How To Act As The Parent Of Adult Children When They Have A Dispute

As the parent of adult children, I sometimes find myself called upon to referee a dispute. I submit that acting as judge and jury between adult children is a no-win situation. When children are adults, a parent does best by facilitating dialogue between the aggrieved parties, not by taking sides, or playing the role of mediator or umpire. This feels counter-intuitive. Or perhaps it is better to say it is un-natural. It is normal to want your kids to get along and like each other whatever their ages.

This is not the role you’re going for with your adult kids

When children are young and a dispute erupts, good parents strive to restore peace. Every circumstance is different, but usually with younger kids, there is a pretty clear perpetrator and an equally recognizable victim. The stakes are smaller, and it’s usually a straight-forward matter to find out who did what.

As children age, the disputes may become both more severe, and more nuanced. There are times when a clever perpetrator may admit fault, but offer seemingly valid reasons in justification.  If one or both parents focus not on what has been done, but on why it has been done, the perpetrator temporarily wins. She has shifted the ground of discussion to one of motives and reasons and away from simple actions. And when I say the perpetrator has ”wins,” I’m really saying that they’ve lost…in the long term. 

When mine were little, I asked the question, ”what did you do?” I was much less concerned with why. It frustrated me to hear the children’s mother ask, ”Why did you hit her?”

I only wanted to know, ”Did you hit her?” You build character by owning your faults more than by celebrating your victories. I felt responsible to show my children their faults, and let them know that they were still loved and valuable in spite of the imperfections. One of the most valuable things a parent can do is model the willingness to accept blame and admit errors. It de-stigmatizes it for our kids.

It was both louder, and easier, when they were this age

This avoidance of responsibility for wrong actions – if sufficient reasons can be invoked –becomes especially problematic as children reach adulthood. At this age, both sides of a dispute have reasons. The dispute may have started with one action, or with harsh words, which then provokes a reaction out of proportion to the original problem; then, once escalated, it becomes hard to unravel the hurt feelings and hard words to get down to my simplistic question, ”what did you do?” 

Too many people reach adulthood without learning how to acknowledge wrong and accept fault. And even if they admit errors, it is rare to find the emotional maturity that can express sorrow not only for the wrong done, but for how that wrong made the other person feel. 

I’ve learned that is my role as parent, even to adults. I focus on helping them discover the wrong they contributed to the situation. I probe until I find out what the child who brings the complaint to me has done. It’s rare to find those simple black and white childhood disputes. And while I may sympathize with why an adult child has done or said something hurtful to their sibling, I ask them if they got the result they wanted. Usually, if they’re being honest, the answer is no. And I ask them to think about how they made their sibling feel, or vice versa, how the sibling made them feel.

So I mainly listen at this stage. I listen for where each side may be wrong. I ask each child (adult) if they’ve learned anything from the conflict and from how they’ve handled it. Is there anything they would do differently if they could? And I ask each side if they want to fix the relationship, and restore the peace, even if they aren’t the one who broke it. If they do, I encourage them to own what they’ve done or said, and – to acknowledge how those acts or words made the other one feel – as the surest way to reconciliation and restoration. I let them know that’s the path to full emotional maturity and wisdom.

In other words, I facilitate a dialogue between the combatants, realizing that it’s no longer my job to solve their problems, make them get along, or make them like each other. I can offer suggestions about how to approach the dispute to work things out between themselves, but if I try to impose my verdict, that is a no-win situation.

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