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What to Do When Your Adult Kids Ignore You

More parents than ever feel neglected by their children


spinner image an older woman stands alone as other people pass by
undrey/Getty

Calls aren’t returned. Texts go unread. Those invitations to Sunday dinner are declined. 

Some parents say they’re feeling ignored by their adult children, not getting the attention they want or deserve. And it feels lousy.

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In fact, more than a quarter of young adults reported being estranged from one or both parents, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Cultural changes could be contributing to the problem, researchers say. In some cases, adult children may be putting boundaries in place because of family dysfunction, but others may be busy with their own careers, kids and lives and see lavishing attention on aging parents as a chore.

Meanwhile, some parents have high expectations. A 2012 survey of families by the University of Virginia found that over 27 percent of parents wanted to be “best friends” with their grown children.

“That’s also in the background of confusion for today’s parent-adult child relationships with parents, in part because they become much more involved, much more conscientious, much more psychological,” says Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist. Coleman is the author of When Parents Hurt and Rules of Estrangement, two books about reasons and strategies for family rifts. “They probably spent more money on their children than their own parents spent on them.”

Unrealistic parental expectations?

Snubs by adult children may sting even more in the aftermath of the pandemic, when many older people who were in forced isolation now want to socialize.

Those feelings come just as technology has made communication easier. But technology also makes it harder to set boundaries. For example, how much texting is too much?

Laurence Steinberg sees this issue play out among his 20-something students  at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"They have to turn their phones off during exam week because their parents are texting them so often,” says Steinberg, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple and the author of You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times. “I don’t think they or their kids have a good idea about what the appropriate boundaries are because there haven’t been the kind of boundaries that existed before.”

Steinberg, who has researched parenting over a 50-year career, is among the experts who see cultural and economic trends contributing to young adults’ desire for emotional distance from their parents. For example, high real estate prices mean 20-to-40-somethings may have delayed establishing autonomy by getting their own homes, and now they want some space. But parents resent getting the cold shoulder, particularly if they’ve supported a child into adulthood.  

Meanwhile, society puts more emphasis on the happiness of the individual and less on sacrificing for the good of the nuclear family, even encouraging the concept of “chosen” family and the idea that respect is earned, not granted, Coleman says.

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Parents are generally more invested in time with their children and their wellbeing than the other way around, he says. “In general, parents rate the relationship as more positive than does the adult child,” Coleman says.

Life gets busy

Sometimes, distance in families is temporary — life is just too busy for grown children to check in. But in families where interaction and respect for older generations is normal, the fact that it’s not happening may indicate that something deeper is wrong. That’s true in African American families, which usually have deep traditions of caring for elders, says Karen Lincoln, professor of environmental and occupational health in the public health program at the University of California, Irvine, and director of the Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research.

“If they’re not having regular interactions with their adult children, it’s very significant because those interactions are expected. They’re cultural,” she says. “The impact of not having frequent regular interaction with your adult children [can] have a fairly significant impact on emotional and even physical health.” 

All this means that feeling ignored is not something to ignore. But assuming you can’t control your grown child’s actions, what can you do? Start by asking yourself these five questions, based on expert advice.

1. Do you have realistic expectations?

“With older adults, the unrealistic world we see on television or Facebook or whatever social media is not accurate,” says Denise Tufts, a licensed social worker in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, who specializes in working with older adults. If a friend talks about family Sunday dinners, it’s easy to imagine all families do that, she says. “I’ll say to some of my clients, ‘No, everybody doesn’t.’” 

Talk to your family about what is practical in terms of gathering or communication, she says. Maybe it’s not realistic to talk every day, so how about setting a day and time? “Sometimes people don’t express their needs and the other person doesn’t know and they make assumptions,” she says.

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2. Do you respect boundaries (including with cellphones)?

“The single biggest [thing] I hear from adult children about their parents in every correspondence is, ‘You need to respect my boundaries,’” Coleman says. “You see that in part because the line between them has gotten so blurred.” 

Being perceived as invasive creates tension, Coleman says. “The adult child feels like, well, I have my own life and demands here, and I’m not just here to be available to you whenever you want me to be," he says. "Even if it doesn’t trigger a whole lot of estrangement, it can certainly trigger a more conflicted relationship.”

3. Do you acknowledge relationship realities?

“Sometimes that’s a piece of what the older adult isn’t willing to look at or acknowledge,” Tufts says. “How close were they? Things were different back then, so parents weren’t as involved, and so adult children aren’t as involved with their parent now because it’s just the way the relationship has always been.” 

That said, parents don’t need to cede all the ground if their grown children have a list of complaints; they need to have compassion for themselves, says Coleman. “How you respond to the complaints or criticisms is key, so you want to try not to be defensive, but just to find the kernel of truth,” he says. “If you feel like your kid’s rewriting history, you might say, ‘Gosh, I don’t recall it like that, but I’m sure I have blind spots [and] I wasn’t aware that you felt that way.’”

4. Can you adjust your focus?

Tufts encourages her clients to create a support network beyond their children, whether that’s for venting about medical complaints, rides to the supermarket or dinner on Sunday nights. Are you a negative Nancy, only complaining when you’re talking to your kids? What can you do to broaden your focus and support system so you’re not so reliant on your children? A new volunteer job? Joining a faith community or an exercise group? Reviving a hobby?

Instead of expecting help, can you offer help to an adult child — child care, dog-walking, buying pizza delivery on a busy weekday? Older adults need to find things to counter the losses of aging, but family might not be the solution, she says: “Even if their family was more involved as much as they’d like, they still have to find their own kind of fulfillment.”

5. Can you give it time?

All relationships go through rough patches and perhaps a breather may help, Steinberg says. Try giving your child some space and see if things are better in a few weeks. “I think that either nothing is wrong and they’re just busy, or something’s the matter, and you probably should have a calm conversation to try to figure out what it is,” Steinberg says.

Or it might be that, at least for now, the relationship is going to be casual, not the deep, confiding connection that a parent might desire, Coleman says. That might be the best your child can do at the moment. In fact, it might not be about you at all, but rather about something they are going through or have experienced. “Being a great parent is no guarantee of a lifelong relationship with your child,” Coleman says. 

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