Communicating With An Adult Child Who’s Struggling

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

Growing from teen to young adult to adult can be tough. Just ask anyone who’s been through those years. What’s more, the “failure to launch” phenomenon has gotten plenty of attention, with all kinds of advice for people who are struggling.

What has not gotten as much attention are the parents of young adults who are watching their grown children struggle. Once a parent always a parent is not just an old aphorism — it’s reality. Seeing an adult child trying to cope with serious problems can be heart wrenching. Most parents will always love their children and want them to do well and be happy. That, unfortunately, can lead them to say and do things that only make matters worse. Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D. tackles this issue in a recent article in Psychology Today. He explores “how pressuring a struggling adult child can have several negative impacts on their well-being and your relationship with them.” He concedes that a parent might have the best of intentions when questioning their child, but warns that some questions are almost sure to draw a negative response. He cites some obviously insensitive examples — “Look at [peer’s or sibling’s name], they are doing so well. So, what about you?” But he also cautions about other seemingly innocent questions: “When are you going to get a job in your field?” The problem is that the question itself puts pressure on the person, almost no matter how it’s phrased.

Bernstein goes on to list seven negative consequences of pressuring your adult child.

“Increased Stress and Anxiety.” It helps to give your child some credit — they almost undoubtedly know they have a problem that is preventing them from reaching their potential. They’re probably already putting pressure on themselves. They don’t need any more.

“Strained Relationship.” This almost goes without saying. If every conversation ends negatively, the relationship is going to be under a heavy burden.

“Negative Mental Health Effects.” It’s a short path from feeling that you’re not living up to your potential to feeling like a failure to becoming depressed. What’s needed at this point are comments that encourage hope and optimism.

“Reduced Motivation and Performance.” Asking questions about a person’s lack of progress has an implicit assumption: You’re not living up to my expectations. That can lead directly to other related problems. “The fear of failure or disappointing others may create a mental block,” Bernstein says, “hindering an adult child’s ability to focus and follow through in their endeavors.”

“Impact on Decision-Making.” Most children, even as they become adults, still want to please their parents, consciously or sub-consciously. That can lead them to make decisions on what they think their parents want instead of what they are truly passionate about. That indeed, may be part of the root of the problem: pursuing a goal they don’t really believe in, which is almost a sure recipe for failure.

“Impaired Self-Esteem.” Self-esteem is not only a trait to be encouraged in young children, it’s vital for everyone at any age. It is fundamental to having self-confidence, which is valuable in achieving success.

“Resentment and Rebellion.” It takes true maturity not to resent being pressured, whether it’s by a parent or an employer. Feelings of resentment can easily turn into acts of rebellion, which too often are counter-productive.

Bernstein says that adult children who are struggling really benefit from encouragement and support. He offers a simple example of what a parent can say that is extremely helpful: just say, I believe in you.

Looking for other ways you can offer support in a positive way? Read Bernstein’s full article here.