Navigating Conflict and Reconciliation with Adult Children: Practical Tips for Parents

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Posted: April 16, 2024

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Family Teen

The relationship between parents and children can be a source of joy and delight, and it can also be a source of tension, pain, and conflict. These relationships can become more challenging to navigate as children grow and develop into adulthood. If you are a parent of an adult child going through intense conflict or boundary violations within the parent/child relationship, this article is for you.

Many families experience ruptures as children reach adulthood or as adult children enter new developmental stages – graduation, college, entering the workforce, getting married, having kids of their own, and so on.

There have been many different initiating scenarios that play out in my office:

– “I just received a long letter from my son listing all of the things I did wrong as I was raising him.”

– “My child said they read “Boundaries” and now I am not going to get to see my grandchildren!”

– “My daughter’s therapist is telling her I am to blame for her anxiety and depression – and now she is so angry with me.”

– “He won’t talk to me! I don’t understand why my son is completely shutting me out.”

Conflict between parents and adult children is heartbreaking. Feelings of hurt and being unheard can lead to distance, explosions, and even complete cut offs in communication and relationship. In this article, I am offering practical tips and strategies to have difficult conversations – conversations about boundary violations, past wounds, and the future of the relationship. It is important for you to know that these situations are difficult, this path is hard – but there is hope. There is hope for your family, and hope for restoration of your relationships.

It is normal to experience many emotions at the same time.

Shock. I never thought this would happen to me and my children. I cannot believe this is happening right now.

Fear. Will I ever be able to have a healthy relationship with my child? Am I going to lose access to my grandchildren? Am I always going to feel like I am walking on eggshells in order to maintain a relationship with my child? I’m scared I’m going to lose everything.

Anger. Is it fair for my child to blame me for his/her mental health issues? I was not perfect but I did the best I could! Why can’t we just talk this through – why do we need to take “space”? I sacrificed so much for my children, and now they are treating me like I was a horrible parent – it’s not fair. I’m not the only one who messed up here!

Sadness. It hurts to know I may have hurt my child. I wish things could have been different. How did we get to the point where we can’t just talk about this? This is not the child I remember.

Hopelessness. What else can I do or say?I can’t go back and change how I parented – it’s the past. There’s nothing I can say or do to change their minds. I guess it is what it is.

It can be challenging to know how to respond or what to do in these situations. To illustrate this, let’s examine a common scenario and explore potential strategies to manage it. First, we’ll delve into common pitfalls, followed by strategies for cultivating a more constructive mindset, and finally, I’ll offer practical guidance for navigating these challenging conversations.

Judy (55 yrs old) recently received a letter from Melinda, her 25 year old daughter. Melinda has stated that Judy mistreated Melinda many times as a child. She outlines and provides several examples where she felt uncared for, yelled at, and hurt by Judy. She goes on to describe how Judy’s “mistreatment” and “poor parenting” have impacted Melinda – she has depression, she struggles with her self-esteem, she struggles to trust other people, and feels she has to constantly work to earn other peoples’ approval, just like she always had to work so hard to try to win her mother’s.

Now Judy is feeling shocked, sad, upset, angry, helpless, scared, stuck – any number of things – and all of these responses are normal. This hurts.


Common Pitfalls


Deny the accusations. 

  • In listening to your adult child, you may find yourself 100% disagreeing with what is being described. You do not remember the events in question, or you do remember the events and know they did not occur the way your child is describing them.
  • This can be made more complicated when words such as “abuse” or “neglect” are used. Perhaps even phrases such as, “I didn’t feel loved by you” or “I felt unsafe with you, I always walked on eggshells.” These are heavy statements, and can leave you, as the parent, feeling incredibly hurt. It is normal to have the thought, “How can my child think this of me? My child views me as a monster.”
  • Intention: Separate truth from lies. Correct your adult child’s misremembering, and so decrease the distress and hurt. Protect your reputation.
  • How it can come across to your child: You are not listening to me. You are invalidating what I am saying – which just proves I cannot come to you with things. Now I need to defend my side, and/or share more examples – because you are denying it.

Explain your side. 

  • On the surface, this can seem like the most logical next step. Your child has had the opportunity to state how she/he experienced these interactions from the past, and has had the chance to share his/her “side.” It is only fair for you to have the same opportunity, right? This is made even more complex when we consider that perhaps many of the incidents happened while your son/daughter was a child. You lived through these experiences as an adult, and so perhaps there are pieces of the story you can offer to your child – pieces that your child would not have known or understood when young.
  • The intention: provide nuance, share your side, provide a logical/reasonable explanation for the situation and/or your response. Give your child a wider perspective that allows your child to see how you love and care for them.
  • How it can come across to the adult child: You don’t believe me. You are not taking responsibility for the hurt you caused. You don’t get it. You are not taking this seriously.

Say “sorry” for everything right away. 

  • This can also feel like a logical next step. Your child is saying you hurt them emotionally, made mistakes – so you will just apologize for it all. There is not a lot you can do outside of apologizing anyway – it is in the past, right? You do not want to come across as not taking responsibility for what happened, so you will just take responsibility for it all.
  • The intention: Nip this situation in the bud, so it does not grow into a massive situation. Say what your child needs to hear so you can heal and move on. Seek to maintain the relationship as much as possible.
  • How it can come across to the adult child: You don’t want to talk about this. You’re just saying sorry so I will be quiet. You don’t mean it. You don’t fully understand what you are apologizing for or how deeply your actions have impacted me.


A More Healthy Mindset:


  • Pray for a soft heart for self and all involved. These situations can be exhausting, draining, and disheartening. Be faithful in praying for your child in the midst of the grief, the shock, the anger, and the hurt. Pray for wisdom and clarity for everyone involved.
  • Dwell on Scripture. Meditate and memorize passages that remind you of God’s presence with you, the attitude of Christ in times of suffering and accusation, and know that you have the opportunity to model and demonstrate the love of Christ to your family.
  • Ground yourself in reality and humility. In many cases, your child will bring memories to you that do not align with what you remember. Lead with humility knowing that human memory is flawed – as humans, both you and your child will not be able to perfectly remember a situation. Additionally, we are not able to perfectly know what was in the heart and mind of all involved in the moment. In the vast majority of situations, getting into a debate about what events occurred will not be helpful.
  • Shoot for understanding, not agreement. You do not need to agree with your child in order to understand your child. Initially, your priority needs to be helping your child feel understood. Often, understanding is a prerequisite for reaching a place of agreement or peace. Your child needs to know you understand and needs to feel you understand what he/she is saying.


Practical Tips for Having a Productive Conversation:


Set up clear boundaries and expectations for the conversation. 

Be intentional in choosing a good time and place for the discussion to take place. The hope is to engage in a meaningful and productive conversation with your adult child, and this deserves some extra attention.

  • Determine the timing of the conversation by scheduling a specific date and time that works for all parties. Allot a specific amount of time for this conversation so you and your child are not having to “watch the clock.” It is okay to have a firm cut off time for the conversation – particularly if there is a possibility the discussion could get heated.
  • Think about the location. It is important to consider whether a public setting (like a restaurant, park, or coffee shop) or a private setting (such as your own home or your child’s residence) feels more conducive to a healing, safe conversation.

Take breaks as needed. 

Inform your adult child at the beginning of the conversation that you want him/her to feel free to take a break to regroup at any point during the conversation and give yourself permission to do the same. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with sadness, fear, or a sense of unease, do not hesitate to request a short pause. This will allow you to regain your composure and fully engage in the discussion, and it communicates how much you value creating a space that is emotionally safe for you and your child.

  • “I can feel myself becoming sad/afraid/dysregulated, can we take a 5 minute break, because I really want to be fully present. I want to understand.”

Ask open-ended questions. 

As much as possible, try to ask questions that invite your child to share more about his/her experiences. When your adult child expresses a feeling or a thought that stands out to you, seek further understanding by asking follow-up questions that demonstrate genuine curiosity.

  • “When you say _________, can you tell me more about that?”
  • “I really want to understand what you are describing – can you give me an example of what this looks like or sounds like?”

Validate often.

Validation is not agreement. There may be times you do not agree with your adult child’s assessment of you, your actions, or their own experiences. Offering validation is a way of saying that you are trying to see things from the perspective of your adult child. It does not equate to agreeing that your adult child is “right.” Validating can go a long way in helping your child feel understood and like you care about his/her perspective.

  • “That makes sense.”
  • “I can see how that would make you feel _____.”
  • “I had not thought about this in that way before.”

Take ownership for the parts that are yours to own. 

You do not have to own everything, but I do encourage you to be looking for parts that you can genuinely own. Be quick to take responsibility for your own actions and words. You are not only demonstrating humility, you are also leading by example. It can be powerful to model how to graciously and humbly admit mistakes or acknowledge times your own emotions influenced your behavior. Making mistakes is a universal human experience. It can be helpful for adult children to see parents take ownership and apologize authentically.

  • “You’re right. I should not have said/done ______.”
  • “I agree, I took my own stuff out on you and that was not fair.”
  • “Knowing what I know now, I agree that I should not have handled the situation that way.”
  • “I am sorry – I can see how much this hurt you.”

Check in with your child often throughout the conversation.

It is important during this discussion to check in with your adult child to ensure mutual understanding. When you speak, do not assume that is making its way through to your child. Try to ask follow up questions to get your child’s feedback on how they are feeling. Offering understanding and validation does no good if your adult child does not actually feel understood and validated.

  • “I want to understand, can you help me?”
  • “Is this what you are saying?”
  • “Am I getting it?”
  • “Do you feel like I am understanding you?”
  • “What am I still missing?”

Express gratitude. 

Thank your child for being willing to engage in this conversation with you. Let them know that you appreciate their engagement. When your adult child is choosing to be open and honest with you, expressing gratitude can be a way of positively reinforcing this behavior. We want the relationship to move in a direction of openness, honesty, and trust.

  • “Thank you for telling me this.”
  • “I appreciate your willingness to talk through this with me.”
  • “I’m grateful you are sharing this hurt with me now.”
  • “I know this has been hard – thank you for sharing your perspective with me.”

Ask your child before sharing your perspective. 

Before sharing your viewpoint with your adult child, ask for permission. This can be helpful by actually getting your child’s “buy in” before you share. It gives them a few seconds to prepare themselves. It also requires your adult child to explicitly state he/she is ready for you to share.

  • Example wording: “Would now be a good time for me to share what was happening on my side in that situation?” “Do you mind if I share my perspective on that with you?”


Final Thoughts


I want you to know you are not alone. Parents and adult children having conflict is not new, and you are not the only family experiencing this. Conflict between parents and adult children has become a regular theme in my counseling office, and in the world at large.  I regularly hear family members expressing shock, anger, sadness, fear about being in this situation. It can be confusing and so painful for all parties involved, but reconciliation can still be possible.

It is my hope that these practical tips help you feel empowered to engage in these challenging conversations and discussions with your adult children. Reconciliation is hard work. Many families find it helpful to bring a knowledgeable, experienced counselor into the fray to help bring clarity and renewed connection. It is not easy to repair relationships – and there are no guarantees that complete restoration will be reached. Repair will take effort and willingness from all parties involved. My prayer is that you show up well – as the person you believe you are called to be.

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