Adult Children’s Teenage Rebellion

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By Evan Kimble, LMHC

Q: My son was a sweet and good boy growing up. He never really had a teenage rebellion. We enjoyed activities together and shared interests. He was loving and sweet. My friends would talk about their difficulties with their teenage children, and I always thought how lucky I was, how good-natured my son was. Now he is 30 years old, and I find we’re having lots of arguments. He draws me into political debates and then criticizes me for my views. He corrects me. He picks on me for the way I do things and the way I interact with his father. He travels a lot for work and with his wife (they’ve been together about four years), and we don’t get to visit as much. I feel rejected. I feel he’s avoiding me. It feels so strange. I haven’t done anything wrong or different than before. I fear that he thinks I’m an ignorant old woman with nothing left to offer. What can I do?

A: Hang in there, keep showing your love, and be prepared to discuss the conflict with him. It sounds to me like your son is finally having that teenage rebellion. Or to use another word, he is finally, truly individuating.

Becoming an individual — learning to stand separate from our parents, think our own thoughts, establish our own values, and make our own choices — is a necessary developmental step. In order to figure out what they value, many teens actively reject their parents and their parent’s values. Some people are able to find their truth without pushing back so hard on their parents, but usually there is some turbulence in the process. You have been lucky (and maybe skillful too) to navigate your son’s growing up without experiencing this before. It has helped that the two of you have had shared interests. But if there are no external factors or changes creating this conflict, I would guess that this is a long-delayed process of individuation for your son.

So, like with a teenager, you have the opportunity to show him your love, to believe in him, to let him know you are still there for him, while also giving him the space to grow and taking his comments with a grain of salt. Additionally, because you are both adults, you are entitled to discuss with him how his behavior impacts you. You can ask him to explain where it is coming from, and let him know you would appreciate a little more gentleness in his interactions with you. You might also ask him what all the debates are about. For some people, these kinds of discussions can be a form of connection or even intimacy. It may be that his current way of “being close to you” includes this mode, annoying as that may be to you.

This is also a good opportunity to reflect on your own fears of being an “ignorant old woman.” That sounds like a pretty harsh self-assessment, and maybe has little to do with his opinions. I suggest you generate a list of things you would like to change about yourself, and also (and more importantly) make a list of things you like about yourself. Appreciate your strengths and qualities, while looking deeper into ways you would like to grow, change, or stay vital.

I am hopeful that your son is “going through a phase.” Like most adult children, he will eventually come out of his rejecting/individuating phase. He will  probably then grow into the adult-child stance of loving and appreciating you and accepting your “limitations,” in addition to holding whatever criticisms children invariably do about their parents.

About the Author

Evan brought together a rich diversity of elements in his practice, his writing and his life: science and spirituality, passion and grace, East and West sensibilities. He was a respected contributor on our team, a warm and lovely friend, a loving husband and caring dad. He will be missed and remembered with love by all of us. In Memoriam, January 2016