How to fix a relationship with your adult child

By Jon Williams
Hurts from childhood can carry into an adult child's relationship with her parent.

“Children have more need of models than of critics,” offers author Carolyn Coats. No matter the age of your child, you are still the parent and he is still the child. When you interact, the parent-child relationship that has unfolded across your lifetime instantaneously re-emerges. When your relationship with your adult child is damaged, the weight of your history can sabotage your attempts to reconcile and move ahead. To repair this relationship, you must take the lead and demonstrate through your actions that love is still the glue that binds you and your family together, and rationality is the vehicle that moves you forward. You must show your child how to make things better.

Look within yourself to identify your own feelings, positive and negative, about your child.

Look within yourself to identify your own feelings, positive and negative, about your child. If you resent your child for her past behavior, figure out what you must do to protect yourself from further hurt. If the problem behavior that has caused pain in the past persists in the present, figure out how to set limits to stop the pattern from repeating itself. For example, if your child continuously borrows money and never pays it back or if she is openly disrespectful, then you must identify strategies to stop this behavior from causing further damage to your relationship.

. Examine who said what and how the sequence of statements, reactions and counter-reactions escalated.

Review the emotions you experience during interactions with your child. When an interaction goes bad, do a postmortem. As you do this, do not simply fan the flames of your hurt and anger, but look as objectively as possible at the dynamics. Examine who said what and how the sequence of statements, reactions and counter-reactions escalated into a counterproductive interaction.

Explore alternative ways of responding to your child that can lead you toward better outcomes.

Explore alternative ways of responding to your child that can lead you toward better outcomes. Respond in ways that elicit empathy or that focus on conciliation and resolving problems rather than saying things that are more likely to trigger an angry reaction. For example, if your child says something disrespectful or hurtful, instead of getting angry and firing back, try expressing your feelings of hurt or feelings of sadness over the effect your child’s grievance has on your relationship. You can say, “It hurts me when you call me names and it doesn’t help make things better,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way and want to figure out what we each can do to make things better.”

Listen to your child.

Listen to your child. Take on the difficult task of setting aside your defenses and seeing your relationship through your child’s eyes. Convey and confirm that you understand how and why he feels the way he does. Use empathy, validation and active listening strategies such as repeating or reflecting back what he says. The goal here is to enhance your understanding and also let your child see and feel that you understand his perspective.

Seek help sorting through these complicated issues. Talk with a trusted friend, relative or a counselor, to get an objective, outside perspective on ways to let go of past hurts and deal effectively with ongoing issues.

Forgive your child for her all-too-human errors. Eliminate the concept of blame from your thinking. Do not be afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” Recognize your human limits, frailties and contributions to past problems. To admit error is not an admission of blame for all the problems. Say, “I’m sorry you were hurt,” or “I’m sorry how things turned out.” Recognize that both you and your child are flawed human beings trying to lead a happy, productive life but who both making plenty of mistakes along the way. Cultivate your love and caring for each other as a potent tool in your efforts to fix what ails your relationship.

About the Author

Jon Williams is a clinical psychologist and freelance writer. He has performed, presented and published research on a variety of psychological and physical health issues.