How to Get Along Well with Your Parents as an Adult

How to Get Along Well with Your Parents as an Adult

by: Emily Thomas

Just in time for Father's Day (and maybe for some of our recent college graduates who are headed home for a spell?), we wanted to share some thoughts about how to get along well with your parents as an adult. Because while we love traditional goals—saving money, fitness feats, successful launches—cultivating what matters will always mean the most when it's applied to the people we care for. We're grateful that the PowerSheets® goal planner is just as helpful in loving people well as it is in crushing a sales goal or crossing a marathon finish line!

But relationships are challenging. They ask us to show up as our best selves and love people even when they don't show up as theirs. And the parent-child relationship can be particularly tricky to navigate, changing as it does from childhood, to adolescence, to young adulthood, to middle age and beyond.

Here are a few things that have been helpful for Team Cultivate in navigating our own familiar relationships. We'd love to hear what's worked for you!

P.S. It's worth noting that these are things that have worked within relatively healthy relationships. If your family situation is more challenging, or even if the relationship is fractured, we see you and we're saddened alongside you. Take good care of yourself!

1. Express gratitude

Almost nothing can sweeten a relationship like gratitude expressed. Especially for parents, who spent years grocery shopping, schlepping to and from activities, helping with homework, lending a listening ear, and more with a willing heart but very few thank you's, knowing their efforts are seen and appreciated means so much. 

Thank them for the big things from your childhood. Thank them for the little things they do for you now. Thank them for the things it doesn't feel like you need to thank them for, like making your favorite meal when you visit or sending your child snail mail. Thank them in a heartfelt note, so they can re-read it whenever they'd like. Just thank you them, genuinely and often! As my Dad likes to say, "pleases and thank you's aren't rationed." :)

Psstdon't miss this post: How to Write a Thoughtful Note to Someone You Love

2. Reach out to them - don't wait for them to reach out to you.

This is a hard one for me. In my family, I'm currently the one to reach out to my mom—she rarely calls me. Sometimes, this can feel hurtful: does she even want to talk to me?! How long would we go between calls if I didn't initiate them?

But then I read this essay, and my perspective changed. Written by a middle-age mom about her 30-something daughter, this line hit me between the eyes: "What I want is for her to want to talk to me as much as I want to talk to her." 

While I haven't confirmed if this is how my mom feels, I have a hunch it's pretty close. Maybe it's the same for your mom or dad: our parents want nothing more than to talk to us, but they also know we live full lives and don't want to be a burden.

So be the one to make the effort. Find the time. Pick up the phone. And if it helps, add it to your PowerSheets® or planner—that's what I did last month, and it was a helpful and welcome reminder.

3. Lower expectations.

I love Arthur Brooks' columns in The Atlantic, and this was one of his recent pieces of advice for the parent-child relationship. I couldn't agree more. "Neither parents nor adult children have to be perfect for the relationship to be satisfying and healthy," he wrote. "With lower expectations, you can break out of childhood dynamics (yours and theirs) and form a bond based on mutual respect as adults."

Our parents aren't perfect. We know this intellectually, but it's harder to remember it in the heat of the moment. They'll call too much or too little (see above). They'll buy the wrong gift or no gift at all. They'll hold an opinion you don't agree with, or seem to care not at all about something that matters deeply to you.

Just like in a marriage, when you can accept that one person (or a pair of people) doesn't have to provide every emotional, relational, and practical need, it becomes easier to appreciate what they can offer you. Try to let go of the judgment of what should be and accept what is.

4. Model the behavior you want to see. 

I have young children. Daily—multiple times a day—I think about the behavior I'm modeling for them, and whether the way I'm behaving is how I'd like them to one day move through the world.

I believe strongly that more is caught than taught, and this goes for toddlers as much as it does for retired parents. If you're frustrated with how often your parents scroll on their phones, or have the TV blaring in the background, or prioritize other things over church, or are more sedentary than you'd like, pause before delivering a lecture. 

Instead, model the behavior you'd like to see. Confidently—but with gentleness and respect—make choices that align with your values. When you're together, make suggestions or offer to organize activities that feel good to you. If your parents see you happy and thriving, that's attractive! Your good example will make them more likely to choose similarly than if you'd scolded or belittled them.

5. See them as a whole person. 

It can be hard to evolve from the parent—child dynamic of childhood into something new as a young adult. One thing that can help? Seeing your mom or dad as a whole person: someone with their own complicated and valid hopes, needs, preferences, failings, and giftings.

To begin to piece together this new puzzle, take a real interest in their lives. Don't be afraid to ask big, meaningful questions. (People love to talk about themselves, and asking deep questions can be a real gift to someone entering into their own new season of life.) Be an engaged listener, resisting the urge to formulate your responses or assuming you know what they'll say.

If this feels hard or new, you might love the book How to Know a Person. I'm reading it now and it's a practical, heartfelt guide to truly knowing another person and fostering deep connection. It feels tailor-made for the parent-child relationship!

6. Allow them to help.

Serving others brings us happiness, and that might be nowhere more true than with parents and children. In a season when your parent might be feeling unsure of their place, in the way, or outdated, allowing them to meet a real need of yours is a gift. Changing the oil in your car, driving you to the airport, picking up a grandchild from school, making a meal, running an errand, folding laundry—these can be accepted begrudgingly, as meddlesome incursions, or they can be accepted gratefully, as gifts. 

Of course, we don't want to swing too hard in the opposite direction, relying on our parents when we should be able to stand independently or assuming they'll be at our beck and call instead of free to enjoy their own lives. Those are real dangers, too. But there's a beautiful middle ground of giving and receiving acts of service, with gratitude and satisfaction on both sides. It's worth seeking out.

Friends, what would you add? If a parent, what has helped sweeten your relationship with your grown child? If a child, what has helped you find new ways of being with your parent as an adult? We'd love to hear!

1 comment

Emily, this is my favorite post to date on the Cultivate blog. Thank you for sharing the Slate essay; it is the most personally impactful thing I’ve read in a long time. If this is discussed at Articles Club, I would love to hear a summary of the discussion!


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Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is Cultivate What Matters' Content Strategist and Writer. With over a decade at Cultivate, Emily loves helping women uncover what matters, set good goals, and live them out with joy. Her free time is spent with her high-school-sweetheart husband and three young kiddos.

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