2 Ways to Motivate Your Struggling Adult Child

Your actions play a big role in helping your adult child take action.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Based on my observations from coaching parents of adult children in the U.S. and abroad, this pandemic has greatly exacerbated the already existing frustrations in these families. Are you one of the many parents feeling frustrated and burned out because of your struggling adult child's lack of motivation and self-defeating behaviors?

I really do get it. I hear many stories of major frustration about adult children who behave negatively by:

  • Expecting, rather than truly appreciating, their parents subsidizing the cost of an apartment, car insurance, or college tuition.
  • Overly blaming society, or you, for their struggles even though you have been doing all you can to help them find their place.
  • Saying they will clean up the dishes or complete other household tasks—but then not doing it.
  • Not being able to find or hold employment or being underemployed. 
  • Failing out of college early or getting two-thirds of the way through college and then giving up.
  • Involving themselves with, and settling for, problematic (even abusive) significant others.
  • Having lofty ambitions but lacking the persistence to pursue them in a practical way. 
  • Are not able to get themselves together but are resourceful when it comes to getting marijuana or other drugs.

What Does Not Help

The following types of interactions will create fruitless, emotionally reactive power struggles with your struggling adult child:

  • Injecting guilt. It’s one thing to ask how they would feel if in your shoes or someone else’s in a given situation. Too often, however, parents push this to the limit and try to make their adult children feel guilty because of their thoughts, feelings, or actions. Parents who use guilt to control their children run the risk of alienating them. 
  • Dwelling on past conflicts. Once a problem or conflict is resolved, or even amicably put aside, try not throw it at them again, without first allowing time and space. Parents who bring up and dwell on their children’s past mistakes are teaching them to hold grudges for long periods of time. 
  • Using biting sarcasm. You are using sarcasm if you say things you don’t mean and imply the opposite of what you’re saying through your tone of voice. An example would be saying something like, “Oh, aren’t you bright,” when your adult child makes a poor choice. The use of sarcasm hurts and becomes an obstacle for parents who are trying to communicate effectively.
  • Lecturing. Parents who intrusively tell their children how to solve their problems may lead children to believe that they have no control over their own lives. When parents jump in and give adult children a dissertation on how they should do things instead of letting them have some input into solutions for problems, they are lecturing. If anything, they will likely do the opposite of what you are trying to get them to do.
  • Making threats. Threats are rarely effective. In fact, they often make adult children feel powerless and resentful. Threats also spark defiance, leading to further escalation of conflict.
  • Denying their feelings. When they tell you how they feel, it’s important that you don’t make light of these feelings. If, for example, you think your child “shouldn’t” feel sad about a breakup, it is best not to say so. In this case, you will do better by saying something supportive like, “I know you really valued your relationship. Breakups can really feel painful.” 

All of these parenting behaviors can negatively impact your relationship with your adult child. It’s easy to say, “I just won’t do that anymore” and still fall into the pattern of repeating these behaviors. Occasional slips may occur. When they do, address them with your child. But better yet, let's focus on what you can do versus on what not to do.

Here's what you CAN do to help your adult child feel more empowered and motivated to make positive changes in their lives.

What Does Help

1. Point Out The Positives. Notice and build on "islands of motivation." The more you look for instances of your adult child showing initiative, motivation, and persistence, the more you will see it. As a separate example, if you go out and buy a certain make, model, and color of a type of car today, isn't there a higher chance you will notice others like it on the roads tomorrow? This is because of what is referred to as selective attention, or the process of focusing on one thing and ignoring others.

So, the more you see the clothes not put away or the dishes left in the sink, the less you may notice the trash taken out or even the lawn being cared for—or even that he got up earlier than usual. I'm not saying you should completely ignore the clothes or the dishes, or that you should throw a party if your son or daughter gets up on time. Rather, just try to notice the trash being taken out or the leaves being raked up. Or, that she got up early and contacted the admissions office about re-enrolling in college. Do your best to see and reinforce the good stuff.

Just keep in mind that I never hear adult children complain to me of parents who take the time to truly understand them and notice what they do well, even if in other ways they appear to be "lazy."

2. Be Calm, Firm, and Non-Controlling. Many clients report that the Calm, Firm, Non-Controlling approach, as detailed in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Edition, helps them learn to bypass threats and the resulting power struggles. This approach has been found to be very helpful for managing adult children with whom it is tough to have a constructive conversation. After all, isn't that the goal? 

In short, this approach helps you become an emotion coach and not a nagging, adversarial parent in the eyes of the adult child. A sample soundbite may be something like: "I hear you're annoyed that I asked again if you got a job. I'll keep working on backing off. I realize that putting yourself out there to get a job can feel overwhelming. At the same time, we both know you'll feel better having more independence and structure in your life. Just know that I am here to be supportive to you."

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