How to Communicate With Your Adult Child

Karl Pillemer, PhD
September 3, 2023
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As we age, the parent-child relationship continues to grow and shift, and parents may find themselves needing to recalibrate some of their parent approaches. Some of the things that may have felt appropriate when a child was in their earlier years can begin to cause friction later in life as each party grows and seeks new types of independence. And if you’re one of the 54% of Americans in your 40’s in the “sandwich generation”, you may find yourself managing communication with both your older adult parent and a child who is increasingly becoming an adult.

At the center of it all is good communication: how you communicate with your adult child will set the tone for your entire relationship. Here are a few tips.

Accept Children As They Are

Your child may make unwise financial decisions, marry someone you don’t approve of, or make a myriad of other choices that seem foolish or inappropriate to you. But unless they’re endangering themselves or someone else, it’s best to keep your disapproval to yourself and find ways to appreciate your children’s strengths.

A participant in The Legacy Project, 79-year-old Renata, summed up this piece of advice succinctly:

You keep your mouth shut. We made our mistakes, we let them make their mistakes…I would not interfere with them, even though I see something that I think should be done differently, I wouldn’t express it.

Don’t Offer Advice Unless Asked

When your children were young, you were accustomed to advising them on relationships, school, work and more. But as adults, most people want to lead their own lives and make their own mistakes. Offering unwanted advice is a sure-fire way to create tension with adult children. A good adage: don’t interfere with your adult children.

Of course, if your child asks for advice, offer it - but it’s best to do so subtly in a way that still allows them to own their decision. Charles, 83, summed up this lesson well:

Well, your adult children sometimes ask you for advice and it becomes clear that they are simply looking for understanding of their points of view. It’s easy for children to misinterpret your real feelings about them, and feel more pressure than they should be feeling. It’s up to the parent to be subtle enough so that the child does not feel intruded upon, or that you are judging.

Tom, 82, has warm and supportive relationships with his three middle-aged sons. He recognizes that sometimes one is called upon to give advice to adult children; indeed, they ask for it. A problem, of course, is that parents are naturally invested in their children, and it is difficult for them to step outside of their own needs to objectively evaluate the choices their child must make. Tom’s advice is to take the “I” out of the conversation:

Yeah, the big advice is always be open minded. Forget the business of ‘I’ centered and put the focus on ‘you’ centered. The son that you’re talking to and who has issues that he wants to discuss and forget the ‘I’, or at least put the I in the background so that at least he understands that he’s getting the benefit of your wisdom. You, who can govern how much ‘I’ to project, can inject information or guidance when it’s appropriate, not to dominate the conversation but to augment what the son wants to say. I think it’s a delicate balance of diplomacy among family members. I’ve not always done well.

If There's a Rift, Apologize or Compromise

As we get older, there’s a phenomenon that gerontologists call the “intergenerational stake” - parents tend to value the relationship with their children more and therefore have more to lose in a potential rift. 

Of course, there will be cases when a child’s behavior is damaging or abusive enough to require separation. But most of the time, it benefits the parent to apologize and compromise. There is a myriad of evidence - both scientific and anecdotal - that speaks to the deep pain and heartache experienced by parents estranged from their children. It’s best to do everything necessary to avoid a permanent rift with a child.

Following these evidence-based tips on communicating with adult children is not a guarantee of having a strong relationship, but it will go a long way to helping you enjoy what many experts have called the best years of parenting.

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About The Author
Dr. Karl Pillemer is the Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. He is also the Senior Associate Dean for Research and Outreach in the College of Human Ecology, and the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Psychology.