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Communicating with Your Adult Children

How often have you heard the warning “zip your lip” when it comes to communicating with your adult children? It may be common advice, but this can be frustrating when we have things to say and opinions to share with them. So how do we express our feelings and perspectives in a way that we’ll be heard without hurting anyone’s ego?

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff’s book: Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children offers some excellent advice in her chapter on “communication tips.”

Nemzoff emphasizes the importance of fostering meaningful communication with our adult children while describing the challenges. Because we’ve invested so much time, energy, and money into our children, we feel they owe us a debt of gratitude. We’re also so wrapped up in their successes and failures that their achievements and failures tap into our very core. These relationships also have the potential intensity to evoke anger, joy, heartbreak, embarrassment, and pride.

Yet, most of us feel that we know as much about being the parent of an adult as we did when we first brought that baby home—precious little! When this feels overwhelming, Nemzoff reminds us to remember that we are well-practiced in not knowing the “right” thing to do. Just as with our young children, the early stages of any new relationship can be difficult. Both children and parents are unsure of the boundaries of conversation. But as the years go on it becomes easier. Children grow less defensive of their adult role and parents develop confidence in their roles in this evolving relationship.

The first steps in learning to communicate are to understand each other, build trust, and respect each other’s boundaries. Instead of focusing on holding back and biting your tongue, focus on how you might express what you are bursting to say at another time, another place, and another way. Be aware of your own intentions and make sure you put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to see the issue from his or her point of view.

When your children make it clear they don’t want your input on a topic, then respect that and save your breath for an area where your input is requested.

11 Tips for Communicating with Your Adult Children

  1. Listen to yourself. Try listening to yourself with an outsider’s ear. In other words, stop, look, and listen: stop criticizing, look at your adult child’s reactions to your comments, and listen to yourself and to your child.
  2. Be honest. But be sensitive to what is meaningful in their lives.
  3. Be positive. Focus on what you love about your child and his or her life. No one likes to be criticized.
  4. Remember to thank your children. When we thank our children, we model the behavior we want and we have the pleasure of letting our children know we are grateful to them.
  5. Invite communication. If we think of conversations as explorations and offer perspectives, not answers or instructions, our children will take away more from the discussion. Strive to discover what your child is thinking and by what route he or she arrived there.
  6. Ask questions. When we ask questions and bring up new perspectives, we convey a desire to understand thus increasing the chances of being heard.
  7. Acknowledge that you could be wrong. Admitting our mistakes or lack of insight emphasizes that it is OK to make mistakes and that apologizing for them is just ordinary politeness.
  8. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. We don’t have to possess all the answers; just sharing what experience we do have can be enough.
  9. Allow your children to demonstrate their expertise. Among the great joys of parenting adult children is learning from our children.
  10. Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about the attitudes of your children’s generation by reading and talking to people in their age group so that you keep up with current trends.
  11. Offer advice with a disclaimer. Remind your children that it’s only one piece of advice and they don’t need to follow it.

Remember that a good relationship is not synonymous with a smooth one and that parenting adult children is definitely a work in progress.

2 thoughts on “Communicating with Your Adult Children”

  1. I’m in the process of learning to parent adult children. Sometimes I don’t say enough and sometimes I say too much. Mostly I try to listen more than preach. If I think I have good advice, I ask if it is okay to tell them. Or I preface it with “here is my two cents … ” Then they know that they are free to ignore me.

  2. I’ve been guilty of freely advising grandparents to bite their tongues, but you are right. Very little communication can take place through zipped lips, and communication is basic to good relationships.

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