How to Bypass Power Struggles With Your Adult Child

Switching into coach mode frees you from feeling stuck as a struggling parent.

Posted Feb 16, 2020

"I'm not gonna lie, they always make me feel like a sh*t!"  Brian, age twenty-six, blurted out these words of hurt and frustration when sitting down with his parents and me. He then quickly added, "No offense, dude, but I'm not gonna say a f*cking  word in here to them!" 

Tina and Ross, Brian's parents, had been previously seeking parenting coaching with me to learn ways to manage their twenty-six-year-old son Brian's emotional reactivity. While I do many of my parenting coaching sessions remotely by phone, this was a local family I had been working with.

In the face of Brian's reactive posturing, it was uplifting to directly observe Tina and Ross use their new skills with him. They led with empathy to convey how frustrated and hurt they realized he felt by their past alternating pattern with Brian of enabling-erupting-enabling. Taking on the position of emotion coaches also helped Brian's parents become more objective by not taking things so personally.

Tina and Ross further realized that Brian's ADHD, anxiety, and substance use concerns were better seen as explanations versus excuses. Further, they opened up to see that Brain often was trying hard to gain independence even though he was struggling considerably to do so. At the same time, they calmly expressed their own concerns to Brian's about the disrespectful and hurtful things he'd been saying to them.

By learning to switch over to seeing themselves as Brian's coaches (versus adversaries), Tina and Ross learned to manage their own emotions — and Brian's. This process of letting go of being reactive parents in favor of modeling calm, healthy communication, gave them emotional flexibility, which gave Brain space to reflect and end up having a productive discussion in our session.

Adult Children Are Hurting

Let’s face it, today’s young adults more challenges and experience more stress than at any other time in modern history. The realities of a fast-paced digital world leave many feeling chronically anxious, and at times, emotionally and physically overwhelmed.

Young adults in their twenties and into their thirties have many new and exciting opportunities that come their way. But on the downside, all these new experiences can lead to a sense of loss when facing those situations that don't turn out so well. This can mean not making it in college, losing a first job, or even a first serious relationship. It is not uncommon for adult children to struggle to some degree, but in those cases where it feels like the walls are closing in, they feel stuck and feel a sense of fear and frustration about not quite knowing where to go next — or even how to begin to get it together to go anywhere else.  

For those adult children with learning disabilities, mental health issues, and substance use problems, the incendiary point at which they can explode (or implode) is even lower. Adding to the mix of emotional pain, adult children who are hurting may feel shame when seeing or hearing about social media posts of happy families with thriving young adults (we all know how skewed from reality those social media posts can be).

Some Alarming Statistics to Consider 

  • About six out of 10 students who start college will not have a degree after six years (NPR). 
  • According to Forbes, parents' support to adult kids totals a stunning $500 billion a year.
  • Roughly 31 percent of early adults age 18 to 34 have boomeranged back home according to Forbes as well.

And, from what I see in my counseling and coaching practice as well as what I hear from a wide network of mental health colleagues, anxiety and depression are at all-time high among young adults.

It is Easier To Build a Child Than Repair an Adult

Adult children that I meet frequently disclose to me how much they wish they had learned to manage their emotions as preteens and teens. In response to this need, I just completed two new books and a card deck for taming the emotions of preteen and teen brains to provide hands-on tools to help young adults manage their emotions. They're listed in the references section of this post.

The strategies contained within these self-help books all came from the direct input of my teen and young adult clients. Having my teen and young adult clients test out these strategies before publishing them was very empowering to them and it clearly shaped what I included and excluded. It is my hope that these evidence-based works can be helpful to emerging young adult children. 

But How Can I Help My Struggling Adult Child?  

Going back to the earlier part of this post, if your adult child is hurting, the best place to intervene is by changing how you react and relate back to them.  As stated above, I have found that when I guide parents to consider themselves as “emotion coaches” with their reactive adult children, this helps them to be even calmer and to not take things so personally, we can accomplish this by being calm, firm, and non-controlling, as further detailed in 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Ed. Based on what my parent coaching clients share, being calm, firm, and non-controlling works very well with adult children and younger ones as well. 

Being your child’s coach in no way compromises your role as a parent. Quite the opposite is the case. Your parenting connection will be increased when you switch into coach mode. Coach mode helps to release you, and your ego, from feeling locked in the role of hurt, disappointed, or stuck parent. Taking on a coaching mentality means staying calm to rationally guide and encourage your child. Keeping your calm is crucial for parents when managing defiant children.

Steps To Be Effective in Coach Mode 

  1. Be mindful of your child’s emotions and your own.
  2. Don't see your adult child’s negative emotions and reactivity as them being ungrateful and undeserving of your continued support and empathy.
  3. Trust your own genuine caring in the process even if your adult child is dismissive or sarcastic.
  4. Model your ability to keep your cool while keeping it real in what you discuss. 
  5. Give space and state positive intentions to be supportive if things escalate. 

In Conclusion

I know that being called nasty names by your adult child and not dwelling on how this hurts may seem like a tall order, to say the least. This is where switching your mindset from parent to coach can give you some emotional objectivity and help you avoid taking your child’s problem behaviors so personally. Do your best not to react to your adult child's struggles and disappointments with negative judgment. After all, in today's fast-paced and demanding world, it is easy to struggle and make some mistakes. Above all, please keep in mind that no adult children have ever complained to me that their parents are too accepting, empathetic, and supportive to them!

For more about Dr. Jeff, please click here


Bernstein, J. (2020) The Anxiety, Depression & Anger Toolbox for Teens: 150 Powerful Mindfulness, CBT & Positive Psychology Activities to Manage Emotions

Bernstein J.  (2015) 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child

Bernstein, J. (2018) Letting Go Of Anger Card Deck

Bernstein, J. (2018) The Stress Survival Guide for Teens (2019)

College Completion Rates Are Up, But The Numbers Will Still Surprise You

Parents' Support To Adult Kids: A Stunning $500 Billion A Year Forbes