Growing up, my parents jested, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” These words were meant to encourage and perhaps force me to learn to get along with my family members because “friends come and go, but your family remains the same.”
For some, the opposite will be true; friends have been more like family than blood relatives. However, for our purposes here, I am addressing those whose family dynamics are relatively healthy aside from the occasional family tiffs—especially those tensions of navigating relationships with parents as adults with children of their own.
As believers who desire to honor God with their lives, many adult Christians wonder how to honor their parents as family roles and dynamics change, notably during major life shifts such as marriage and having children. Understanding common reasons for tensions and establishing healthy plans for resolution between adult children and their parents may relieve these normal family stressors.
Let’s look at three reasons for tension between adult children and their parents:
1. Not Following the Biblical Role of Parents in Adult Children’s Lives
Packed with sass and attitude as a little girl, I often heard my parents recite the fifth commandment. “Honor your father and mother,” they would say after a slight roll of the eyes or stomp of my foot. If you, too, grew up in a Christian home, I’m willing to bet you heard those words as well.
But we’re not little girls and boys anymore. Does this principle imply that we are to do everything our parents say as adults? And if we don’t, are we dishonoring our parents?
Let’s back up and look at God’s original intent for the family. Home is where children learn to submit to authority and respect and obey. In return, hopefully, they receive love and protection. If children can learn to submit to earthly authority (their parents), they will be better able to submit to God’s ultimate authority (eternal).
Honoring our parents doesn’t explicitly imply that we must obey all their wishes and commands. While we are under our parents’ care (i.e., living under their roof), we should abide by their rules, commands, and preferences (assuming they don’t contradict God’s Word). However, as we age and move out of our parent’s homes, we bear the responsibility and burden of adulthood.
In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus describes the natural progression as children become adults, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” If this is true, the natural progression would be that once we have lives and families of our own, our parents’ authority would shift from one of complete authority to a source of wise counsel and guidance. Their advice is suggestive, and our ultimate authority would come from Christ.
As adult children, we can honor our parents by considering their concerns and advice, showing them respect, and striving to live in peace as far as it depends on us. We hope that parents acknowledge the shift in authority in our lives with great joy and gratitude to see their children walking in obedience to God. But the truth is that changes like these are difficult, and sometimes, tension is inevitable. As these situations arise, consider ways to respect and honor parents while maintaining autonomy and accommodating new relationship dynamics such as a spouse or children.
2. Unrealistic Expectations
Having unrealistic expectations is one of the biggest reasons for relationship tension. Due to familiarity in family relationships, there is a greater possibility of these expectations going unvoiced and misconstrued. We all have different outcomes we deem appropriate responses for various scenarios and circumstances. Of course, because they are our ideas, we sometimes wrongly assume that everyone else will respond the way we envisioned. But, when people don’t act the way we expected, conflict or, at the very least, tension occurs. Can you relate to one of the scenarios below?
Your parents retired, creating extra time in their calendars. You are thrilled because you think this will lead to them helping out with the kids more. A few weeks go by, and they haven’t reached out, and you start to feel annoyed.
You and your spouse offered to host a big family Christmas at your house this year. You thought this would make it easier on your parents, but you become upset when they decline to opt for a smaller gathering at home.
Your parents decide to take a big trip and invite your family along. You thought because they invited your family, they would cover the cost of the vacation; you become bitter when you find out it would be your responsibility.
One of the best ways to relieve the tensions caused by unrealistic or unmet expectations is to stop putting them on people. After many mishaps with my preconceived notions of how people should respond and my general desire for others to do things the same way I would, I certainly understand this is much easier said than done. But maybe it would be helpful if we all tried not to impose our opinions on others so much.
We can openly and honestly talk about our preferences and concerns. I understand this is a tall order for those not fond of conflict. But, airing out our grievances, or sharing how we would like things to be, in most cases, helps prevent future misunderstandings. Auditing expectations for personal opinions, ditching assumptions, and openly communicating will be a great starting point for managing unrealistic expectations.
3. Being Quick to Assume the Worst and Slow to Forgive and Forget
Assuming the worst can be a knee-jerk reaction regarding relationships with parents and in-laws. A simple declined invitation to dinner quickly makes me think I am the worst daughter ever, an incompetent mom, and generally a disgrace to the family. Heaven help me if the exchange happens over text or e-mail! I understand the challenges when we can’t see facial expressions or voice inflections created, but why with the people we love most, do we tend to assume the worst? It seems that most of us are much quicker to extend grace and understanding to friends and strangers over our relatives.
As if it’s not enough of a challenge that we generally assume the worst of each other, conversations can be loaded at times. Someone makes a comment about a superior parenting technique, an ill-timed comment is made about someone’s finances, or a parent continues to give unsolicited suggestions. These things can make tensions soar, people shut down, and activate relational strain, making it hard to engage with each other as time goes on and unforgiveness festers.
We’ve covered God’s original design for family to model submission to authority. And the family unit is a great place to practice navigating the inevitable ruptures and repairs required in human relationships. By learning to love unconditionally, forgive quickly, and extend grace and mercy to our families, we can do the same with the family of God.
While there are numerous reasons for tension between adult children and their parents, we can be sure of a few things. The shift of power, the change of seasons, the transformation of children becoming adults, and aging parents, will cause tension in our families. But as God demonstrated by adopting us into His family despite our shortcomings, the family unit is a grace from Him. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), allowing us the privilege to honor our families.
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