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PsychNotes November 2016

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November 3, 2016       

You Have to Be Willing to Set Limits with Disrespectful Adult Children

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
image of birds who look like they are having an argument
Frequently, I receive questions from parents of adult children who are “disrespectful.” In most cases the problem occurs due to one of two issues: unreasonable expectations of the parents or fear of setting limits due to possible repercussions.

What can you, as a parent, do about disrespect from adult children?

1) Examine expectations. First, determine whether your expectations are reasonable. What is your definition of respect? Does respect mean they should do as you want? Does it mean your child should never disagree with you? Do you tolerate the behavior or decisions of your friends but not the same behavior from your child? For instance, if your friend ignores your advice or doesn't visit as frequently as you want or doesn't have the same religious or political beliefs, do you consider that disrespectful? But you hold your child to a different standard?

If so, the problem may lie with your expectations. Parents who expect adult children to live their lives according to the parent's wishes often see any contrary behavior as disrespectful. In such cases, it may behoove the parent to change their expectations and develop an adult relationship with their child as they would any other friend.

However, if the disrespect takes the form of name-calling, belittling, or mistreating the parent, then it falls into the second category of needing to set limits with the adult child.

2) Setting limits. If an adult child insults you, treats you with contempt or scorn, or is rude and offensive, then they are showing disrespect. However, the issue here is not that this behavior is coming from your child but the fact that you are being treated this way by anyone. This behavior is not acceptable whether it is from your child or any other adult.

So, the question is: what do you do when anyone treats you this way? If your response is “nothing,” then this is an entirely different issue. The problem is your willingness to allow people to treat you poorly. You need to learn to protect yourself from bullying behavior.

If you are able to protect yourself when others mistreat you, why don't you do the same with your child? The problem is that many parents who are disrespected by adult children are fearful of setting limits. They are afraid their child will get mad at them. Or, they will suffer consequences such as their child not visiting or not allowing them to see their grandchildren.

As long as parents are fearful of these possibilities, then the child is in control and can be as disrespectful as they want to be. You can't make your child change, you can only change your response. If you do nothing, nothing changes. If you set limits, there is the possibility that the child will up the ante and try to control you with their anger or consequences. But if that is the case, what type of relationship is it already? Is it really worth it?

However, if you set limits you may change the relationship with your child. You are letting your child know that certain behaviors are not okay and you are modeling an adult relationship. If your child cares about the relationship, s/he will try to be more responsive to your needs.

Do's and Don'ts of Setting Limits



Don't sometimes ignore the behavior.

Do set limits every time the behavior occurs.

Don't respond with anger.

Do stay calm.

"I feel hurt when you treat me like this."

Don't accuse or plead.

Do state the problem assertively.

"Don't call me names."

Don't feel helpless and despaired.

Do feel confident knowing you have control of your reaction.

Refuse to participate in the conversation.

Don't expect the other to change.

Do change the situation by how you respond.

You can walk away if a person refuses to treat you with respect.

Don't continue to interact in situations where the behavior occurs.

Do limit your interactions.

If the behavior is worse when you are alone, avoid being alone.

Don't be passive.

Do be direct.

“I won't tolerate this behavior.”

Don't use just words. Do back up your words with action. Leave the situation.


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