How involved should I get in my adult children’s squabbles?

It is understandable that parents get involved in conflict and take the role of judge when their children begin to argue and require intervention to bring the disagreement to an end. Young children are still working out how the world works and still may not have the skills necessary to solve arguments between themselves in a reasonable manner that causes the minimum amount of emotional upheaval.


For parents taking this role can become very wearing as they try to deal with sibling discord while trying to maintain a good relationship with each of their children. When their children reach adulthood, some parents are able to remedy this by withdrawing from this role and insisting that their adult children sort out their own issues without them, in order to maintain relationships with all of their children.

In this brief article, we explore why taking this position may be beneficial. Obviously, certain behaviours where a sibling is causing harm to another may require parental intervention, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will be considering the everyday kind of disagreements that occur among siblings.

The definition of relationship from the realm of systemic thinking works with the idea that there are set rules in regard to the level of intimacy, function and disclosure that occur. For example, a spousal relationship could be considered peer-to-peer as no one has direct authority over another and share a high level of physical and emotional intimacy. Any other seeking to try to encroach on the same definition would constitute a boundary violation in the eyes of one of the spouses. Understanding how a relationship is defined can help parents manage personal boundaries.

In relation to parents and their children, this is more of a power relationship as the parent has full responsibility for the child and because the child cannot protect themselves, the parent has to act to prevent them from coming to harm. These two definitions however can be problematic as the child reaches adulthood, because this definition may no longer apply as the child seeks a sense of autonomy.

The parental-child relationship must seek new meaning and respect for this needs to be nurtured (this is also important in relation to sibling rivalries). Though children may seek their own autonomy, they still want to know they can call on their parents in times of need. While this is perfectly normal, they may also request parents maintain the role of mediator in the conflicts with their siblings.

For parents, this can place them in an impossible position because the more children they have, the more difficult this can become. In order to maintain relationships with their children whilst still providing emotional support, it may be useful to consider making it known that as adults they have the necessary skills to sort conflicts out themselves. Talk about how the conflict makes you feel and how you feel positioned by it and explain fully that all of your children are important to you and that you will not take sides.

Maintaining this boundary is important because not doing so may lead to the perception of favouritism or siblings beginning to compete for their parent's approval. It may cause some siblings to withdraw from the family because the infighting becomes too much, or siblings form separate groups who agree without ever discussing the conflict.

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship and when done well can aid growth. Some couples for example in therapy may tell the counsellor they never argue, for a therapist this can spark curiosity because this could be a sign that they are holding back discussing certain issues.

As adults, it is a sign of emotional maturity if we are able to manage conflict, not just within our family but outside of it as well. Consider a manager within an organisation being asked to mediate employee conflict. How might it make them feel that two grown adults cannot sort out an issue themselves? Equally, for parents who are having to manage their adult children’s conflict, it can be equally so.

If there are half-siblings this can make the situation more complex. The biological partner of both sets of children may feel pulled in many different ways. Towards maintaining a relationship with children from the first relationship, the children from the second relationship and their former and new partner. This possibility of firefighting many different conflicts on many different levels makes the importance of setting a boundary of what you are prepared to get involved with and what you are not, even more important.  

If the adult children cannot find common ground through differing values, irreconcilable differences or any other means whereby they simply cannot get on, then being able to compartmentalise these relationships may be useful in order to maintain a relationship with both children.

Unfortunately, just because people are related this does not guarantee they will get on. Though a parent understandably could be pained by this, they may need to consider developing two independent means of connection. This does not mean that the parent need not speak about how the situation makes them feel, we all need to feel like we have a voice, but from a communication perspective try using ‘I feel this…’ as it can feel less accusatory to the receiver than ‘you make me feel…’.

If all family members want to work on repairing some of these connections and that cannot be done within the family, then seeking out family therapy could be a viable option. Like with all forms of therapy, counsellors require the genuine consent of all involved and the overall goal of therapy must be shared.

In conclusion, parents should consider how getting involved in the conflicts of their adult children will affect their relationships with their other children. If you keep taking the role of judge, how might this affect their ability to work through conflict with others without asking for support? As we grow into adulthood we become individual people with our own hopes, dreams and values. This can mean that our relationship with others also evolves, parents who respect this change and are able to navigate this evolution may have a better understanding of how they position themselves in relation to sibling conflict.

During childhood, parents should model how they resolve conflict as a guide and proactively teach their children how to work through a disagreement so in adulthood they feel they have the skills to deal with conflict in all areas of their life. That is not to say of course there would not be some instances where parents may have to step in, abusive or criminal behaviour should not be tolerated in any relationship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH
Written by Anthony Purnell, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Prof Accred)
Bedwas, Caerphilly, CF83 8EH

I am an accredited counsellor with the BACP and NCS, I am Systemically trained and work with clients in a relational way and I am also a qualified supervisor. I work in private practice which I began in 2019 and work with adults over the age of 18 either as individuals or as couples.

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