10 New Rules For Parent-Adult Child Relations
Joshua Coleman, PhD's new rules explained.
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In Joshua Coleman PhD’s book Rules of Estrangement, he ends the book with ten new rules for parent-adult child relations. I shared these rules on my Instagram stories today and there were some mixed results and a lot of questions. So, I thought I’d break them down for you here.
I know the word rule is a strong one. If it makes you recoil and think “you can’t make me!!”, it might be helpful to put it this way: you don’t have to do any of these things with your adult child and if you do, your relationship will probably improve.
10 New Rules For Parent-Adult Child Relations
Rule 1: “Your adult child has more power than you to set the terms of your relationship because they’re more willing to walk away. Basic game theory: she who cares less has more power.”
This rule seemed to create the most confusion. Yes, you and your adult child are both adults. I know this makes it seem like you’re equals, but you’re definitely not. As adult children age, they get busy and they become focused on their own lives. They likely have some combination of a career, children, pets, travel, friends, and/or a mortgage. And many of them love their parents and want to spend time with them. Older adults tend to become more isolated and sedentary as they age. This dynamic gives the adult child the most power in this moment. It is the older parent ultimately loses more when they don’t have a close relationship with their child. I know this seems unfair and it can be a painful realization, but most adult child who estrange from their parents see this as a “victory.” In their world, they have likely estranged themselves from a parent who they think is abusive, toxic, etc. This choice gives them freedom and liberation. The parent wins nothing in this exchange and may find themselves feeling even more social shame.
Rule 2: “Your relationship with your adult child needs to occur in an environment of creating happiness and personal growth, not an environment of obligation, emotional debt, or duty.”
When people feel a genuine sense of love and connection, they’re more likely to show affection and to take pride in maintaining the relationship. If you want your adult child to care for you and to care about you, show them that you care about them.
Rule 3: “You are not the only authority on how well you performed as a parent. Your adult child gets to have their own narrative and opinions about the past.”
This is the most important rule. It doesn’t matter if you think you were the best parent on the planet, if your adult child doesn’t agree, you’re going to struggle. Learn to hold space for both of your perspectives. It will likely be the thing that saves your relationship.
Rule 4: “Use of guilt trips or criticism will never get you what you want from your adult child, especially if you’re estranged.”
I have never seen this genuinely work. If you have an adult child that sticks around because you threaten them or guilt them, they’re probably afraid of you. I promise you would rather have a genuine connection.
Rule 5: “Learning to communicate in a way that is egalitarian, psychological, and self-aware is essential to a good relationship with your adult child.”
100% yes. Go to therapy and learn how to communicate. Read books. Practice. You may need to communicate in a completely different way than your parents communicated with you. I am sorry if you didn’t have a relationship with your parents like this or if you didn’t learn how to communicate in this way. It’s unfair and you deciding to learn something new may save your relationship with your adult child.
Rule 6: “You were the parent when you were raising your child and you’re the parent until they die. You brought your child into this world. That means that if your child is unable to take the high road, you still have to if reconciliation is your goal.”
A lot of people hate this rule, but here’s the deal: You will never have an equal relationship with your adult child. You will always be the parent with 18+ years of history of you being in a position of power. Yes, you are both expected to communicate as respectful adults and you are both allowed to have boundaries. But, give up the fantasy that at age 18 your child somehow becomes your equal overnight. You will likely need to apologize for more and invest more. It’s hard work and it’s worth it.
Rule 7: “A large financial and emotional investment in your child does not entitle you to more contact or affection than that which is wanted by them, however unjust that may seem.”
If you are only giving your child something so that you can get something in exchange, stop. It will not work and you will be filled with resentment and anger. Remember: clothing, food, shelter, medical care, and guidance are the absolute bare minimum. Your child doesn’t owe you for giving them something you are legally obligated to provide them with. Model gratitude and generosity in the family unit and stop giving with strings attached. If you do not want to give to your adult child or your giving hinges on getting a specific result, do not give.
Rule 8: “Criticizing your child’s spouse, romantic partner, or therapist greatly increases your risk of estrangement.”
You will never get closer to your child by criticizing the things or people that are important to them.
Rule 9: “Criticizing your child’s sexuality or gender identity greatly increases your risk of estrangement.”
You will never get closer to your child by criticizing who they are.
Rule 10: “Just because you had a bad childhood and did a better job than your parents doesn’t mean that your adult child has to accept all of the ways that they felt hurt by you.”
This one is so important. Please read it several times and then read it again. You can break every generational pattern and still cause harm. You can try your best and still cause harm. Every parent on this planet will harm or negatively impact their child in some way. Stop comparing your childhoods as a way to minimize what your adult child is feeling. They were not there for your childhood. Listen, empathize, and repair.
What do you think of these rules? Are there any that are difficult for you to follow?
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Such a brilliant collection of tips both as a mom to young adults and as the daughter to retired parents that have a lot of time and often express their frustration that I don't spend more time with them. Thank you for this.
This is a great collection of tips, Whitney - thanks for sharing them! Would you recommend the book you referenced for an adult child that’s had to walk away from a relationship with their parents? I’m working on not creating the pattern of the parent/adult child relationship I’ve experienced with my own children, so anything I can read or learn from is helpful!
I learn so much from your Substack posts - thank you for your insight!