12 Words to Overcome Conflicts with a Difficult Adult Child

Shifting to a positive, constructive mindset and behaviors.

Posted Mar 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Over the course of my 33 years coaching parents of struggling adult children, one of the biggest problems I’ve seen is when parents act like—parents. Your adult child, when hurting, lashing out, or being manipulative, will not likely respond well when you act like a parent!

The reason is that when you act like a typical concerned or frustrated parent (providing unsolicited advice, nagging, lecturing, being reactive or making threats) your adult child feels like a child. This may sound strange at first, because you are, after all, just being the parent. But, in the eyes and ears of your adult child who likely resents feeling dependent on you, and has an internalized sense of shame for this being the case, talking to them like they are a child feels very hurtful.

Given this dilemma, the ways you as a parent, actually do communicate with your struggling adult child is crucial in being able to be heard. This is especially the case in terms of how you both learn to calm down and solve problems together. As I explain in my latest book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, the skills of calming down and problem-solving are without a doubt the two most essential skills for all of us to learn. So how do you get past those fruitless, upsetting conflicts with your adult child and inspire calming down and problem-solving? How about saying the following 12 words?

"Wouldn't it help us if we can have a calm, constructive conversation?"

When you were stuck in a fruitless power struggle with your adult child, asking to have a constructive conversation models calming down and problem-solving. This puts you in the role of emotion coach versus parent.

Maybe you’re skeptical of whether or not this question will get you to a better place in your adult child with the above 12-word question? Well, I’m hoping that you can acknowledge that it is a much better choice than nagging, injecting guilt, yelling, emotionally withdrawing, or making threats that you won’t follow through on.

Suggesting that "we" have a constructive conversation works well based on my extensive experience in coaching parents to state this supportive, conflict-neutralizing question. Of course, the question will not force your adult child to engage with you. But asking this question, plants that all-important seed to help your adult child be more ready to do so, when they are ready.

And, even if they refuse, what a great soundbite for you to verbalize! This soundbite, "Wouldn't it help us if we can have a calm, constructive conversation?" puts you in the role of emotion coach versus controlling parent. It gets you away from unwittingly or even wittingly (yes, we parents have our dark sides too, especially when we feel anxious and frustrated) pressuring and emotionally overloading your adult child who is likely often feeling emotionally dysregulated.  

In order to further boost the likelihood of success by asking, "Wouldn't it help us if we can have a calm, constructive conversation?" you can "prime the pump" with a few lead in statements that convey positive intention such as: 

"The ways I have been approaching you have not been working out well and I want to do better."

"I think we owe it to each of us to work on hearing one another in a more supportive way."

"I really believe there is a part of you that wants to ease these tensions between us."

Final Thoughts 

The more you become your struggling child's emotion coach, the more you will remove yourself from the role of being the adversarial parent. In doing so, share that you are trying to coach yourself, just as much as them. The more you'll inspire shared, calmer interactions with more effective problem-solving, the healthier your relationship will be with enhanced, more connecting communication.