Family

How Not To Be a Toxic Parent to Your Adult Child

I’ve dropped my daughter off thousands of times. From kindergarten through college, each milestone brought its own unique mix of sadness, excitement, and terror. But as difficult as those moments were, I could always take comfort in knowing they would be over. Eventually, the bell would ring, the class would end, and she’d come back to me.

This time was different. For the first time, I didn’t know when I’d see my daughter again.

My wife and I did our best to be positive as we carried boxes into her apartment and helped her put dishes away. We knew our adult child was ready for the challenge, but I wasn’t sure I was.

As we watched her wave goodbye from the staircase railing, a sea of regrets streamed down my face. Our time was up. Had I done enough?

Parenting an adult child

For better or for worse, her decisions are hers to make and consequences hers to bear. If she makes mistakes—and she will—it isn’t a reflection of us or our parenting ability. Likewise, if she succeeds, we can’t pat ourselves on the back.  Her success is hers. 

Good or bad, it’s on her now.

But parenting an adult child is new territory for us. So here are five ways we’re learning not to be toxic parents.

1. We’re changing the way we influence.

As her father, I will always have a significant influence on her life, but in a very real way, my time for shaping her values has passed. Friends, co-workers, and romantic relationships will now hold much more sway in her day-to-day life than I will. This doesn’t mean my teaching days are over, but it does mean the way I teach must change.

No more lectures and unsolicited advice. Instead of jumping in with solutions, I need to ask, “Would you like help figuring this out, or do you want to try and do it on your own?”

When help is requested, I can’t assume the type or extent. Again, I need to ask, “How would you like me to help you?”

I’ve always told her she could do anything. Now is the time for me to prove that I meant it. 


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2. We’re releasing control of our adult child.

When she was a child, parenting required us to exert a certain level of control over her life. We monitored where she went, what she did, and who she did it with. If she crossed a line, privileges would be suspended or revoked.

But as an adult, she’s the one who decides how she spends her time and who she spends it with. It’s uncomfortable for us, but we need to give her the freedom to make her own choices. She won’t always do what we would want, but we can trust God won’t let her go.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

3. We’re changing how we respond to bad choices.

No matter how good of a job we do as parents, our children will eventually make some pretty bad choices. God is a perfect Father and His children messed up, so there’s no reason to think I’ll be able to parent better. 

But when an adult child does make bad choices, we can learn from how God responded:

  • He pursued us. Even though Adam and Eve tried to hide, God made the first move toward reconciliation. (See Genesis 3:8-11.)
  • He listened. God knew what happened, but He still gave Adam and Eve a chance to explain themselves. (Genesis 3:11-13)
  • He let them experience consequences. They had to work hard and experience pain. (Genesis 3:16-19)
  • He offered help. God gave them their first set of clothes to get them started. (Genesis 3:21)
  • He is patient. God doesn’t force us to do the right thing but patiently waits for our return. (2 Peter 3:9)

Sometimes the choices an adult child makes cause pain deeper than we knew was possible. They teach us the meaning of words like grace, truth, and longsuffering. Though they break our hearts, a loving parent will never give up hope, never stop praying, and always look forward to the day when, like the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), our relationship can be restored.

4. We’re making prayer our primary weapon.

Unfortunately, my prayer style has always been: Try it on your own first, then ask God if you can’t figure it out. Now that I have an adult child, the paradigm has finally shifted. Prayer has become my primary weapon.

My prayer is that she will remember the Bible holds the answers to life’s questions, that she surrounds herself with a community of believers from a strong church, and that she seeks guidance from God through prayer herself.

5. We’re realizing she isn’t an adult child at all.

Our daughter once told us that no matter how old she was, she felt she would always be seen as a child by the family. In many ways, she’s right. It’s hard not to see the face of an innocent baby hiding behind all the grown-up clothes and hair. But just because I will always see daddy’s little girl doesn’t mean I can’t also see the amazing woman she has become.

One of the best ways to demonstrate that I see her as an adult is by asking questions and honoring her answers—even if we don’t like them.

  • Would it be okay for us to visit?
  • How long would you like us to stay?
  • Are you planning on coming for Thanksgiving?

Either she is an adult, or she is a child. She can’t be both. Continuing to view her as a child is disrespectful, will stifle her growth, and push her away. If she is an adult, then we need to treat her as an adult. 

A new day

A few days after driving back home, I stood in the doorway of my daughter’s old room. I stared at her perfectly made bed and wondered how the time had gone so fast. But just before the sadness came, I heard a gentle “ba-ding” from my phone. All it said was “Good morning,” but it meant the world. My baby was okay. And I knew I’d be too.


Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Orlando, Florida. You can learn more on their site, YourEverAfter.org.

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