Parental Authority Over a Grown Child

Now that our son is past eighteen, should he still obey us? The Bible says that children should "obey" and "submit to" their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20), but he says that because he's an adult, this commandment no longer applies to him. How do you feel about this? At what point does an adult child become fully independent of his parents' control?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she crosses the threshold into adulthood. In some ways this moment is culturally defined. In the Jewish tradition, for instance, a boy is considered a man at age 13. In contemporary America a young person comes of age and is empowered to vote at 18. The precise line of demarcation differs from society to society, and obviously an individual’s level of maturity plays an important role in this journey. But the basic idea remains the same, and in every case the principle involved is fundamentally biblical (see 1 Corinthians 13:11).

Once this line is crossed, the parent-child relationship is supposed to change in some basic ways. Your child is then on the road to becoming your peer and equal rather than a dependent minor. He will be graduating into a position of self-responsibility, in which he becomes accountable to a higher authority – the authority of God Himself. In His eyes and under His jurisdiction, your child is transitioning into a separate and self-determining entity. Whether or not he takes immediate advantage of the opportunity, he has the right to leave home and make his own way in the world.

Very soon, if not already, his personal decisions will have to be something more than a matter of simple “submission” to Mom’s and Dad’s injunctions. He will have to choose to act on the basis of the wisdom you’ve attempted to instill in him over the years and out of an awareness of his personal responsibility toward his Creator. If he attends church, it should be because he has a heartfelt desire to serve Christ and connect with His people – not because you “make him go.” If he avoids drugs and alcohol, it should be because he understands the negative consequences of substance abuse and wishes to honor his own body as the temple of the Holy Spirit – not because he’s trying to “obey” his parents’ commands. If he makes a point of getting to bed at a decent hour on weeknights, it should be because he wants to be at the top of his form at school or work the next morning – not because he’s adhering to a curfew.

Does this mean that he has the prerogative to adopt a dismissive attitude toward you or to disparage your values and opinions? Absolutely not. As Christians, we know that there is never any justification for treating another person with disrespect. What’s more, as your peer and equal, your child remains under an obligation to “submit” to you not as his parents but as fellow human beings and as his brother and sister in Christ (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3; I Peter 5:5). That’s not to mention that there is no time- or age-limit attached to the biblical command to honor one’s parents; as Paul writes (quoting Exodus 20:12), “‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with a promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'” (Ephesians 6:2).

On the other hand, we want to qualify this last point by reminding you that “honor” does not necessarily imply that an adult child must do whatever his parents want him to do. For instance, a parent may wish that an adult child would accept every piece of advice the parent offers – plainly an unrealistic desire. He or she may also ask the adult child to behave in ways that are unhealthy, inadvisable, or downright damaging – for example, by requiring the child to have Sunday dinner at the parents’ house every week in spite of potential conflict with the child’s spouse. In cases like these, we believe it’s important for adult children stand their ground firmly but lovingly.

If you’re finding this transitional phase in the parent-child relationship a bit rocky or bumpy, you may need to step back and reassess your approach. It might be a good idea to sit down with your child and talk openly about your mutual expectations. Sometimes a “ceremony” or “rite of passage” of some kind (on the analogy of the Jewish Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah) can be helpful in redefining roles and establishing new parameters. If your child is still living at home, it’s particularly important to spell things out as clearly as possible. You need to be able to say, “As you approach adulthood, here’s what changes and here’s what stays the same.” Above all, resist the temptation to manipulate or control. You’re free to make as many rules as you like, but make sure they are reasonable and deal with significant issues.

Speaking of control, it seems significant that you gave this word such a prominent place in your question. Where there’s a struggle for control between parents and adult children, there are usually deeper issues lurking beneath the surface – issues having to do with respect and personal boundaries. Naturally, we’d be in a much better position to comment if we had some more detailed information about your family. We’d like to know, for instance, how far “past 18” your daughter is and whether she’s living at home or on her own. If you think it might be helpful to discuss these issues at greater length with a member of our staff, we’d like to invite you to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department. Our counselors would be happy to come alongside you in any way they can. They can also provide referrals to Christian family counselors practicing in your local area.

In the meantime, if you believe that our observations on the subject of control may be relevant to your situation, it might be worth your while to procure a copy of the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict also offers a great deal of useful advice in the area of maintaining healthy relationships. Both of these resources can be ordered by calling our offices or visiting our
Online Store.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents


The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict

Peacemaking for Families

Hurting Parent: Help and Hope for Parents of Prodigals

Parenting Adult Children

When Adult Children Move Back Home

Establishing Boundaries With Adult Kids

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

(For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

Click here to return to Boundless

Focus on the Family

Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

The Daily Citizen

The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

  • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

  • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

Christian Counselors Network

Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.