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Say These Words to Help Your Struggling Adult Child Succeed

Retiring from the parental SWAT team and becoming an empowering coach.

While you can't truly control the outcome of your adult child’s life, it is crucial for you as a parent of an adult son or daughter to do all you can to create optimal, facilitative conditions for their success. In plain English, do not send off negative messages, don't engage in fruitless power struggles, and stop your enabling of self-destructive behaviors.

For over 30 years, I have coached parents of struggling adult sons and daughters. My clients are domestic and international and from across the economic strata. Based on this experience, I feel very strongly that no matter how much your adult son or daughter is struggling, your role in how you perceive, feel, and respond are of utmost importance.

There are several behaviors that suggest an adult child is, in fact, struggling. These include:

  • Embellishing and lying
  • Expressing angry outbursts
  • Slinging guilt
  • Engaging in gaslighting
  • Unfairly blaming their own struggles on you
  • Remaining underemployed
  • Acting manipulatively
  • Poorly managed addictions
  • Staying with emotionally abusive intimate partners
  • Reckless spending

A Note to Adult Children Who May Be Reading This

Before I go further, let me say this: I realize that there are many toxic parents of adult children out there. If you are an adult son or daughter of toxic parents who traumatized you, I empathize. I have seen many adult children who have been mistreated and abused by their parents. And as a parent myself, I've made my own share of mistakes and could have done some things better. At the same time, there are countless parents who try their best while understandably falling far short of being perfect.

If you happen to be a frustrated adult child, please reclaim your value and stay mindful of it. But don't, or don't continue, to compromise your worth by riding on a horse named Victim and repeatedly heading off to that horrific rodeo of self-destructive wild and bucking rides.

And while I empathize if you have had problematic or even abusive parents, please don't blame them for your own struggles without also taking a look in the mirror. Ask yourself how you can move toward your own valuable independence. Bottom line: Learn to feel good about knowing your own value as an adult even if your parent(s) did not see it or express it.

Now back to the parents of struggling adult children...

Are You a Parent or a SWAT Team Leader?

I introduced the concept of parents of struggling adult children as SWAT team leaders in a past post. SWAT team parents are hypervigiliant in being on the lookout for crises in the lives of their adult children. This happens subconsciously as no morally intact parent intentionally thrives on their adult son or daughter going through highly stressful times. Yes, I realize that tragic things happen to all of us, such as sudden health issues, car accidents, or traumas of one kind or another. But what about those adult children who deliberately create crises? Parents of struggling adult children who behave this way often feel like they are on call—like being on a SWAT team. Are you confused about what I am referring tor? The parents I coach have shared being on the receiving end of high-impact stressors from adult children such as:

  • A sudden crisis text or call demanding (or guilting) you to give them money because of their haphazard financial management.
  • Harping on the past with a victim/"woe is me" mindset.
  • Angrily lashing out at you with a failing short-term memory and forgetting all you've done for them in the past.
  • Unfairly blaming you for not giving or doing enough compared to what you did/do for their siblings.
  • Coming to you for support, complaining because they are with a toxic, manipulative relationship partner. You rush in to be supportive, and then she or he goes back for more abuse from the toxic partner. Adding salt to your wound, they forget how supportive you've been and blame you for their relationship problems.
  • Being in denial about a substance abuse problem or outright addiction and blaming you for stressing them out and "making" them use alcohol or drugs.
  • Neglecting your grandchildren and telling you to help (or letting you discover the issues) without being appreciative (e.g., "Don't you even care about your grandchildren?")

It's Time to Retire from the SWAT Team

I encourage you to shift from being crisis first responder to an emotion coach. Your struggling adult child is likely emotionally immature and needs you to coach him or her to handle emotions and communicate more effectively. The more you see yourself as your adult child's coach, the less you will feel stuck—or codependent—as a parent. These sample soundbites below reflect the calm, firm, non-controlling approach which I detail in my book 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child:

  • “I hear that’s how you see it. I see it differently. It may help us to move on if we agree to disagree instead of continuing to fight.”
  • “I can see that you’re very frustrated. Just know I’m here for you if you’d like to talk.”
  • “I hope that once we calm down, we will be able to have a constructive conversation about this.”
  • “I can’t control the way you choose to speak to me [or your sibling, other parent, relative] when you are upset. I think you will feel better by being more respectful.”
  • “It’ll work better for both of us if you can say what you mean without saying it meanly.”
  • “There’s a reactive side of me, as your parent, that now wants to yell and get controlling. Just being aware and expressing this is helping me stay calmer. How about we talk this out so we can understand each other better?”
  • “You know what you are doing right now is a really good example of you calming down even though I know you feel strongly about this. I really admire how you are able to keep your cool.”
  • “The way you’re being flexible right now really impresses me.”
  • “I appreciate how cooperative you are being during this difficult time.”

Putting It All Together

Before you reflexively say, "Those soundbites won't work for me with my adult child," remember this: These soundbites are meant to support you. They are the words to say to keep putting the oxygen mask first on you before you immediately offer it to a struggling adult child who may inadvertently suck you dry. Remember: Being your struggling adult child's emotion coach, and not their rescuer from the SWAT team, takes a different mindset. This mindset is to become a source for healthy de-escalation and pave the way to problem-solving and growth, without the drama.

For more, click here.


Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

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