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How Struggling Adult Children Can Get Better by Helping Others

Getting past self-destructive behaviors through caring for others.

Key points

  • There is strong evidence that helping others promotes improved emotional health.
  • Adult children who are hurting can feel better by availing themselves of helping others.
  • Parents can play an instrumental, constructive role by helping guide adult children to help others.

Research has shown that we experience a dopamine rush, leaving us feeling a sense of pleasure, when serving others (Gunderson, 2020). This is because by helping others, we experience a sense of achievement and a sense of worth.

As a coach for parents of struggling adult children, I'm grateful to be part of many inspiring stories of parents supportively influencing their adult children to do good for others. Check out these examples below:

  • Joe, 28, took out his anger at his parents for several years, seeing himself as a failure in a family of high achievers. Finally, after hearing his supportive parents' gentle encouragement, he signed up for a volunteer organization that helps clean up after natural disasters. Doing this transformed him to feeling like he finally had something tangible to offer the world. He was subsequently given a leadership position in this organization and then sought employment in the construction field where he currently works as a foreman. Joe's biggest complaint these days is about "the younger dudes that just don't want to do hard work."
  • Tina, 24, self-sabotaged by not following through on work plans she made. Her mother took Tina for a ride in the countryside one day and noticed Tina had a strong interest in the horses she saw along the way. After some heartfelt, open reassuring discussion, Tina then sought out and volunteered in an equestrian therapeutic riding program for children with emotional health struggles. This inspired Tina to enroll — this time for good — in a community college to obtain a mental health technician associates degree. She then was hired to work for a children's home (where she developed equestrian therapy outreach opportunities for the residents) and years later pursued her master's degree in counseling.
  • Dante, 31, harbored resentment at his parents for "wanting me to take a soul-sucking job." After his parents acknowledged his pain and stayed steadfast in expressing support, Dante visited them and they watched a show together about military service. This left him "super excited" to follow up with an Army recruiter. Dante took the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and scored very high, permitting him to enlist in a prestigious military program. This transformation of Dante's life trajectory supported his belief to "serve where it really counts."
  • Aaron, 31, had grandiose ideas about how to turn his life around overnight by creating a "badass new brand" of clothing. Finally realizing his textile dreams were not going to be realized by playing video games in his parents' basement all day, he took, at his parents gentle urging, a reuse coordinator volunteer role in a local donation center. Aaron felt a sense of belonging and was hired there as a worker, eventually becoming a shift supervisor.
  • Charlotte, 27, was drinking and using other substances. She had quit attending classes in what was her third attempt at college. Charlotte hit her bottom when a guy she adored broke up with her after telling her she had too many problems, chiefly becoming mean and irrational when she was drunk. Crying and rocking back forth after pouring her heart out to her dad, she started going to a sobriety program, and bought in. After a few years of fighting setbacks, she maintained sobriety. As she eventually sponsored new people coming into the program, she felt her life had a renewed sense of meaning.
  • Tanya, 38, stole money from her parents when visiting and rigidly denied doing so. While friends knowing of Tanya's parents plight told them they should be nominated for sainthood, they stayed the course of being supportive to Tanya. Soon after the stealing incident, Tanya volunteered at a local animal shelter, giving herself the chance to care for other beings and feel good about herself for doing so. This paved the way to her getting trained and employed as a veterinary technician.

Do's And Don'ts to Guide Your Adult Child to Serve Others

Each of the adult children briefly described above (the names were altered) ended up in a better place after they availed themselves of helping others. Here are some Do's and Don'ts to consider if you want to support your adult child to do the same:


  • Look for attitudes and behaviors in your adult child that are supportive of others.
  • Gently reflect and share your positive feelings about their acts of caring and giving.
  • Mention inspiring accounts of other adult children feeling better by helping others, such as those described above.
  • Be patient. Sometimes it takes repeated attempts for people to move forward by helping others.
  • Reinforce positive actions taken to help others. (I have never met an adult child who dislikes being praised for their emerging virtues.)


  • Do not nag your child. You are only human as a parent and will be tempted to nag. Don't do that. You will only muffle the value of what you have to say.
  • Be sure not to stay in a place of negativity by overly comparing your adult child to their siblings or others.
  • Don't speak in ways that are perceived as hurtful and shaming.
  • Don't minimize small steps taken in a positive direction. Progress sometimes comes in increments.


Garrett Gunderson (2020) Serving Others Is As Important As Food And Sex.…

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