How to Guide Adult Children Without Being Controlling

young man graduating from college with his parents
Graduation from college is often the time when parents begin to recognize their children as adults.

Parenting is tricky business. For the first 20 or so years of your child's life, your job is to teach and guide him, often giving unsolicited advice or overriding his choices. Then comes the day he's grown and on his own, and you have to loosen your grip and get to know your kids as independent adults. It's not easy.

"Parents have such a hard time letting go of their control," says Dr. Jennifer Freed, a psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family counselor. It's not that they're trying to butt in because they think their child is incapable; it's because they're concerned about their child's welfare and think they can help by sharing their experiences. Except it often doesn't come across this way because they're still treating their child as, well, a child. And everyone needs to make his own mistakes and learn from them -- that's part of a person's necessary and ongoing growth process.


So how do you help guide your grown kids without being a bossy nag they resent? For starters, you must learn to treat your child more like an adult friend than your kid. You also might have to lower your expectations on everything from the frequency of your contact to her accomplishments and learn to bite your tongue. A lot. But the rewards are definitely worth it. By learning how to gently support and steer your big kid(s), you'll all enjoy a healthy, happy relationship, no matter what form it takes.

Read on for a more detailed blueprint on how to guide your grown kids.


Mother and Father (Don't) Know Best

By far the biggest mistake parents make when trying to guide their grown kids is offering unsolicited advice, says Dr. Jennifer Freed, a psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family counselor. "It's infantilizing the adult," she says. "You're acting as if you know better than they do, and every adult child feels that's an insult to his self-respect and development."

Of course, it's easy to do, she acknowledges, since that's one of your roles when the kids are little. And most parents want their kids to continue to come to them for wisdom and comfort. "But your job changes when your kids are adults," says Freed. You need to have a more friend-oriented relationship where you brainstorm and discuss things, not hand down directives.


So hold your tongue when you feel like dispensing your wisdom. Instead, wait to chime in until your child asks for your advice -- and even then, only offer it if you're OK knowing he may or may not follow it. You're likely just one of many people and sources he's consulting before making a decision, and you simply can't take it personally if he disregards your advice.

Avoid the Money Pit

young woman holding 3 credit cards looking worried
While it's tempting to want to help your child financially, she's got to learn how manage her money for herself.

If you've got grown children, chances are you grew up in an era when you didn't have a whole lot, and so now, you want to give your kids the things you didn't have. It's a nice intention, but it usually has negative consequences.

Your child needs to figure out his finances for himself. If you hear him moaning about wishing he could join his friends on a trip overseas and then promptly give him the cash to join them, he won't learn how to budget and save for a goal. It's the same thing if he doesn't deny himself anything, and then amasses a huge credit card debt that you rush in to pay off. If your child is truly facing a monetary crisis, first let her come to you for assistance, says psychotherapist Susan Ende, co-author of "How to Raise Your Adult Children: Real-life Advice for When Your Kids Don't Want to Grow Up." Then, if you'd like to help her out, come up with a legitimate financial plan together.


A lot of experts recommend that you never lend your adult kid money. After all, if he doesn't have the funds to buy something, he probably doesn't have the money to make loan payments to you, either. And with a loan, it's possible you'll feel that you have a say in how he's spending his money, which can easily lead to conflict. If you have money to share with your child but you don't want to make it a gift with no strings attached, be sure he knows all your expectations for repayment -- including interest if you choose.

Tips for Successfully Guiding Adult Children

Although unsolicited advice and money are probably the top two issues that cause conflict with parents and their adult kids, there are a few more things to keep in mind when parenting adult children.

  • Don't interfere with your child's life unless asked. You may think you're helping your child if, say, you tell her that her brother really wishes she'd call him more, but it's not your business to do that. And both kids will likely resent you for it.
  • Steer your child to professionals when he has a problem. Be it financial, marital, spiritual or another type, your role isn't to swoop in and rescue him. It's to show him how to find answers. Even if he makes mistakes, that's part of the growing process -- a valuable part, actually.
  • Live your own life and let your child live his. Don't try to take on his successes or failures as your own. You are both your own people making your own decisions. And give your child the freedom to forge his own way without criticism. He's probably not going to make many -- or even any -- decisions just like you would have, and that's OK.
  • Openly discuss with your child how much contact you'll have. Will you see each other during the week? Do you want to talk on the phone several times a week? Is Sunday lunch with all the family not to be missed? If you both have vastly different expectations, compromise as you would with a good friend.

Even though once you're a parent, you'll always be a parent, you have a wonderful adult relationship with your kids to look forward to when they're grown. Check out the links on the next page for more information about the parent-child journey.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • Bottke, Allison. "Parenting Adult Children: Six Steps to Sanity." Crosswalk. Aug. 4, 2009. (May 2, 2011)
  • Ende, Susan. Psychotherapist and co-author (with Gail Parent) of "How to Raise Your Adult Children: Real-life Advice for When Your Kids Don't Want to Grow Up." Personal interview. May 3, 2011.
  • Freed, Dr. Jennifer. Psychotherapist and licensed marriage and family counselor. Personal interview. May 3, 2011.
  • "Health: Steps to Independence: How to Get Your Adult Children Living on Their Own." Dr. Phil. (May 2, 2011)
  • Radcliffe, Sarah Chana. "Parenting Adult Children: Raise your kids without raising your voice." (May 2, 2011)
  • Segell, Michael. "New Rules for Parenting Grown-Up Kids: Why you may not want to give your 20-something advice, and other thorny issues explained." Prevention. (May 2, 2011)