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5 Words Not to Say to a Struggling Adult Child

The wrong words can lower self-esteem and strain the relationship.

Key points

  • Pressuring a struggling adult child negatively impacts their well-being and the relationship with them.
  • The fear of failure may hinder an adult child's ability to focus and follow through in their endeavors.
  • Communicating with a struggling adult child about their situation requires sensitivity and empathy.

I recently wrote an article entitled "4 Words Every Struggling Adult Child Needs To Hear," which seemed to resonate with readers. (Those words, by the way, were "I believe in you.")

This current article looks at the other side of communication—that is, what adult children don't want to hear. By this, I mean how pressuring a struggling adult child can have several negative impacts on their well-being and your relationship with them.

Let's consider Jerry, who requested I coach him on how to better connect with his adult son, Will, age 32. For context, Will had failed out of three colleges and was having a hard time sticking with any type of job. Will also had a strong belief that the only thing that helped him manage his anxiety was weed, which he was overusing. Jerry was understandably anxious about Will's ability to make it on his own and become independent.

Jerry viewed himself as a "representative of reality" and was struggling to understand why his five-word question: "What is your game plan?" was so offputting to Will.

There are similar pressuring questions (while not having the same 5 words, they may have a similar negative impact) that parents may unwittingly ask their adult children when they are floundering. These include:

  • "So, when are you going to get a job?"
  • How long do you plan to avoid facing the real world?
  • "When are you going to get a job in your field?"
  • "Why haven't you applied for a higher-level job?"
  • "Why did you choose that career path?"
  • "Look at [peer's or sibling's name], they are doing so well. So, what about you?"

Based on my coaching experiences with concerned parents, they usually ask these pressuring questions as a result of their anxiety, concern, love, or a desire (expressed clumsily) to understand their adult children's lives better. Let's now take a closer look at the negative impacts of these types of pressuring questions.

7 Negative Consequences of Pressuring Your Struggling Adult Child

1. Increased Stress and Anxiety. Pressure can lead to increased stress and anxiety for the struggling adult child. The pressure to meet certain expectations or perform at a certain level can be overwhelming, making it difficult for them to cope with the challenges they are already facing. The son of one parent I coach told her, "You think you're trying to get me to realize I need to be independent. But, seriously you just scare the crap out of me every time you bring up how I am wasting my life away."

2. Strained Relationship. As I further explain in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, frequent parental pressure can strain the relationship between the adult child and the parent applying the pressure. This leads to adult children feeling misunderstood or unaccepted, leading to resentment and distance in the relationship. For obvious reasons, I maintain that understanding our children can be even more crucial than the love we try to give them.

3. Negative Mental Health Effects. The persistent pressure to succeed can contribute to negative mental health effects, such as depression or low self-esteem. Many adult children have shared with me how feeling like they are not meeting expectations leads to them having a sense of failure and inadequacy.

4. Reduced Motivation and Performance. Think about how productive you feel when someone forcefully tells you what to do. Reflecting on how you truly feel when being told what to do, please realize that excessive pressure from parents can lead to adult children having reduced motivation and performance. The fear of failure or disappointing others may create a mental block, hindering an adult child's ability to focus and follow through in their endeavors.

5. Impact on Decision-Making. Excessive pressure from parents can negatively influence adult children in their decision-making. I have heard many unhappy adult children describe picking jobs, training programs, colleges, and even career paths that they deeply regretted because "I was trying to please my parents." That is, when adult children feel pressured, they may make choices based on external expectations rather than their values and interests, potentially leading to dissatisfaction and a sense of disconnection from their true self.

6. Impaired Self-Esteem. Frequent pressure from parents can erode self-esteem, causing the struggling adult child to doubt their abilities and worth. Adult children who are told by their parents that, "You should..." results in them feeling another word that begins with "sh". That word is "shame." This can have long-lasting effects on their confidence and self-image.

7. Resentment and Rebellion. Feeling pressured may lead to feelings of resentment, and in some cases, rebellion. I have seen many adult children resist this pressure by engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors. These include routinely sleeping in late, problematically using substances, and developing a lifestyle of lying and denial that are counterproductive or even harmful.

Now that we've looked at what does not work well, let's look at how you can have a supportive voice that helps your adult child feel validated versus cornered.

Helpful Ways for Parents to Express Support

It's important to approach adult children facing challenges with empathy and support rather than pressure. Open communication, understanding, and encouragement can be more effective in helping them navigate difficulties and work toward positive change. If necessary, seeking the guidance of mental health professionals can provide additional support and resources.

Communicating with a struggling adult child about their situation requires sensitivity and empathy. Instead of coming at them with questions such as "What is your game plan," which might sound directive or condescending, consider approaching the conversation with a supportive and collaborative mindset. Here are some tips:

Express Empathy. Start by expressing empathy and understanding. For example, "Lori, I am aware of the difficult challenges you're facing. Please hear that even though we may approach some things differently, I care about your well-being."

Create a Safe Space. Ensure that conversations take place in a safe and non-judgmental space. You might say, "Kevin how about we go for a walk together. I want to understand your perspective and explore how I can best communicate in a way that feels supportive versus judgmental or attacking."

Ask Open-Ended Questions. Instead of asking directly about their "game plan," ask open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. For example:

  • "How have you been feeling about your current situation?"
  • "What is going well and not so well given the challenges you're facing right now?"

Active Listening. Practicing active listening is hard for parents wracked with anxiety. Active listening involves not just hearing your adult child's words but also trying to understand their emotions and the underlying concerns.

Reflect on what you hear to show that you are engaged and understanding. You could even say, "There is a part of me that wants to give you advice but I'd rather you get the things that are bothering you off your chest."

Avoid Judgments. I see many parents who have a hard time refraining from making judgments or giving unsolicited advice. Please remember, your goal is to understand your adult child's perspective and support them rather than imposing your ideas on what they should do.

While it is hard for all of us as parents, it is crucial that if we expose our values, we do so in a way that does not feel like we are imposing them. You might say, "Even though we see some things differently, I value how open you are being with me. I am working to remind myself that we each may approach challenges similarly in some ways and differently in other ways."

Offer Support. Let your adult child know that you are there to support them in whatever way they need. This support may include emotional support, practical assistance (within reason), or helping them connect with resources.

Set Realistic Goals. Work together to set realistic and achievable short-term goals. Breaking down larger challenges into smaller, manageable steps can make the situation seem less overwhelming.

Final Thoughts

Remember, every adult child is different, and the approach may vary based on the specific circumstances and your relationship with your child. The key is to foster open communication and collaboration. In closing, please keep in mind that in over 33 years as a psychologist, I have never had an adult child complain that their parents expressed too much empathy to them.

© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Barker MM, Beresford B, Bland M, Fraser LK. Prevalence and Incidence of Anxiety and Depression Among Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults With Life-Limiting Conditions: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(9):835–844. doi:10.1001/JAMA pediatrics.

Carl J. Dunst, Meta-Analyses of the Relationships between Family Systems Practices, Parents’ Psychological Health, and Parenting Quality, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10.3390/ijerph20186723, 20, 18, (6723), (2023).

Scardera S, Perret LC, Ouellet-Morin I, et al. Association of Social Support During Adolescence With Depression, Anxiety, and Suicidal Ideation in Young Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(12):e2027491. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.27491

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