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Four Guidelines to Help You Keep a Strong Relationship with Your Adult Children

Jim BurnsBy Jim Burns

I know there is a time to speak up and a time to keep my mouth shut,” said a friend of mine. “I just haven’t figured out what to do when.” Maybe you can relate. Knowing what to say and what not to say is one of the major challenges most of us face in transitioning to an adult relationship with a son or daughter. Although there are exceptions, I’ve learned that in most cases the best policy for parents is to bite their tongues and remain silent. Withholding advice goes against our nature as parents, but unsolicited advice is usually taken as criticism.

Many parents of adult children tell me that the most difficult part of their new job description is abstaining from giving advice when they know they’re correct. For more than two decades, our reflex was to offer our guidance. It’s hardwired into every parent’s DNA. We have advice to offer for everything from potty training to first dates and more. So it is sometimes a shock when we discover that our kids not only view our advice as criticism but also aren’t asking for it.

Here are four important guidelines to help you keep your relationship strong and avoid the trap of giving unsolicited advice.

1. Trust That Experience Is a Better Teacher Than Advice

However much a parent views giving advice as an act of love, most adult children resent it. They strive for independence and view a parent’s giving advice as telling them what to do or restricting their freedom. If you choose to give them advice rather than encourage their independence, they will run from you. When it comes to giving advice, author Jane Isay writes, “Don’t give it. They don’t like it. They don’t want it. They resent it.

Doing Life with Your Adult ChildrenInstead of steering your children in the way you think they should go, trust that experience is a much better teacher. When you give them the independence and respect they desire, they’ll learn from their experiences of victory and defeat. If we keep our mouths shut and keep the welcome mat out, we increase the odds that our children will come to us for guidance on their own. If we choose to continue giving them unwanted advice, even if it’s great advice with the best of intentions, our intrusive counsel will ultimately hurt the relationship. Some call that the “high cost of good advice.”

Here is the scriptural principle: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). That’s especially important for those of us who are fix-it people. If I am a fix-it person and my kids have a problem, I consider it my job to intervene. That’s what I do, and that’s who I am—Mr. Fix-It. But unless our adult kids ask us for help, we must resist the impulse to fix their problems.

2. Give Respect: No Adult Wants to Be Told What to Do

Now that your child is an adult, decisions need to be in his or her hands, not yours. This is true whether or not your grownup is acting like a grownup. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to respect them as adults. If you don’t give them respect, it’s pretty much guaranteed they will close the door on your guidance.

I’ve found that so much of the way we give respect to our kids is in the tone of our conversations. By tone, I mean our voice, our demeanor, and even the atmosphere we bring to the conversation. We also need to be clear about the difference between having a conversation and giving a lecture. A conversation conveys respect; a lecture doesn’t.

3. You Are Now a Mentor and a Coach

If you want your adult kids to listen to you, you need to transition from being a controlling parent to being a mentor and coach. You do this in part by becoming your children’s biggest supporter. Everyone needs affirmation and encouragement, including your adult children. Remember the line in the movie Field of Dreams? “If you build it, they will come.” The movie line, of course, refers to building a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. But the same principle applies to your relationship with your children. If you build a relationship of positivity and respect, cheer on your adult children, and then wait, they will seek your advice.

Mentors never push their way toward influence in someone’s life; they are invited in. Waiting to be invited into your adult children’s lives takes a lot of patience, grace, and understanding, especially if they aren’t making great decisions. But I’ve learned the hard way that conversations with my adult children simply do not go well if I force my agenda on them. I have to wait until they want my influence. Such conversations must be on their timeline, not mine. They need to know I am available, but that’s as far as I can go until they ask for more.

4. Your Words Have the Power to Bless and to Curse

The words you speak to your kids have great power—for good and for not so good. The apostle James puts it this way: “And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth” (James 3:10 NLT).

The lesson for any parent is to be quick to apologize. There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t at one time or another said words they regretted to their child. Imagine the difference it might have made if that man’s father had come to him and said, “I didn’t mean what I said. I spoke in anger and I apologize for those untrue words.” Just a sentence or two with a sincere apology might have changed the trajectory of this man’s life. We can never underestimate the power of an apology to bless and heal a relationship.

Virtually every child, young or old, is open to receiving words of blessing. A blessing might take the form of encouragement. With adult children, one of the best phrases to use is, “I believe in you.” You can also express your encouragement with statements such as, “You have what it takes to make this business happen,” and, “I know you will choose the right kind of relationship.” I have a sign in my office that says, “Every child needs at least one significant adult who is irrationally positive about them.” It’s my prayer that every parent will try to be that person in their child’s life.

I’m guessing most parents of adult children don’t realize that the path toward a vibrant adult-to-adult relationship with their kids has so much to do with biting their tongues. Yet this principle of holding back on advice because it’s taken as criticism seems to be one of the most important and effective ways of moving the relationship forward. Will there be slipups? You bet. But over time, the discipline of lovingly keeping our mouths shut can make the difference between having a close-knit relationship and one that is struggling. My motto is, “When in doubt, remain silent.” I have the scars on my tongue to prove it.

Adapted from Doing Life with Your Adult Children Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out by Jim Burns. Click here to learn more about this title.

If you have an adult child, you know that parenting doesn’t stop when a child reaches the age of eighteen. In many ways, it gets more complicated. Both your heart and your head are as involved as ever, whether your child lives under your roof or rarely stays in contact.

In Doing Life with Your Adult Children, parenting expert Jim Burns helps you navigate the toughest and the most rewarding parts of parenting your grown kids. Speaking from his own personal and professional experience, Burns offers practical answers to questions such as these:

  • Is it OK to give advice to my grown child?
  • What’s the difference between enabling and helping?
  • What boundaries should I have if my child moves back home?
  • What do I do when my child doesn’t seem to be maturing into adulthood?
  • How do I relate to my grown child’s significant other?
  • What does it mean to have healthy financial boundaries?
  • How can I support my grown children when I don’t support their values?

Including positive principles on bringing kids back to faith, ideas on how to leave a legacy as a grandparent, and encouragement for every changing season, Doing Life with Your Adult Children is a unique book on your changing role in a calling that never ends.

Jim Burns, Ph.D. is the president of HomeWord and the Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University. Jim speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to two million resources in print in twenty languages. Some of his most popular books are Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, and Closer. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren.

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