Here are three sentences describing what it is that I'm looking for help with:

I'm looking for a way to get across to my adult son that I can no longer tolerate his abusive behavior (criticism/ridicule/rebuke) towards me. I want to maintain a good relationship with him but not at the cost of being his virtual/verbal punching bag. I've expressed that it's very upsetting to me, but it hasn't stopped the abuse.

Below is background about the situation:

I'm married with two grown sons, 30 and 32 years old. The eldest, Seth, lives nearby, so we see each other 2 to 4 times a month and on the one hand, we are very friendly with each other, but on the other hand, Seth is able to criticize or ridicule me for just about everything that I say or do. It's always been slightly difficult, but when he broke up a long relationship recently, it seemed to get a magnitude worse. Although, now that there is a new relationship (seems to be a happy one!), that does not seemed to have changed anything in terms of how Seth treats me. Frankly, it was never great, and maybe I’ve just had enough.

I don't make judgments about him or what he does. I don't pry into his life. I would say that I don't interfere in his life but I'm there for whatever support he needs, which isn't very often. He’s smart, responsible and I think takes care of himself very well. I don’t have any complaints about how he lives his life. I give advice when it's requested, mainly work stuff, or working on cars, cooking, or on that level of interaction. I would describe myself as having a lot of opinions, like food, politics, etc. but I would also say that I don't push them onto anybody, including Seth. My wife and youngest recognize this situation as well, and they have both lamented that they don't understand why Seth behaves the way he does towards me. I would best compare it to how I treated my father when I was a teen and was doing my best to annoy my Dad with snide comments. That doesn't seem unusual to me to behave like that as a teenager, although I don't really know why I did it, but it does seem strange to me that this is happening with a grown up.

It's at the point where I just don't want to say anything, but that's a strange and unnatural way to have to behave, plus sometimes you just can't remain quiet. I want to be around him less and less. I can see how I could become estranged from him, but that's not what I want. I've researched a bit on the web, but most of what I see seems to point at the parent making judgments and interfering or pressuring their grown children. I really don't see that happening here at all. My wife doesn’t seem to be the focus of any of this difficult behavior.

When I complain to him about the way he is treating me, it usually elicits a sheepish “sorry”, but after having gone through this scenario so many times, it’s clear that the “sorry” does not in any way translate to him not repeating this behavior. I’ve explained that I’m entitled to have my own opinions and that I’m not criticizing him, but that it’s my opinion and you are welcome to have your own opinion. When I say "opinion", really I mean opinion or just a comment about something. For example, we had some visitors from Europe and one of the teens was wearing a t-shirt that had "Hollister" written across it. I asked where she got it because it's a town in California. I was just curious, but I was rebuked for saying something like this, and him saying that it has nothing to do with the city and it's a brand, etc. Ok, fine, but I just asked him if he could let the teen answer. I thought that was a rather harmless question and could have been a nice interaction, but in this case, all I got was "interference" and a "rebuke".

  • 4
    Can you put into one or two sentences what interpersonal goal you want to achieve with your son? Do you care if you become estranged or not?
    – ElizB
    Jul 17 '19 at 23:13
  • As written this looks like a request for advice which is outside the scope of this site.
    – sphennings
    Jul 17 '19 at 23:23
  • 1
    Maybe the folks over on the parenting stackexchange would also be able to help.
    – AsheraH
    Jul 18 '19 at 5:11
  • Hi bivouac! Welcome to IPS. It's a bit unclear to me what is it you're trying to achieve (saying "I'm out of ideas, please help" is too broad for IPS). Would it be interesting for you if we answered "how to communicate to my adult son that I'm hurt by the way he talks about me/speak to me?" This more narrow question is an example of what we could help you with, so if it fits your goal, feel free to use it as is, otherwise if you need help defining a new question don't hesitate to reach us. Have a great time around!
    – avazula
    Jul 18 '19 at 6:05
  • Is there a background history to why the two of you have developed this pattern? Jul 24 '19 at 10:22

I think I know how you feel about this situation. Just "think", because I was "the Seth" in my case, living not close, but WITH the family. Being smart, making jokes etc. I did it to be "fun", but life (and family) made it clear that I was not actually fun.

So I made an agreement with them (the agreement was my initiative, as a consequence to their complaints):

  • they would tell me when I do jokes which hurt them, at the moment when I tell those jokes - so I would be able to analyze myself and the joke, and learn some "lessons";
  • I would make the necessary efforts to adjust.

Things did not happen over-night, but managed to improve the situation, to hurt my family much less.

In your case, you should do what my family did: have a short, serious and clear discussion with your son, and explain him that saying "sorry" does not do it, and that he must change, in order for the relationship to continue unaltered.

If he agrees to improve, make the same arrangement that I had with my family. He will stay alert about what he tells, you will kindly "correct" him when necessary.

I’ve explained that I’m entitled to have my own opinions [...]

The situation is not about you, it is about him. You need to tell him YOUR expectation from HIM.


I am offended / angry / when you have this kind of attitude. I want you to stop this attitude. I want you to stop being confrontational. I want you to stop giving answers to questions which were not addressed to you.

And you may continue:

I am aware that you cannot adjust your way of being over-night, and that is why I am willing to help you. Please let me know what I can do.

If he has no ideas, offer him the deal that I had with my family.

[...] and that I’m not criticizing him

That is exactly what you should do. To criticize him. Of course, you need to keep it inside family, and do it by being supportive rather than being defensive or aggressive.

You must make him really understand that his behavior is not just teasing, it is plain aggressive and hurting. I tell you this from experience. If you do not make things very clear, he will keep thinking that his attitude is just innocent teasing.

  • "When I complain to him about the way he is treating me, it usually elicits a sheepish “sorry”, but after having gone through this scenario so many times..." to me, it means that "Dad" has already triend many many times to change this behavior and set boundaries, and it just failed because of "Seth"'s attitude. Is "have a short, serious and clear discussion" different from what OP did? and will it improve the situation? It's rather unclear if you provide OP with an alternative or if you suggest they may "show the red button" and be ready for nuclear war if son carries on...
    – OldPadawan
    Jul 18 '19 at 7:38
  • @OldPadawan: I described my own experience, and the solution which worked. Please make it clear what is not clear to you. Where are the "red button" and the "nuclear war" in my answer? Being firm (called adult in transactional analysis ) definitely does not equate to being aggressive (called rebel child in the same science).
    – virolino
    Jul 18 '19 at 8:41
  • "he must change, in order for the relationship to continue unaltered" = this is what I see being a red button. You keep being that brat, I'll blow you away (red button = nuclear war => same attitude = STOP! and leave me alone)
    – OldPadawan
    Jul 18 '19 at 9:05
  • @OldPadawan: a successful interaction implies that at least two people want to interact. If one does not want to work on (improving) the relationship, the other person cannot do anything. "It takes two to tango" - that is true regarding any interactions too. Nobody can guarantee anything about the behavior of other people. Many times, people are surprised even at their own behavior. By "definition", maintaining relationships is not an exact science. Unfortunately. There are no guaranteed solutions which always work. I presented a solution which actually worked. It might work again.
    – virolino
    Jul 18 '19 at 9:13
  • your comment is very accurate. That's why I'm puzzled, because "Seth" doesn't seem like a person willling to interact with his Dad like adults do. I'll read all that again 2 or 3 times, and see if I get something wrong...
    – OldPadawan
    Jul 18 '19 at 11:02

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