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How to Have More Mature Parent-Child Relationships

adult children boundaries communication confrontation difficult conversations emotional maturity family dynamics parent-child relationships personal growth relationships May 01, 2024


Recently, a woman in her fifties approached me. "I have a problem with my mother," she said. "She calls me all the time, sometimes more than once a day, and it's very inconvenient for me."

I asked what she'd like to be different. She said she wanted to talk to her mother 2-3 times per week, which still seemed quite generous. But when I asked if she had told her mother this, she looked shocked. "No, no! I couldn't tell her that this is a problem. She would be upset."

In that moment, I could see the scared little girl in her eyes. She was trapped in her past, terrified of upsetting her mother. At all costs, the rule was: don't upset Mom.

I realized there was little more I could do to help her in our brief interaction. She needed to work through her anxiety and fear of confronting her mother before she could have a healthy, adult conversation about the issue. Her inner child was preventing her from setting a much-needed boundary.

A Turning of the Tables

Confronting a parent is probably the most complex of all interpersonal boundaries. The parent-child relationship has a long history – they cared for you, taught you, corrected you. You depended on them. Now, as an adult, the tables turn. You're suddenly in a position to do the correcting and confronting. Even when it goes well, it can feel strange and uncomfortable. When it goes poorly, it can be disastrous.

Yet these boundary conversations with parents are crucial. Speaking the truth in love to each other, as Ephesians 4:15 instructs, includes our parents. They need honest feedback just like anyone else. In fact, as someone who knows and loves them, you may be uniquely qualified to help them grow.

The key is to approach the conversation with wisdom, coming from a place of love rather than unmet childhood needs. You're not looking for them to re-parent you or give you what you didn't get in the past. You're an adult now, taking responsibility for getting your own needs met. The goal is to speak truth that will help them and strengthen your relationship in the present.

A Framework for Healthy Confrontation

Here are some key principles to keep in mind when preparing to confront a parent about a problem:

1. Make sure your motive is love and concern for them, not a desire to get revenge, punish, or get them to meet your needs. Work through your own issues first.

2. Convey your continued love and honor for them as your parent. Reassure them of this throughout the conversation.

3. Be direct and clear about the issue and your desired outcome. Don't expect them to read your mind.

4. Be prepared for some defensiveness or resistance, especially if confrontation is new in your relationship. Stay calm and on message.

5. Make it about the relationship more than about getting your own needs met. Use "I" statements framed in the context of how the issue impacts your ability to connect.

6. Distinguish between hurt and harm. The truth may sting, but you're not out to injure them. Give them space to process uncomfortable feelings that arise.

7. Consider their stage of life and other stressors. Timing is important.

8. Know your limits. You may need to accept a less-than-ideal relationship, grieve what you wish you had, and appreciate what you do have.

With preparation, humility and grace, these courageous conversations can be life-giving and life-changing for both you and your parent. You get to be a redemptive force in their life as you both continue to grow.

Let us close with an exercise to help bring this framework into practice. Reflect back on the scared woman from the beginning of this article. Put yourself in her shoes and write out what a healthy confrontation with her mother might sound like. How could she lovingly raise the issue, make her request, and respond to resistance or defensiveness? Then consider a boundary issue you need to discuss with one of your own parents. Write out your key points and rehearse the conversation. Invite God into the process and trust him with the outcome.

As we learn to speak truth in love to our parents and they to us, may we experience the freedom and joy of authentic, adult-to-adult relationships. It's never too late to grow.

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