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3 Ways to Help Your "Lazy" Adult Child

Losing a toxic label and finding peace.

Feeling frustrated and burnt out because of your struggling adult child's lack of motivation and self-defeating behaviors? I get it: As a parent coach for those with struggling adult children, I hear many stories of major frustration about adult children who ...

  • Live at home, sleep in late, and are too tired or demotivated to get a job.
  • Are good at getting jobs but can't manage to keep them.
  • Expect, rather than truly appreciate, their parents subsidizing the cost of an apartment, car insurance, or college tuition.
  • Say they will clean up the dishes or complete other household tasks—but don't.
  • Can't make the transition to remain in college.
  • Get two-thirds of the way through college and then give up.
  • Involve themselves with, and settle for, problematic (maybe even abusive) significant others.
  • Have lofty ambitions but lack 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.

But affixing the "lazy" label to any of these above representative situations is not the answer. Many parents in these situations understandably think and/or say that their adult children are lazy. But this toxic label is problematic because when you give someone a label, they are influenced to live up to it. Rather than negatively labeling an adult child in that way, here are three ways to be supportive:

1. Drop the "lazy" label. Okay, so what are you supposed to think if your adult child's behaviors include one of more of the bullet points above? Aren't these adult children truly lazy? Well, how about struggling at times, or feeling shutdown, or even motivationally constipated, as alternatives to the label of lazy?

I am not about making excuses for an adult child's upsetting behaviors and choices. I am about trying to help you bypass their, and your own, emotional reactivity. Seeing your adult child without that label attached will open up new ways for you to understand, connect, and show support.

2. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling. No one likes to be told what to do, especially a struggling adult child. The calm, firm, and non-controlling approach is the heart and soul of my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. 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 this:

"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 super overwhelming. At the same time, we both know you'll feel better having more independence and structure in your life. Just know I am here to be supportive to you."

3. 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 mowed—or even that he got up earlier than usual. I'm not saying you should completely ignore the clothes or the dishes. Nor am I saying 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 lawn being mowed. 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 when it comes to your adult child.

I never hear adult children complain 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."

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