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How to Deal with a Disrespectful Grown Child

Being a parent is difficult and complicated. On top of parenting being a full-time job, it costs an estimated quarter of a million dollars to raise each child to the age of eighteen. We dedicate ourselves to keeping our children safe and healthy for nearly two decades—a huge feat in this crazy world. Even after they’ve grown up, we have heartstrings connected to them 24/7, no matter where they live or what they’re doing.

It can really hurt when we unexpectedly find our adult child disrespecting us or our relationships with our children strained. Do you think to yourself, "Why is my grown son so mean to me?" or "Why is my grown daughter so disrespectful to me?" Or are you feeling "used" by your children? Perhaps, it feels like they only communicate when they need something. When you have disrespectful grown children, it can be painful and discouraging.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

A grown daughter ignoring her mother disrespectfully

Grown Children Disrespecting Parents—What's Up with Disrespectful Behavior!?

You’ve done your best as a parent. Maybe you’ve made a few mistakes; perhaps you didn’t have great parenting yourself. Nonetheless, you loved and still love them, and your children know that.

You believe that you taught the importance of respect throughout their developmental years, too. But then you find yourself the target of your grown child’s anger, snide remarks, entitlement, and disrespect. Ouch.

Unconditional love says I love you no matter how you behave, even with grown children.

So how do you hold your adult child accountable to be loving while also letting them know how much you care?

As parents, with everything we’ve given to our children over the years, it can feel like the least we can expect is a little respect, right? And it can even feel like our child only comes calls or visits when they "want" something. Yep, we can feel used by our daughter or son.

A reasonable expectation, no matter how flawed. Why is it a faulty expectation? Because parents are meant to be a safe zone. We are a secure place for our children to erupt because they know we’ll always love them. This understanding doesn’t mean disrespect and angry zingers feel good on the receiving end. Nor does it mean that the behavior is acceptable; it is, however, understandable.

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First off, remember that just because your grown child is acting disrespectful, or perhaps having an off day, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong as a parent.

Nothing gives them the right to mistreat you. Respect is non-negotiable. All disrespect requires healthy boundaries, yet, if they’re disrespectful in young adulthood, there can be a multitude of reasons. It’s best to seek to understand their disrespect and have an open and honest conversation with them. Your desire to make sense of your relationship now is probably what brought you here, right?

Related reading: "How to Effectively Respond to Disrespectful Stepchildren in a Blended Family."

Young man angrily shutting out his father

Reasons Why Grown Children Are Disrespectful to Their Parents

Before we get into how to deal with disrespect in your parenting, or perhaps even anger, let’s explore some possible reasons for your grown child’s behavior:

  • Living on their own is much harder than they thought it would be, and they resent you for not preparing them better.
  • They never learned how to regulate themselves or process emotions adequately.
  • They’re being treated disrespectfully at work and are taking it out on you—a cry for help.
  • They’re overwhelmed with big feelings, and you’re a safe space for them to vent.
  • The pain from the divorce of their parents left them feeling hurt, confused, and angry. Or being part of a blended family is overwhelming, and they need help.
  • Disrespect is more comfortable than engaging in challenging and necessary conversations.
  • Something is bothering your adult child, but they haven’t acknowledged it. Or something happened that upset your adult child, and they don’t know how to deal with it. Disrespect can be an S.O.S.
  • They want to talk to you about a vulnerable feeling, yet they don’t know how to broach the subject.
  • As adults, they’ve realized some of their unresolved pain or emotions stem from things you did and said or didn’t do or say.
  • You're coddling your adult child, or they were pampered as children. creating an unrealistic view of the world and they’re angry that they don’t get coddled anymore.
  • Your grown child is a parent him or herself and overwhelmed with life and could be struggling with mental health issues.
  • It's possibly they have 
  • They feel criticized or judged by you, and disrespectful behavior is their armor.
  • They felt controlled as a child, and now as an adult, you can no longer control them.

My point is that there are as many reasons as there are cornstalks in an Iowa cornfield. Each parent-child relationship is unique and parenting your adult child will depend on many things. Every upbringing is different, and no solution is one-size-fits-all. So be patient with yourself and in the parent-child relationship.

Regardless, disrespect is a red flag. When disrespectful adult children are causing heartache, it tells us as parents that something is needed, like a boundary or a heart-to-heart conversation.

Listen to Jennifer's podcast on Bite Your Tongue unpacking how to respond to disrespectful adult children and how to develop a healthy relationship.An argument between a mother and grown daughter

All Behavior Is Communication! What Is Your Grown Child Trying to Communicate?

Have you ever thought of behavior simply as communication?

It is beneficial to ask yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me through their behavior?”

All behavior is communication.

"Bad behavior" or “misbehavior” is primarily driven by unmet needs, lack of skill, and unprocessed emotion or pain. From this viewpoint, as parents, we can take a step back and get curious, even when we feel insulted by our children’s behavior. Releasing judgment and looking at your child’s behavior in new ways will increase compassion and empathy. And when necessary, boundaries may be necessary, too.

Often, our adult children are a mirror of our collective investment in the relationship or lack thereof. Relationship health is always at risk if we do not honor, nurture, and fertilize it with love and respect. How do you win back respect from your grown children if it's been lost?

Perhaps you might even feel your disrespectful grown child owes you an apology and you're stuck in a stalemate. Deal with a disrespectful behavior, such as not returning phone calls, while also seeking to understand their perspective.

It can be a stark realization if we find out that our relationship isn’t as strong or healthy as we once thought, and it’s not what we desire it to be either. Every parent wants to stay connected and have a great relationship with their kids, no matter how old they are.

However, when our children are young adults, they expect the same respect anyone would require. If you want adult kids to respond to you lovingly or desire to spend time with you, it may be necessary to let go of unrealistic expectations and have an open and honest conversation. Negative emotions in you or your grown child are a symptom of unresolved hurt or pain. Letting them know you care about their feelings and well being can make a big difference.

Modeling healthy communication is key; you're still their parent. One thing is for sure, reciprocity and mutual respect are required.

Food for thought: "The Best Way for Adult Children and Parents to Communicate."

How to Parent Grown Children: Three Critical Actions to Eliminate Disrespect

Now, let’s turn our attention to solutions.

What can you do to shift the disrespect, heal, and increase greater understanding and closeness in the relationship? Making a conscious effort in the relationship can go a long way to resolution.

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ACTION 1: Seek to understand.

Find out what’s going on with your child and what your child feels. Choose a good time to talk. Tell them what you feel and how their disrespect affects you. Don’t try to address an issue on the fly, with divided attention, or when you’re already stressed. It’s essential to pick a time that supports success.

Related reading: "5 Parenting Tips to Successfully Deal with Disrespectful Adult Children."

Many parents I've worked with have a difficult time having a tough conversation with their children. They say that they are defensive and reactive, especially when their adult children express anger. It's possible that a pattern has formed and they think you're going to criticize them. Below are some openers that may help.

Icebreakers to Try

  • “You may not realize how you hurt my feelings yesterday. Have I done something to upset you?”

  • “I’d like to talk to you about something bothering me. Is now a good time?”

  • “It’s so unlike you to be disrespectful. Is something wrong?”

Responses, expectations, and behaviors to avoid:

  • Name calling.
  • Broken promises and empty words.
  • Harsh criticism.
  • Saying hurtful things you might regret.
  • Enabling your adult children financially, especially if they have an unhealthy addiction.
  • Tolerating abusive treatment
  • Expecting change overnight.

Son helping his father with technology
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ACTION 2: Repair the relationship if your child
feels hurt by something you did.

Most situations can move from strife and tension to closeness and understanding if we are willing to be open and lean into discomfort. You must lead the way to repair hurt and restore closeness.

When a parent takes responsibility for their part in a relation-SHIFT, it usually inspires the child to own their part. What you’ll often receive is a voluntary apology for their disrespect.

However, the more strained your relationship is, the more empathy and understanding you’ll need to provide when confronting disrespect. And sometimes, when there is deep hurt, you may have to keep trying repeatedly before they trust your gestures as sincere.

How Do We Repair Trust in a Relationship?

  • First, admit your part as you see it. Answer your child’s questions honestly without defensiveness. (If you’re too upset, take a moment to self-calm and get in touch with what you love about your child before discussing further.)

  • Next, empathize with how your action may have felt to your child.

  • Then, ask what they would like in the future and if there is anything else that they need to restore the safety and trust between you moving forward. Apologize and commit to doing things differently next time.
The best way to teach a child respect is by modeling it—even when it’s challenging to do so.

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Related reading:
"How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"

Empathy is a BIG key to healing relationships and resolving conflicts that seem insurmountable. One mother even said that what she learned saved her relationship with her daughter.

Learn and avoid feeling stoppers that block authentic communication. Check out our empathy workbook.

Mother empathizing with her overwhelmed daughterArrow with HRT colors_Compressed

ACTION 3:  Set a healthy boundary for disrespect
with your grown child.

A crucial action for any relationship is self-advocacy. It is not kind to us if we allow disrespect; therefore, we must set a boundary if we want a different result. Whatever we tolerate will continue. And think about it: It’s also not kind to our children to allow them to disrespect us because it teaches them it’s acceptable.

When our child disrespects us, it is our responsibility as a parent to hold them accountable to be better. We can understand and empathize as a precursor, yet we must help them understand their impact and help them communicate in respectful ways.

Deep dive: "How to Set Firm, Healthy, and Loving Boundaries for Family."

Disrespect causes static in any relationship, especially with those we love. Whatever way you decide to handle your grown child’s insolence, lead with love and empathy.

Your relationship with your child is precious, and they are now adults. Give them the respect you want in return.

If you'd like to develop better boundaries, try out our online mini-course.

Yes, help me set better boundaries

Contact us for personalized advice for parents of adult children—Heartmanity specializes in conflict resolution, relationship building, and skill mastery.

If you'd like parent coaching with a disrespectful grown child or other behavioral challenges at any age, email support@Heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting, Most Popular

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