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2 Things Not to Say to a Struggling Adult Child

You'll compound and worsen their difficulties by being judgmental.

Key points

  • Struggling adult children need empathy and effective communication that fosters trust.
  • Parents may feel disappointed but how they choose to express it can be disconnecting or connecting.
  • Encouragement and reassurance are more constructive, reinforcing that it's never too late to seek help.

Supporting a struggling adult child requires not only empathy but also effective communication that fosters trust and understanding. Words hold immense power, shaping the dynamics of relationships and influencing individuals' self-perception. Therefore, it's essential to choose language that uplifts rather than demoralizes, especially during challenging times.

Following are two phrases not to say to your adult child, along with alternative ways to express yourself to relay empathy and emotional support.

1. "I'm disappointed in you."

In a somber conversation, Amanda's parents, Maria and John, expressed their profound disappointment in her recent choices. As they sat together in the living room, Maria's eyes brimmed with unshed tears while John's tone carried a weight of sorrow. "Amanda," Maria began, her voice trembling slightly, "we've always supported you in pursuing your dreams, but your recent actions have left us deeply disappointed."

John, usually the stoic figure, added with a heavy heart, "We raised you to make wise decisions and be responsible, yet your choices have led us to question if we've failed as parents." The room hung heavy with the weight of unmet expectations and shattered hopes.

Expressing disappointment in your adult child can inflict deep emotional wounds and damage the parent-child relationship. It's crucial to recognize that everyone faces setbacks and struggles at some point.

Instead of emphasizing disappointment, parents can convey their concern and unwavering support. When researching my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, the positive impact of parents offering validation through a supportive ear to adult children became even more clear. By avoiding harsh judgment and being supportive, parents can empower their adult children to overcome obstacles and grow from their experiences.

Parents whom I coach ask me what they can do differently when they feel disappointed by their adult children's problematic choices. Here are some examples of effective ways to express support while remaining authentic:

  • I'm feeling a bit saddened by this, but I believe calmly talking about it can help us.
  • We all make mistakes. Please help me understand how this happened to you.
  • I hear you're upset—and I'm upset, too—but I believe in you.

2. "I told you this would happen."

Steve: "Sarah, I hate to say it, but I did warn you about taking that job when you had a chance to get it."

Sarah: "I know, Dad. You've mentioned it a thousand times."

Steve: "Well, I hate to be the 'I told you so' person, but now you're struggling to make ends meet."

Sarah: "I get it, Dad. You were right. I should've listened."

Implying that your adult child should have already resolved their issues dismisses the complexities of their situation and undermines their efforts. Each person's journey is unique, and progress isn't always linear. Encouragement and reassurance are more constructive approaches, reinforcing the idea that it's never too late to seek help or pursue personal growth.

Further, saying "I told you so" can create resentment and erode trust between parents and their adult children. Rather than focusing on past warnings, it's more beneficial to focus on finding solutions and providing guidance for the present moment.

Effective communication involves validating your adult child's feelings, acknowledging their efforts, and offering constructive feedback without resorting to blame or criticism. Here are some examples my parent coaching clients value:

  • You owe it to yourself to see this as a learning opportunity instead of beating yourself up.
  • I understand how frustrating this situation must be for you. Let's work together to find a solution.
  • It seems like you've hit a bump in the road. Let's figure out how to navigate it together.

Final Thoughts

Supportive communication plays a pivotal role in nurturing healthy relationships and helping struggling adult children navigate life's challenges. By choosing words carefully and offering unconditional support, parents can create a safe and nurturing environment in which their adult children feel empowered to overcome obstacles and thrive.

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

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