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5 Ways to Express Your Love to an Adult Child

Here are some secrets to better communication.

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Source: Shutterstock photo

Have you ever heard yourself saying something to your adult child that sounded alarmingly like your mother? Have you ever made a cringe-worthy comment that seemed to come out of nowhere, or given well-meaning advice that prompted anger and distance?

Many of us have those moments when we say something we instantly regret. But some parents seem unable to hear themselves and then wonder why their adult children are keeping a distance.

A client I’ll call Jan was bewildered by her young adult daughter’s reactions to her well-meaning advice and observations. “I’m her mother,” she told me. “Who else will love her enough to tell her the truth? So I tell her what I think about her weight and her bad taste in men. She should know this comes from love. But she either gets angry or just stops listening.”

Your love for your adult child and the pain of seeing him or her make mistakes, face disappointment or rejection can inspire interventions that shut down communication.

Speaking without thinking, or rushing to give unasked-for advice, can build barriers instead of continuing warm ties between you and your adult children. What may make perfect sense to you may sound and feel outrageous and insensitive to your adult child. It can also come across as a lack of respect for his independence or faith in her competence.

So how can you best communicate your love to your adult child?

1. Think before you speak: What will the words you're inclined to say accomplish? Do you want to be helpful—or are you looking to hold onto the power in your relationship?

Even though you feel so close to your adult child, being completely candid isn’t always the best way to help. Listen first. Then speak as if you would to a dear friend.

2. Let go of being central: When your child was little and dependent, you were the center of his or her universe. But your child grew up—just as he or she was meant to—and now things have shifted. And so many conflicts can come from forgetting this reality and assuming that nothing has changed.

Feeling the need to be central, you might hear yourself giving unasked-for advice or making critical comments about an adult child's significant other in a conspiratorial tone. You might make assumptions that are no longer valid: planning trips for just the two of you when your adult child's life has expanded to include a spouse; demanding time and attention that your adult child, who has grown into new roles and commitments, can no longer give.

While some parents bemoan no longer being central as being relegated to the sidelines, it's more constructive to look at this another way: as having a front-row seat to cheer your son or daughter on.

3. Edit your comments and soften your approach. You feel you really need to say something before your adult child makes a terrible mistake—whether he or she is planning a romantic commitment or preparing for an important job interview. You may be tempted to scream "No! Don't do it! Lose that loser of a boyfriend!" or "You're going to say what if your interviewer asks you about your previous job experience?"

Think about how such expressions of maternal or paternal concern will be heard. You may make more of an impression—or find a way to reassure yourself—with a quieter approach. Start with a question like, "I'd really like to get a feeling for Jake from your point of view. What do you enjoy most about him? What do you hope will happen with this relationship?" And express lingering concerns gently in a way your adult child can hear.

If you feel compelled to give advice, ask first. Ask "Would you like some advice for your interview or do you feel pretty confident that you're well prepared?" If you do give advice, make it a quiet suggestion, building on your adult child's ideas, rather than a mandate for action from your point of view.

4. Keep quiet. Sometimes the wisest of parents keep quiet while crossing their fingers that all will go well with a beloved adult child.

"My advice to other mothers of adult children?" smiles Kim, a friend with two grown daughters. "Shut up and pray! You can't help but worry and want to intervene in all that concerns them. But invariably, it's best to step back and simply hope and pray for the best. They have to make their own mistakes and find their own way—just as you did!"

5. Apologize for verbal transgressions. Love of any kind means saying you're sorry—over and over. So when you upset an adult child with an off-the-cuff comment or unasked for advice, apologize. Making excuses like "A mother should be able to say anything to her child!" or "I'm your mother. Who else is going to tell you the truth?" can only escalate the conflict. Sometimes you need to go beyond a simple "I'm sorry!"

A few years ago, my husband Bob jumped on Ryan, a beloved young friend who is very much like a son to us, giving him an unasked-for lecture about personal responsibility and professional choices. Ryan was visibly hurt and immediately withdrew. Seeing his pain, and reflecting on his words, Bob felt instant regret.

He said, “I’m sorry. “ And he followed this up with an email apologizing further and expressing his love and his confidence in Ryan to make the right choices in a difficult professional field. Ryan called him as soon as he read the email, telling him how much his love and respect mean to him, how hurt he had been and how much the apology made him feel closer to Bob.

Don't ever assume that your child just knows you love him or admire her achievements. Let him or her know. And when there is conflict, be the first to apologize, even if you're convinced that what you said was right.

It's important for your adult child to know that your words come from love...and that conflicts are resolved with love. Sometimes, a well-thought-out comment is the loving thing. Other times, you can show your love most by keeping quiet, by ceding the spotlight, and by recognizing your adult child's growing competence and power over his or her own life.

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