Nine essential elements for a good relationship with your adult children

Our interaction is complex and ever-changing as helpless infants mature into adults and parents grow old and need help

One reward for 18 years’ hard labour as a parent should be, all going well, an altered but joyful and loving relationship with the adult you raised. But it’s not a given nor an entitlement and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Just as we never stop being a parent, so your offspring carry their childhood into adulthood. There will be no getting away from the past but the relationship has to adapt if it is to enter a new phase of mutual respect and love.

Here four psychotherapists, all parents themselves, offer their advice on nine essential elements for a good relationship with your adult children:

1. Solid foundation

If you get the foundations right through your parenting, you set up yourself and your children for such a happy life, asserts Richard Hogan, a family psychotherapist and clinical director of the Therapy Institute. Of course, you’ll make mistakes but a big one to avoid is putting yourself in a “heroic place” in your children’s lives, by rescuing them all the time from situations they need to learn to sort themselves, albeit with parental support.


“It causes huge problems and I meet it all the time,” he says. “I meet adults who find it impossible to navigate the adult world because they have the unrealistic expectation that things will suit them, things will mould around them. Not a good message to give your kids.

“I do think what you reap you sow with your children but of course you can put an awful lot of energy into children and they can have difficulties. Children can be very selfish and it’s very frustrating for parents, after all they have put into them, to see them so self-consumed and their maturation levels may be delayed for whatever reason.”

Right now missed milestones during the Covid-19 pandemic could be one reason. Professionals have reported seeing delays in children’s development at all ages.

We have to make allowances for a little bit more immaturity in our young adults, says Donna McArdle, counsellor and psychotherapist with Mind & Body Works, but “still recognise that this person, chronologically, legally is an adult and we have to stop treating them like children”.

2. Making the transition

If parents struggle with a sense of loss as their once-adoring child pulls away in their teenage years, Hogan encourages them to regard it as “being together differently”. But it’s “hands off” at adulthood.

“It has to be because your job as a parent is to send your children out into the world functioning,” says Hogan. “If there is enmeshment, over-reliance on the parent identity, you have crippled your child in a number of ways. It can be difficult for parents to separate out themselves from their children but it is vitally important. We’re always their support system – but the difference is they come to us and we’re there as a resource for them.”

This natural separation is hampered by continuing to live under the same roof, as extended education and lack of affordable accommodation contribute to the prolonging of adolescence. It may not be an ideal mix of housemates. “Parents are trying to live a nice quiet life at that point and the kids are just striking out in the world,” says Hogan.

You meet parents who are just too involved in their adult child’s life, says McArdle. Young people won’t develop emotional intelligence and become streetwise if mum and dad are still solving their problems. “It’s not about not caring; it’s a matter of it’s not your business.”

Your job as a parent is in essence done, she says, even if you are still living with your now adult child. If you don’t negotiate new boundaries, “they will continue on in that childhood space, which isn’t doing them or their parents any favours”.

3. Boundaries

It’s hard for parents to put in new boundaries, McArdle acknowledges, “but in order for it to work with adult children, it is necessary”. Adults living at home longer is causing stress both for young people and their parents but “it is what it is and we do have to try to adapt to it”.

She believes there have to be rules for there to be respect and that there have to be financial contributions and sharing of chores. But she doesn’t advocate a rigid, “under our roof, follow our rules” approach. Be open-minded, it is a different generation.

“It is about sharing wisdom/advice without dictating. That is the piece I think parents struggle with.” We need to respect the differences in the two generations, to connect without conflict.

The question of adult children having sexual partners in the house overnight can be a flashpoint. As long as it’s not a different person every night, we need to be open to having their “significant other” around, says McArdle. This person is an important part of their lives and they don’t have anywhere else to go.

“I think that is part of the adaptation process that has to take place.” It’s trying to find out what everybody is comfortable with, which will be different for individual families. Don’t think that it will take just one talk and one plan for this new stage of cohabitation. There has to be flexibility but in terms that are acceptable to everyone, so keep the communication open.

“Adult children, because of that emotional attachment, will regress every now and again,” she says. Don’t get resentful, discuss it. The arrival of grandchildren, ideally when your adult children have been able to set up home elsewhere, is likely to herald another significant shift in the relationship. Adult children may expect too much from their parents at this stage, whether it’s minding grandchildren or even helping out with expenses.

“Negotiate what you will do and make clear what you won’t do and then there is no ambiguity and everybody knows where they stand,” says Louise Kervick, an adolescent psychotherapist with Arduna counselling and psychotherapy centre in Dublin. “We all need our personal boundaries; don’t be doing things you don’t want to do. Martyrdom is not a good look.”

McArdle sees grandparents being taken advantage of “but in ways whose fault is that? I ask that question because something has been created in the dynamic of that relationship which allows it to happen.” If you’re happy doing it, that’s grand, but if you’re not, yet still doing it, “something has gone wrong with your boundaries”.

4. Awareness

Awareness is everything, if you’re going to have the best possible relationship with your adult children, says Kervick. Self-awareness and awareness of the adults your children have become.

“Some people have great awareness and some people really have none,” she remarks. Tune into your adult child through active listening, “not coming in with your viewpoint and judgment, this is where family dynamics can be toxic”.

Kervick used to work with the suicide-prevention charity Pieta and saw that, in many cases, the trauma went back to childhood and they hadn’t had the chance to process that or make meaning of it.

“It is not what happens to you, it is the meaning you make from the event. That meaning can be very unhelpful and continue to have hugely detrimental influences on your life. If a child has something that’s still stuck, it will come up in the relationship.”

If the parent shuts that down, being unable or unwilling to recognise it, the relationship will suffer. It may be a long-held suspicion that you favoured a sibling, or that in a moment of anger you called them a “waster” and they’ve never forgotten. You need self-awareness to cope with “empty nest syndrome” and not lean on your emerging adult children for company or emotional support, as they have their own busy lives to lead and significant relationships to form.

“If your child is resilient, able to be in the world and not need you on the basis they used to need you – you’ve done your job,” adds Kervick. “Well done you.”

5. Acceptance

Acceptance has a big role to play, says psychotherapist Tom Fitzpatrick of Access Counselling – both of the path our children take in adulthood and our own parenting in the past. We’re not perfect, we will have made mistakes along the way. We also need to accept the choices that our adult children make.

“We might have expectations of them to follow through what they went to college to do and they might decide that’s not for them. We don’t want to tell them what to do at that age. We want to be there listening to them.” Your offspring’s sexual orientation or gender identity may not be what you had envisaged either, but that too needs to be accepted without judgment.

6. Friendship

When children are young, we’re often reminded it’s a mistake to act like their friend rather than their parent. But Fitzpatrick believes “friendship is key” as they move into adulthood, “finding that common ground”. By then, “they are who they are, to a degree”.

As a father, he’s in that phase of readjustment with his 21-year-old son. There are some things his son does now that he wouldn’t agree with, he says, “but it’s about working on that relationship”. They go, for instance, to the cinema together.

“It’s important in those moments not to turn it into me lecturing him about what’s he’s doing and not doing right – it’s important to have that friendship.” You want to be there as a sounding board, listening, so they can come and talk to you.

You need to be prepared to enter their world and understand what they’re interested in. You might watch TV programmes that you know they watch to help find some common ground. But “you can’t force it, either”.

7. Listening

McArdle believes that younger adults can struggle with being heard properly. Parents are inclined to jump in and criticise, she suggests, too quick with an “in our day.…” or some unhelpful judgment.

“We have to listen. This is another generation with a different set of values and a different life experience. It doesn’t mean their intention is to disrespect us. Listening is so important but sometimes it can be hard to do.”

Holding your tongue is never more important than when it comes to their choice of partners.

You might think you have a sense that they’re not right for them, says Fitzpatrick, but the reality is no matter what you say, they are going to make their own choices. We all want our offspring to have a healthy relationship, and while they may be in one that we find difficult to take, “there will be a lot in that relationship that we don’t see”, he points out.

Give advice if they seek it, but make no disparaging comments, even if the relationship has broken down. You never know if they might get together again. If you suspect all is not well, always explore with questions, says Hogan, such as “how is the relationship going?” Language matters and “do you worry about her drinking?” is a better tack than “she’s a crazy alcoholic”.

8. Unconditional love

Parental love is not about condoning bad behaviour but our adult offspring do need to feel accepted, says McArdle, even if they mess up. “It is such a secure feeling – that they are loved unconditionally, not performance-based.” The latter causes awful pressure and low self-esteem in people.

Parents may have the best of intentions in wanting their children to do well “but sometimes it is driven by anxieties within themselves and it can create that feeling of conditioned love – ‘I have to perform in a certain way to be loved’.”

She believes children don’t owe their parents anything. “We decide to bring children into the world. They don’t have a responsibility to us; we do have a responsibility to them, until they are an adult.” But the point at which that happens becomes muddied when they’re still living at home and “that is where the struggle is happening”.

9. Hope

If you are having severe difficulties right now in your relationship with an adult child, don’t lose hope. You have to be optimistic that the work you have done in the past means there is a lot of strength in the relationship, says Fitzpatrick. “You can have difficulties and they can last for a while but you can come through that.” Always keep the door open, he suggests. If an adult son or daughter is refusing to see you, for whatever reason, maybe write them the occasional letter. Sometimes, he says, it is the parents who have to cut adult children out of their lives, because of the choices they are making, such as severe drug use. They might think they can’t have that person in their lives any more, until the behaviour changes, because the alternative is chaos.

It’s awful when there is no contact at all, says McArdle, “such a waste of life’s energy”. Family therapy can help in those situations “but you have to get the people in there first”.

Hogan works with families where there has been huge conflict and some members may not have talked for years. “In my experience, it’s usually down to drug use, alcoholism or the kid has done something that the parents have profoundly struggled with and both of them pull away from each other and eventually they come back together.”

Generally, the move to mend ruptured relationships comes when the young adult starts to change their perspective. “When you mature and realise your parents aren’t always going to be around and that they are people and that maybe they weren’t great at parenting but they tried their best.”

Seniorline: A service to help parents grappling with loneliness and family conflict

Loneliness is the primary reason for the majority of the 20,000 calls made annually to Seniorline, a national listening service run by Third Age.

Family issues and conflict are so often part of the back story, as Anne Dempsey, communications manager and training facilitator with the charity, explains. There’s a generation whose adult children emigrated during the downturn of the 1980s and now the grandchildren live abroad.

“Sometimes those children are stuck at a younger age in the parent’s mind because they have had limited interaction,” she observes. They don’t see the grandchildren and have no relationship with them because they don’t do digital communication. “It’s a big loss.”

The other extreme is older parents feeling they are being taken for granted, whether it’s financially or minding grandchildren. Third Age sees “ageism” affecting every layer of society. Younger people who are roping in parents for childcare may be inclined to think “should what would they be doing anyway – and don’t they love them?”.

At the darker end, says Dempsey, they find domestic abuse leads to elder abuse. They get calls from mothers, and sometimes fathers, who are being abused by their adult daughters or sons. “When you go back on the family history, it’s clear it’s learned behaviour.” But they hear plenty of uplifting stories too about the best of relationships between older people and their adult children. Speaking as an older parent herself, Dempsey says the shifts in dynamics are gradual, “subtle, day by day. You don’t realise it is changing until it’s changed. Then it flips and they’re minding you if you need it.”

“It’s lovely to see how your children turn out, to see the gifts and the skills,” she adds. “And they can be really good company.”

Seniorline on 1800 80 45 91 operates every day, 10am to 10pm.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting