will understand.

This and "Learning To Let Go, Part 2" are really good articles. Appreciate you writing them.

P.S. putting aside some genuine childhood traumas and abuses "some" aduld children may have experienced in life, the "Above" are issues they have to deal with in life anyway.

Anthony.gus73 on August 27, 2018:

Randall. Question.

Do you think adult children can also have faulty expectations of their parents ?

Bea on August 04, 2018:

I should add that my daughter is 28 and this has been going on for several years. It seems that as I begin to adjust having almost no relationship that I hear from her. She usually wants something from me (and I am not talking about emotional support) but "things." I have stopped reinforcing that behavior by listening to her wants and needs and sympathizing with her (about her stolen bike, inadequate tent needed for upcoming trip etc..) not offering to buy whatever she usually is asking for in a roundabout or manipulative way. She is planning on returning here for a wedding of a friend soon and as she will see or possibly stay with me, I imagine she will ask me to pay for her plane tickets. It's highly unlikely she would come visit me if I didn't offer to pay. The last time I did and she treated me like an annoyance at best while visiting, showed no consideration of what I might like to do and had high expectations that we do all that she wanted to do-after all- she came to visit me and acted as if she was doing me a favor. I normally love to see her but she treated me so poorly that I was relieved when the trip was over. Normally, I miss her when she leaves and need to readjust to a long and unknown period of not hearing from her for months. I feel like I finally begin to move forward, stop grieving the sense of loss so much and boom- she calls. It is an emotional roller coaster because as I said, contact is all one sided. It has become hard to reopen the wounds I feel but cannot express as she would surely say I was trying to make her feel guilty and not call again for many more months. I just want to heal. It feels like a death in a sense as the relationship was both ways until around college and beyond. I understand she has her own life and is busy. I am retired but try to keep busy with friends, volunteering etc... But I feel so depressed by the one sided relationship, feeling used and uncared about and loss of a once mutual relationship, where I could actually phone or contact her once in awhile. I stopped because she never responded. I told her that rather than call her knowing she's super busy, that she could call when she had time and felt like talking. In any case, it feels like a death in a sense, though she's alive because she rarely calls and is usually emotionally cold and distant. I have to be super careful with whatever I say because she misconstrues it and gets angry and gives me no opportunity to clarify her perceived affronts. I walk on eggshells and am tired of it. I love her so much but honestly, it seems less painful after not hearing from her for months and the pain reactivated with short, superficial calls in which it seems nearly impossible to not offend her-even then. As far as discussing her feelings or what might be bothering her (as it appears she is angry) she flat out will not respond or discuss. I did say some things that deeply offended her several years ago, have apologized, asked if there is anything I can do to attempt right things, asked her to please feel free to express her anger etc... She won't and seems to be using the past to punish me. I did overstep my bounds, did acknowledge and apologize but it seems that she cannot let go. She does bury and avoid difficult feelings whether with me or others and it has only gotten worse over the years. She cannot be wrong or apologize or take responsibility for her part in any faltering or failed relationships. She also has no problem just writing people out of her life and not always because they "wronged" her but she is busy with present relationships and drops people she was friends with for years when they are no longer near by. This has been an ongoing trend. Sorry for rambling so long but I am trying to give you some sense of the larger and longer situation. She admittedly keeps herself frantically busy and issues are not to be dealt with but avoided and stated as "drama" with whomever it might be. I am concerned by her seeming lack of empathy for people. She knows how to "act" but as her mother and having seen her real side (a distant memory it seems) she does not seem to feel much but plays the part as needed. I am not trying to be mean but she really does seem to discard an awful lot of people when they want more than she wants to give which sounds like basic reciprocal friendship.

Bea on August 04, 2018:

Randall, the post below is mine. Can you offer any advice?

bea on August 02, 2018:

I understand what you are saying and realize I have made mistakes with my adult daughter. She has distanced herself a great deal and despite my apologies she seems unable to discuss or forgive me. The problem is this. The relationship and any and all contact are 100 percent on her terms. She calls when she feels like it and months pass in between. She lives on the other side of the country and if she decides to visit here she tells me when. She has all the power and I can take or leave it, if I don't like the terms. It is not a relationship I would accept with others as it is completely one sided and I feel she abuses that power because she knows I miss her. I fear rightfully that it is her way or the highway and have begun to resent her attitude that she is doing me a favor rather than seeing me because she values the relationship. She asks me to pay for her flights if she visits and I doubt she'd come otherwise. So, would I have a relationship with this with a friend? No, but this is my daughter who I love and miss. I am having trouble accepting the completely one sided contact that she expects but will otherwise lose contact all together. I struggle with this because as I said,she is my daughter and I don't want to completely lose her but sometimes feel no contact would be better than on;y having contact on the infrequent basis she does with months passing without a word. I finally begin to adjust to the pain and grief of having so little a relationship, it being all about her needs and convenience and zero interest or concern for my life or wishes and need for a more balanced relationship. What's your advice. I feel deeply sad with the superficial and onesidedness, am I am tired of feeling used but the alternative is no contact.

Randall Rittenberry (author) from Cookeville,TN on July 28, 2018:

That is a tough one. I will tell you I spent the better part of a decade without much contact with my father. He was emotionally and verbally abusive. He called me one day out of the blue and asked why I never came around except for a couple of hours on Christmas. I bluntly told him why. We worked through it eventually. Sometimes it is for the best. While I can't tell you that it was the right choice as I don't know all the family dynamics, I can tell you that an unhealthy relationship are worse than no relationship. Did she ever say why she wouldn't allow