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8 Things to Do When Your Adult Children Make Bad Choices

8 Things to Do When Your Adult Children Make Bad Choices
Mother and daughter talking on sofa
Date: March 1, 2016      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Ruth  Nemzoff      Print:

Don’t Bite Your Tongue

Your grown child is spending money that he/she should be saving…making questionable career choices…or marrying the wrong person. What do you do?

Many parents think their best option is to say nothing when they disagree with their adult children’s choices. Adult children are, after all, adults who have a right to live their own lives. And speaking up could sour the parent-child relationship.

But the “bite your tongue” approach to parenting adult children is doomed to fail. Saying nothing increases the odds that your child will make poor decisions. It means that you must live with the knowledge that you did nothing to help. And it might not even protect your relationship with the child—adult children usually can deduce from their parents’ tone and body language that they are not happy with a choice even when their parents don’t say so.

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The secret to maintaining family harmony when you disagree with your adult child is to say something but say it in a way that minimizes ruffled feathers. Here’s an eight-step plan for doing that…

1. Seek a neutral party’s opinion. Before you confront your child, ask a friend or acquaintance whether your concerns are truly justified. Select someone who has experience with the topic—your financial planner if it’s a money matter, perhaps…or a level-headed member of your child’s generation if you suspect that your concerns might stem from a generational divide.

Example: A mother was upset that her 20-something son was dating a woman who had several tattoos. When this mother spoke with a coworker who was also in her 20s, she learned that “body art” is extremely popular with today’s young adults—even among ­respectable, responsible women.

Whomever you consult, make it clear that you are after honest input. If you fail to spell this out, your “consultant” might take your side out of solidarity even if he/she disagrees. You might want to check in with more than one consultant before talking with your child.

2. Find a private, low-stress moment to raise concerns. When you choose to speak up can matter nearly as much as what you say. The best time for this conversation is whenever your child tends to be most relaxed.

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Examples: If your child has young children, the best moment might be when the kids are napping or at school. If he has a high-stress job, it might be on the weekend. If he always seems busy, ask him when he has time for a phone call or a cup of coffee.

Do not voice your concerns in front of other people—that only increases the odds that your child will become defensive. If you and your spouse both take issue with the child’s decision, the parent with whom the child historically has had an easier time discussing difficult topics is the one who should have this conversation.

It is acceptable for both parents to take part if both feel very strongly about the matter and both get along well with the child. But you don’t want your child to feel ganged up on. One way to avoid that is for you and your spouse to be frank about the slightly different views you both most likely have.

3. Open your discussion with curiosity. If you begin this conversation by blurting out your opinion, you and your child will immediately be at odds. Instead, you could begin with, “I’ve been wondering about…” and ask questions that allow your child to calmly explain his thinking. You might find that your opinion will change. These questions should sound curious, not judgmental—they must not be thinly veiled attempts to express displeasure.

Examples: You disagree with your daughter’s decision to “co-sleep” with your grandchild (allowing the youngster to share her parents’ bed). Your questions should express curiosity about co-sleeping, such as, “That wasn’t something we did. What are the advantages?” Your questions must not have an obvious negative tone, as in, “Why would anyone do such a thing?”

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4. Cite your own mistakes or shortcomings. You might imagine that presenting yourself as an expert on a topic would encourage your child to heed your guidance. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. Adult children desperately want their parents’ respect. If the tone of this conversation leans toward, “I’m your parent and I know better,” the child likely will feel disrespected and tune out your advice. The child is more likely to listen to what you have to say if you instead mention a related topic that you struggle with…or reveal an occasion when you made a mistake in this area. This sends the message that you respect the child as an equal.

Example: “When your mother and I bought our first house, we did exactly what you’re thinking about doing—we stretched our budget. For the next few years, we spent a lot of nights lying awake worrying whether we could pay the mortgage. In retrospect, I wish we had bought something less expensive.”

5. Compliment the child, then blame your concerns on your own shortcomings. This makes it less likely that the child will become defensive. Say that you know the child is intelligent…or cite a smart decision he made in the past. Then ask the child to discuss the decision to reduce your anxieties…or to help you understand a topic you struggle with.

Example: “I know you’re right a lot more often than you’re wrong, so I’m sure you’ve thought this through. But for my peace of mind, I was hoping we could talk about your plan for quitting your job and starting your own company. You know how I worry.”

6. Offer your advice if you feel it has value. But don’t expect your child to follow that advice—and don’t hold it against her if she doesn’t want to.

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Example: “This is just my opinion, but I don’t think you should let your husband make fun of you like that. In my experience, jokes at a spouse’s expense lead to escalating disrespect. But I also know that there’s no way I can fully understand someone else’s relationship, so maybe I’m misreading the situation. Now that I’ve said my piece, I won’t mention it again.”

7. Suggest that the child speak with a third party. Many adult children find it psychologically easier to take advice from someone other than a parent.

Example: “I’m no financial expert, but your cousin Tom is a financial planner. Why don’t you call him before you take such a major step?”

8. If the conversation goes poorly, apologize—even if you don’t think you were wrong. You could say, “I’m sorry I upset you.” You’re the parent, and sometimes the parent has to set his feelings aside for the sake of the family.

If you cannot bring yourself to actually say, “I’m sorry,” send a small gift instead. Choose something your child is likely to truly appreciate, such as a gift certificate to his favorite restaurant or coffee shop. Add a little note such as, “This is a peace offering. I love you and do not want this to come between us.

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NEXT: How to get grown kids to move out 

Source: Ruth Nemzoff, EdD, resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center who lectures on topics including parenting adult children. She is the mother of four adult children and author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. Dont BiteYourTongue.com

  • GetAClueOr2

    Smells like bs to me. How about treating adult children like any other adult instead. Do you stick your fat nose into the business of all your friends and coworkers. Rhetorical. Adult children are adults first, children second. Grown-up people make bad decisions all the time, it’s their right to make horrible decisions and suffer the consequences of them just like every other adult. If you never stop making horrible decisions, you get rewarded with a horrible life. You have no right to drag anybody into it before, during or after

    • hmblblvr

      That’s all fine and well as long as the parents aren’t footing the bill and having to put up with the BS. If adult children don’t want parents in their lives then they should be totally responsible for their own existence and not make their mistakes the responsibility of everyone else around them.