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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Repairing Relationships with Your Children

Dear Joseph,

I am a single parent with seventeen- and twenty-year-old sons. Over the years, I have, unintentionally and regrettably, shouted quite loudly at my children when they have misbehaved. My twenty-year-old hasn’t seemed to be bothered, but my seventeen-year-old has become emotionally very distant. He has hinted that it is because I always end up lecturing and shouting and he’s had enough. He said he also feels very controlled by me and I’m not giving him trust or freedom to grow. I feel so bad and want to resolve this. What can I do to mend our relationship?

Hope for Healing

Dear Hope for Healing,

For those listening in to our conversation, let me be clear that I do not condone yelling at children. It is abusive. It can inhibit children’s ability to connect with themselves and others.

Now, to my correspondent, let me honor you for owning this. Having made many mistakes as a parent when things were stressful in my two-parent family, I have enormous sympathy for those who make them when dealing with all that stress alone. You deserve to be acknowledged for the loyalty you have shown your children by hanging in there, for the sacrifices you’ve made in their upbringing, and for the humility you’re demonstrating by owning up to the problem you’ve contributed to.

Here are some suggestions as you prepare for this conversation.

1. “Not bothered” isn’t “not affected.” First of all, I would not assume that your twenty-year-old’s appearance of being unaffected means he was unaffected. Everything I offer below should be considered for that child as well.

2. Acknowledge, listen, and commit. Your central challenge is to rebuild trust. If your behavior has harmed them, the only way to rebuild trust is to draw a line between the past and the future with a punctuated conversation. Specifically, one that helps them see those two time periods as separate and exercise hope that change is possible.

a. Begin this conversation by acknowledging and owning your past pattern of responding aggressively. Don’t do it in a summary fashion to preserve your dignity or authority. Own it. Describe specific instances and the full extent of the pattern. Your twenty-year-old may try to cover it up for you or encourage you to minimize it—but don’t let him do it. Ask for a moment to lay out the history in the way you think it should be done.

b. Then, invite your sons to share how your past behavior has affected them. They may respond differently. The twenty-year-old may suggest it was no big deal. The seventeen-year-old may turn it into an opportunity to blame you for more than you deserve. In either case, listen. Use the AMPP skills from Crucial Conversations. If one or the other does not share much, let him know the door is always open as he reflects on this issue in the future and gains new introspective insight.

c. Next, make a commitment for how you will handle emotionally triggering situations in the future. Be clear and specific. For example, “If I am feeling upset, I will take a time out rather than risk aiming my emotion at you.” If you do a good job in this conversation, they will become attentive to evidence of change in you. It will be crucial that you generate new evidence for them soon—or you’ll lose this fragile window of hope.

3. Do periodic check-ins. At least monthly, take one of your children to lunch or dinner and include the question, “Can you give me some feedback about the new changes I’m making?” Listen to all feedback. If you’ve made mistakes, own them. If they think you’ve made mistakes but you disagree—listen anyway. The content of what you hear is important. Even more important is the evidence you are creating that you can listen.

4. Seventeen has its own rules. Some would tell you that your seventeen-year-old being distant and accusatory is redundant. Those behaviors are part of being seventeen. I agree. Part of what seventeen-year-olds have to do is separate from parental influence in order to form their own identity. At times, it’s not a pretty process. At least—unlike some species—they don’t turn on you and eat you. Although sometimes it might feel like that. As you own what you need to from the past, don’t assume that your efforts will produce some immediate result in “reforming” the behavior of your teen. You aren’t doing it to fix him—you’re doing it to fix you. Let him take responsibility for his own growth process and let the process take the time it needs.

5. Minimal boundaries and maximum validation. Your seventeen-year-old is giving you feedback about lecturing, shouting, and controlling. Listen to that. Take a look at it. Are you holding boundaries appropriate to a seventeen-year-old who is about to step into full adulthood? Or, are you retaining some that are more appropriate to a younger child? Show him you’re willing to negotiate within reason. Even when you disagree—listen deeply and validate fully the emotions, resentments, and frustrations expressed. There is hope for healing. You can change. The relationship can improve. It may take time. Let it. Don’t impose your needs on your child’s freedom. If you surrender your wish to control progress, you gain immediate peace. Intimacy cannot be coerced—only earned.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “Repairing Relationships with Your Children”

  1. Julinda

    As a parent who tries (not always successfully) to practice respectful and positive parenting, I am pleased to see this thoughtful question and the excellent response, which will be helpful to me as well as I’m sure many others! Thank you.

  2. Lyn Baker

    Excellent article

  3. Brent

    Thank you for your interesting article, it corresponds with a conversation that my wife and I have had regarding our daughter. My wife had a difficult childhood, not physically difficult but more emotionally difficult. My wife’s parents showed a lack of love, and made comments that still bother her to this day.
    The problem is my wife recognizes the same behavior in herself towards our daughter. It is definitely not as extreme as with her parents, but she notices similarities at times. She feels that my daughter is too young (she is 12) to understand these concepts. I on the other hand think my wife should begin this conversation now so they can work on things before the full “teenage years” hit. I would appreciate any thoughts or comments you might present.

  4. Ann Onimous

    This article was an amazing and timely answer to prayer!

    I am guilty of the same things in your article, and I have been agonizing over how to repair the relationship with two of my adult children. Although my boys are grown and on their own, their hearts have hardened toward me. I realized long ago the mistakes that I made, I admitted them and asked their forgiveness. They forgave me, but that didn’t fix the relationship because I did it the wrong way – explaining, justifying and defending. I was proud of never having been on welfare or having many boyfriends, keeping a roof over their heads, food on the table, and doing the best I could with what I had. This was definitely not what they wanted to hear! I didn’t understand how to address how I had made them feel.

    I am very thankful for this well laid-out plan and hopeful that with much prayer I will be able to repair our relationship and be a family again.

    One last thing, I have always lamented the fact that for the most important job we will ever have, there is no real training or education. Why not?

    1. Steve Cromer


      There are many great books that can help you with parenting. I am by no means an expert and have made many mistakes. I would suggest crucial conversations as a good place to start. Many parents are afraid to have tough conversations or tell their child no or apologize when needed. I find any time I spend in bible study and prayer is incredibly important. If I am in poor spiritual shape I cannot be a good parent. Your desire to repair your relationship with your kids is wonderful. Look for ways to make amends and tell them you love them.

    2. Phyllis

      Hi Brent and Ann

      You might like to check out “Parent Effectiveness Training,” and the work of Thomas Gordon, who might have had an influence on Joseph. There are a lot of free resources and books (in the library) – this is classic, basic material. Also, check out Both Gordon and Rosenberg were graduate students of Carl Rogers.

  5. Mike Lund

    Great article. For teenagers, one of the most important aspects of their life is social media. So, when looking to repair or enhance relationships with your teen, consider establishing a connection through texting. Simple texts throughout the day go a long way to paving the road to a fulfilling conversation. for more information.

  6. Anonymous

    Thanks for this. I’m now 40 with a kid of my own. My parents yelled at me a lot when I was younger and have never take responsibility and it still bothers. I was late dating and late making friends, even though I’ve had a successful career. My parents give me lots of money, but if we ever talk about the past, my dad says you’re an adult, deal with it. And my mom still says she’s too old to change and will die soon (when I was younger, she threatened to kill herself because she had to yell at me).

    I’ve gotten my own help, but it’s nice to see the above as some validation for what I went through.

  7. Jennifer

    It’s hard to describe just how desperately I want NOT to yell at my children. My parents are wonderful, supportive, loving, and never yelled at me, and I cannot remember ever raising my voice in anger…until having children. I feel deeply injured when someone yells at me, so my sense of failure is crushing after I’ve screamed at my kids (who are 1, 4 and 6). I thought of myself as such a patient person before I became a parent, and I’m ashamed at all the times I’ve lost my temper, that I’ve lost control of myself, and yelled at them. Yes, we talk and I apologize and we reconnect afterwards, but that’s not good enough for me. It’s scary feeling out of control of my own behavior (a totally new and unwelcome experience). I want so very much never to yell at my kids again, but I haven’t yet figured out how to remain in control of myself during these prolonged times of elevated stress. This is not who I thought I was! This is not who I want to be! My kids are of inestimable worth and value to me, and I would want them to distance themselves from anyone who treated them with the unkindness and disrespect entailed in screaming at them in anger or frustration. I need help finding an appropriate, healthy way of expressing anger and frustration that doesn’t leave me feeling like a two-year-old throwing my own tantrum.

    1. Julinda

      Jennifer – I’m working on not yelling and here are some sites I’ve found helpful:

    2. Phyllis

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for sharing. I really, really hope you can see this. Both the “P.E.T.” Thomas Gordon author and the – “Center for Non-violent communication” – lots of excellent material in all media formats. They both have workshops and even – for “CNVC” – family camps. Practice and talking w. others is crucial. This is very much “third way” – not authoritarian, not permissive. I recommend both, because the approaches are very different. The website has a free article under “resources”/”parenting” that compares many different parenting books.

  8. Phyllis

    Thanks for this article, Joseph.
    I’d like to add – and perhaps differ? – where you write: “The seventeen-year-old may turn it into an opportunity to blame you for more than you deserve.”

    I’m not sure the word “blame” applies here, at least as I understand it. Really, the impacts of how parents treat children is huge – and it’s the pain of those impacts that has effects that are really known only to the recipient. I think you might mean – really strong emotions and a lot of impacts. (?)

    I’d suggest to “hope” – not at all to imagine there’s a “right” amount of “blame” – I wouldn’t even use the word “blame” – emotion or responsibility.

    Something I read that I like…in “Beyond Reason” book by Fisher and Shapiro – they say something along the lines of…let’s see, I’ll try to quote it: “If, for example, you are unappreciated or unaffiliated, you may feel as if you are drowning, alone, ignored, unable to breathe.” By affiliation, I take it to mean “belonging” – and the fundamental sense of safety and security everyone needs from their primary attachment person.

    I’d really suggest to “Hope” – to get some empathy and support – esp. from the communities I suggested above: or Or somewhere! She also deserves a lot of empathy, and perhaps needs that before she can really absorb the amount of emotional pain her emotional disconnection triggered in her sons. And perhaps even try to arrange for them to receive empathy elsewhere and/or to have someone they can all talk to. Ideal, I know. (Just my way of saying: I hope, as well – for all their needs to be met.) That love and connection is possible.

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