How to Positively Influence an Adult Child

Father and Adult Son with Car Trouble, Waiting
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In 2010, a research report was presented at the American Psychological Association annual meeting that found that when adult children have financial, substance abuse or relationship problems, there is a direct and profound effect on that adult child's parent's health and well-being.

Quoting the article from CNN,

"Not surprisingly, parents with successful children were more likely to report higher life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression. But if parents had just one struggling child, the resulting distress tended to overshadow the well-being and happiness they derived from their other, more successful children --especially if the child's problems were self-made rather than a case of misfortune."

For those of us with adult children, this is not a particular surprise. Parents never stop being parents, even when their children are grown and living on their own. As parents, we remain committed to our children's success and feel bad when they don't live up to that level of expectation we have for them.

With such a serious impact on parents when their children fail, we hope and work all their lives to teach them skills and help them develop talents and capabilities to find success even in bad circumstances. And yet, despite our best efforts during their growing up years, sometimes they find themselves in bad situations as adults. Perhaps they are unemployed, have substance abuse issues, are separated or divorced or are on other difficult or self-destructive paths.

Parents with adult children in these situations have a delicate tightrope to walk with their children. The techniques that may have worked for us with them when they were in our homes and in our care probably won't work anymore.

They are used to making their own decisions and living with the consequences, and our attempts to influence them may result in unwanted or unwelcome meddling.

On the other hand, to just let them go without warning runs contrary to our nature as parents. So striking the balance is critical. How should parents think about their adult children and what they can do to influence them for good when they see the end of the destructive path they might be on?

Respond When Asked 

Many times, our adult children will ask for our opinions or advice on various issues of concern to them. As parents, we should take advantage of these opportunities to teach when our children are teachable. Often, the questions will be superficial ("Do you think this is a good deal on this car?") but we should not waste the question with a flip answer or a non-answer. Being faithful to them with the smaller questions will build trust so that they know we are available to help with the bigger issues.

Stay Out of a Marriage 

It is hard enough to be an in-law to your adult child's spouse, and giving other than very general marriage advice can make the relationship even tenser. Encourage the couple to communicate, work out their differences and get help from a marriage counselor, therapist or other qualified professional. Getting involved in the details of an adult child's marriage is very dangerous territory.

Recognize the New, Adult Stages of Parenting Your Adult Child 

The techniques you used when they were little no longer apply. You can't force, remove privileges, ground them or use other traditional discipline techniques to get them to change their behavior. Parents need to think of their adult children more as "adults" and less as "children."

Here communication techniques like helping them think through options and their attendant consequences, verbalizing alternatives and focusing more on their decision-making process than on the actual decisions seem to work better. Think about how you would interact with a peer or a co-worker on an adult level, and that might be a better model for dealing with your adult children.

Don't Enable Bad Behavior

When we try to protect our children from the consequences of their behavior, and they never learn the resultant hard life lessons, our adult children are less likely to be willing to change. So if they get over their heads in debt, don't make payments for them. But you might help them to prepare a resume and apply for jobs. If they are involved in addictive behaviors, help them find help but don't protect them from the negative consequences.

Parents who enable or indulge their adult children, for whatever reason, are not doing them any favors.

Set Limits if They Live Under Your Roof 

More and more adult children are living longer with mom and dad or are moving back in after a failed marriage, a lost job or other crisis. If your adult child is living in your home, it is important to set boundaries so that both sides of the relationship know what is expected and what will not be tolerated. For example, set a level of rent or room and board expenses that will work and then enforce it.

Adult parents need their rest and often both work, so there should be time limits on visitors, music or other interruptions. Reduce all of your expectations to writing in a contract, and agree in advance on the consequences. If your adult child violates the agreement, move their belongings out, change the locks and stand firm.

Get Help When Needed 

Trying to influence an adult child without enabling them can be a tough thing to do. If you find it becoming unmanageable, find a good family therapist, counselor, life coach or clergy representative who might be able to help. Each situation is unique and has its own unique elements. Professionals can help in working through the myriad of issues and finding a good balance in your relationship with your adult child.

Fathers and mothers never stop being parents. But their approaches and tactics need to change as their children grow and become more independent. Taking a smart and well thought out approach to addressing the problems of your adult children will allow you to have a positive influence without either enabling them or alienating them. Your influence is important, and is worth taking the time and thought to make it meaningful.