Angry Adult Child:
“The years of terror from my mother has made me make sure that my son knows I love him. I fear, more than anything, his total rejection. HOWEVER, he often seems angry at me.”

"Mo Air"—Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Loving vs. Yearning

Having suffered rejection by your parent, it’s understandable that you would fear becoming a mean, rejecting parent yourself, and that you’d want to make sure your son knows that you love him.

Yet, your fierce desire to show acceptance and love may cause you to go overboard, and to lose your personal authority and ability to set boundaries.

When parents are unwilling to stand up for themselves and when their tone of voice betrays a longing for acceptance, children sense it and become burdened by it. Some will respond with appeasement, others with annoyance and anger.


Respect vs. Fear of Rejection

Most parents don’t want to be rejected by their children. Yet, when their fear of rejection is so strong that it outweighs their own self-respect — “I fear, more than anything, total rejection from my son” — they may cheat their children of the gift of having respect for their parents.

It’s wonderful to be loved by your parent. It’s also beneficial to have respect for your parent. They are not mutually exclusive. However, when you crave a child’s acceptance too much — at the expense of your own personal authority — you invite your child to lose respect for you.

Parent vs. Doormat

There is a world of difference between rejecting a child and rejecting rude behavior.

It’s important for children of all ages to learn to respect boundaries and to have some consequences when they are disrespectful. It doesn’t do anyone any good when you allow others to rage at you. You’re doing them a favor in cutting short their rudeness, because they generally will not feel good after being angry and mean.

They need to be called on their behavior with an “Excuse me?” or “It’s tough to talk with you when you sound this angry.” Or you can say, “If something’s bothering you, tell me, but be more respectful.” Your own tone of voice is highly important — be firm, without pleading. Be willing to end the conversation if they start battering you verbally by saying, “It’s unpleasant for me to listen to your berating me with this tone of voice. We can talk later.”

Not only will you curb your child’s rudeness, you will be setting an example of how to set boundaries firmly without being harsh.

More Space vs. Engulfment

Often, all that’s needed is a little more distance, a more impersonal attitude, and less inquiry. Just imagine a good cocktail waitress at a busy bar. She would be friendly, but not overly-personal and inquisitive.

By calling less frequently, asking fewer questions, and giving less advice, you can give your irritated adult child the room needed to feel independent and free of the parental umbilical cord. Often more emotional separation, rather than fusion, promotes appreciation.

Practice

Like rehearsing for a play, it’s very helpful to practice the demeanor and attitude you want to develop. If you have a partner and/or friends who are willing, have them listen to you practice speaking in a more impersonal way. Find examples on TV or among your friends who have the desired tone and approach, and emulate them.

Once you are able to pull back your yearning to prove your love as well as your tolerance of unacceptable behavior you will realize a grand pay-off, namely mutual respect — the very basis for a loving relationship. You’ll also feel less temptation to be mean, because when you stand up for yourself when there’s only mild disrespect, you can do so without big resentment and drama.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “My teenager is selfish and rude! How did I raise a child like this?”

Read “Over-mothering: ‘It’s hard to be firm with my child, because he’s very sensitive.’”

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6 Responses to Angry Adult Child:
“The years of terror from my mother has made me make sure that my son knows I love him. I fear, more than anything, his total rejection. HOWEVER, he often seems angry at me.”

  1. Mervet Azmi says:

    Hello Alison

    I came upon your article here while I was in one of my sad moments thinking about the relationship with my 22 year old son. I am not an English speaker so I apologize in advance if the grammar has some mistakes. I have had a very close relationship with him all our lives but everything changed when he changed school in 9 th grade. He distanced himself from me and since then though he is studying abroad, when he is with us in Christmas or summer breaks he is nice and family oriented but somehow always avoiding to spend real quality time with me, never talking about any private matters. And sometimes revealing in between conversations that he blames me for things in his life that never occurred to me , like changing the school for him which put him through hard times or not taking his problems seriously enough. ( I can’t recall that because I know that I have put my children and family always first) put I feel his rejection of me and it hurts. I try to do just like you said in your article but we are slipping apart and I think I am not very able to deal with this. It sometimes makes my life feel worthless. Do you have an advice for me??

    • Alison says:

      Hello,

      I’m so sorry for your pain. It is very common for children to distance themselves from their parents when they are teenagers and young adults. They also tend to blame their parents for any struggles they face and to be hyper critical of them. Young children generally idolize their parents, and there is generally a time when they become a teenager or young adult when they are disappointed in their parents–they suddenly see their flaws and exaggerate them in their minds as a result of the their disappointment and their own struggles.

      Also it’s normal for a young adult to want to separate emotionally from their parents, as they often feel controlled or judged by their parents, even when the parent only want what’s best and is not controlling or judgmental.

      It’s very good that your son is still visiting during Christmas and summer, and that he is polite. It’s important to keep that connection even if it feels too superficial to you. There are some teenagers and young adults who talk about private matters with their parents but most do not. I would not push him to do so. If and when he ever says anything about his life, try hard not to be reactive, in other words, not to judge or react with a lot of emotion. Simply listen and try to be supportive. Otherwise, he will clam up because he will continue to fear your reactivity.

      There is a possibility that something bad happened to your son in 9th grade, either an event, or simply unhappiness in being in a new school where he did not feel comfortable. As this was not your intention, it was not your fault. These types of things are part of life, and often prepare one for other difficulties that are bound to occur in life. Yet if you feel this is a possibility, you could ask him about it in a letter or in person in a kind way. If he says it was horrible, don’t become defensive and don’t take the blame. Simply express compassion. “I’m so sorry you went through that. I’m glad you made it through.”

      Most importantly, no parent or person is perfect. As long as there is some consistency, some love, some accountability for the child and the parent, and an effort to connect with the child, the parent is doing a good job.

      The fact that you didn’t take some of his problems seriously may or may not be true. No parent can satisfy every need of their child, and if they did, that may not be the healthiest thing to prepare a child for life anyway. It’s through one’s parents’ small failures and mistakes that one learns to survive challenges. There’s a theory that Winnecott developed called “good-enough mothering” (or good-enough parenting) that shows that it’s better to be a pretty good parent with flaws than a “perfect parent” anticipating every need of the child. It is the omissions and small mistakes of the parent that encourage the child to gradually develop resiliency. (Of course, abuse and great neglect do not fit into this category of “good-enough.”)

      It sounds to me as though your family is very important to you. Ironically, children often criticize their parents for having the very qualities that the parents try hardest to avoid. For example, if a child senses that a parent would hate to be seen as “rude”, then the child is likely to say to the parent that he or she is rude, even though the parent is quite possibly too nice. The child unconsciously senses the parent’s vulnerability to being criticized for being rude. A parent who didn’t care about being rude, wouldn’t feel hurt by the criticism. “I try to be direct. Do you want me to sugar-coat things?” Thus, your son’s criticism of you for not taking his problems seriously enough may simply be his way of getting your attention (because he unconsciously knows it will hurt you.)

      I will give you a few suggestions, and of course you should only follow them if they feel appropriate.

      When your son visits,

      1. be polite,
      2. show you’re happy to see him, but don’t idolize him or make him the center of all attention,
      3. don’t ask too many questions if he’s sensitive to being questioned,
      4. try not to make any judgments,
      5. try not to give advice,
      6. try not to be reactive when he discusses anything about his life,
      7. don’t lay any guilt trips “you’re seeing your friends again instead of having dinner with us!”
      8. when he criticizes you, don’t get defensive, simply say, “I’m sorry you’re hurt, but unfortunately I’m not perfect, and I always want what’s best for you.”
      9. when he leaves, tell him how much it means to you to see him,
      10. try to do something interesting or fun together. You could say, “it would mean a lot to me if you go (skiing/on a hike/to a museum) with me while you visit, perhaps on Thursday.

      I predict that if you follow these guidelines and as he matures over the years becoming more self-confident, he will feel more appreciative and connect more deeply with you. However, you also have to accept that there is a natural loss of the close connection you once had when he was a young boy. It is a fact of life that our children grow up and live their own lives. When they are 5 or 10 years old they are so connected and happy around their parents. Yet, it’s natural that they want to become independent.

      Thus I suggest that in your own thinking, you let go a bit of the fervent hope to be as connected as you once were. If you can let go, while still being kind, etc, he is going to be more likely to want to connect with you more. I suggest letting him live his life and focusing on finding some things that you truly enjoy and are passionate about. Pursue your interests, enhance your relationships with your wife or partner if you have one, enhance your relationships with friends and the community. This will make you happier, more appealing for your son, and a better role-model for your son.

      If it feels appropriate, you could write a letter, though not too long and detailed. Make sure you’re not judgmental, pleading, needy, demanding, or causing him to feel guilty. It’s hard to strike the balance between not being defensive and not diminishing yourself, being sorry but not being meek, wanting connection without being needy. Here is a very rough example, but at least it gives you some ideas. And of course, you should use your own words.

      “Dear Son,
      I want you to know how much joy you’ve brought into my life and how much our relationship means to me. It’s probably healthy and normal for a teenager and young adult to live their own lives and in so doing to distance themselves from their parents. However, I feel quite saddened by the distance between us since you went into the 9th grade. It may be simply a healthy distance, but it seems as if there is something else causing the distance, some hurt or disappointment on your part. If so, I would be happy to talk to you, and simply know I’m sorry for any shortcomings I have as a parent. I am not perfect, but I have always done my best. I am sorry if I have disappointed you. I have always been on your side and tried my best, although of course no one can know what is best for another person.

      I dearly hope that over time we can become closer, as it means the world to me.”

      Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

      Best, Alison

  2. Lizzy says:

    It appears parental rejection is the newest for our “30 somethings”. Why does this rejection seem to pop up after (the adult child) has drained us both emotionally and financially (sorry I am not giving up spiritually)? No apologies are enough or accepted. The last time I received my “dressing down” from my son it was in front of his 5 year old son. What is this teaching a child? I guess I just got my answer, I was concerned about issues such as I just mentioned. My husband and I after many such outbursts have concluded that if it were not for our grandson we would sever our relationship with our son and his wife. We would never stop loving him but at 36 perhaps it is time for him to grow up.

    • Alison says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your son dressing you down. That is disrespectful and inappropriate to do, particularly in front of a child. Rather than severing your relationship, you might consider distancing it a bit. In other words, retract your energy or leave in a neutral way when he becomes rude. This is usually more effective than arguing or having a serious conversation. You could make your visits brief or in public places and resist giving advice. Over time, he may gain respect for you. You may read my article on Boundaries as well as the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic. The latter one could be very helpful. Good luck. I’m glad you haven’t given up spiritually.

      • Lizzie says:

        Thank you Alison for your response. The distance you suggested was handled by The Almighty. My son is in Afghanistan for 6 months. This forced separation has had “mixed results” in the past. The last time he returned from Afghanistan was when he seemed to develop his intense anger towards me. The underlying psychological issues regarding this are mind boggling to me. My husband and I have decided on another “distancing” idea. When he returns from Afghanistan we will not stay at his and my daughter in-law’s home. Unfortunately this presents its own issues but considering everything it is indeed the best for all.
        Thank You Again,
        Lizzie

        • Alison says:

          I’m sorry your son is in Afghanistan. Yet I definitely like your idea of not staying at his house, even if this is costly. It’s worth the expense. Meeting for a pleasant dinner or taking a walk together will create an atmosphere with enough boundaries that he is likely to remain more respectful. Let me know how it goes. Alison

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