How to Have a Better Relationship With Your Parents

How to Have a Better Relationship With Your Parents


  • Many adults experience a shift in behaviour when spending time with their parents.
  • When families reunite, they will likely interact according to old habits, even though children are now adults.
  • Although it’s challenging, positive improvements in parental relationships can be achieved.

If you are an adult and about to spend close time with your parents, you might be feeling some trepidation. You are not alone.

If you have noticed that your behaviour changes when you are in a parent’s home, you may feel that you can’t control what happens. That’s a normal feeling, but it is not fully accurate. Our interactions with our parents are not simple inevitabilities that happen to us; we are active participants in maintaining the dynamics of our family relationships. Habitual interactive patterns within families are indeed powerful bonds—stronger than those we establish in the workplace, for example. However, we can likely make positive improvements in the dynamics of how we interact with our parents provided

(1) we better understand why these dynamics occur and

(2) we are willing to take some active steps to change these patterns in appropriate and positive ways.

How habitual dynamics are established

One of the reasons we get frustrated by changes in our behaviour from one context (such as our own homes) to another context (such as a parent’s home) is we tend to think of our behaviour as simply a personal choice. If I can just choose my behaviour, then why don’t I behave the same way I do at work or home when I am with my parents?

However, our behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. Our responses are continually solicited in response to our current environment, including the people in a given scenario. These actions are then reinforced—that is, strengthened or weakened—by the reactions they elicit in turn. In other words, much of our behaviour consists of learned responses to specific situations or people, as is also true of the people we encounter. Research has long established that humans create, and then maintain, specific patterns of interaction in all manner of contexts: in informal groups, workplace teams, or institutions.

The habitual interactive patterns that exist between adult children and their parents have become entrenched habits over decades. Indeed, the establishment of interactive patterns within a family is fundamental to the development of children’s identities. When a family unit reassembles after time apart, the likely prognosis is that these deeply embedded habits and role enactments will continue as they left off, even when the children are now adults themselves. In most cases, dynamics will only change when there is a concerted effort to disrupt what exists and create something new.

Can family dynamics be changed?

A common response to relationship interactions we do not like is a sense that the interaction is in some way unfair—for example, “It is not fair that my parents frown on my dating choices—I’m 33 years old!” We feel the drive to establish what is fair or not, who is wrong, and who is right. Yet, one of the best-established approaches to escalating an interpersonal conflict is to focus your energy on who is to blame. If you want to improve your relationship with your parents, put your focus on changing the interactive patterns that are locking both sides into the dynamics of your childhood.

It’s not easy, but it is possible. One study of adult children-parent relationships determined that, over five years, around 20 percent of relationships improved naturally. If you are willing to take active steps to make changes, you increase your chances. Importantly, do not expect a magic transformation overnight. Aim for—and look out for—small, positive modifications. Sustained small improvements can make all the difference.

Where do I start?

Here are three areas to consider:

  • Start by examining the behaviours that you want to change. What situations or comments from your parents trigger you to react in ways you don’t like? For example, for many people living in North America, the primary reason to move out of a parent’s home is to establish independence. When you are back with your parents, perhaps even staying under their roof, that context may threaten your sense of independence, priming you to react even more strongly when a parent comments on your life choices. Aim to reduce the extent of your emotional reaction. Consider how you have responded in the past (your habitual reactions) and how you would like to respond instead.
  • Research suggests that adult children employ better conflict management strategies when interacting with their children, rather than when interacting with their parents. For example, we are more likely to openly discuss disagreements with children, whereas the most common conflict management strategy with parents is simply avoiding topics—or even avoiding meetings. What approaches do you use for resolving or reducing conflict that are effective in other settings? How might you be able to apply these with your parents?
  • Your parents are likely to judge or weigh in on many different areas of your life because they worry about more areas of your life than you do about theirs. Research tells us that adult children tend to worry about their parents’ health, whereas parents tend to worry about adult children’s health, safety, relationships, finances, and more. Can you devise a strategy to either allay their fears or simply clarify where you would welcome their perspective and where you will handle things on your own?

Finally, you will need patience. It is hard to see our habitual behaviour patterns because habits don’t require thinking. Those snide or judgmental comments a parent makes may grate on you, but that behaviour is probably an inappropriate expression of genuine concern. Often, adult children hold one ultimate advantage: Your parents want to see you. This holiday, take some steps to upgrade the patterns of interaction so that experience is better for you both.

Content has been created by Psychology Today. To view more information about Psychology Today click here.

Did you like this article? Share with world.