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Intervening With an Adult Child

When your kids were growing up, you had power and influence ... which you probably weren't afraid to use! But one of the most challenging transitions comes when kids suddenly aren’t “kids” anymore. They’re out on their own, financially independent, and they certainly think they’re adults, even if they don’t always act like it. Sometimes, your adult children may make choices that cause you to scratch your head—or even worse, those choices can be downright scary.

Whether it's a bad relationship, financial decisions or school problems, stepping in or staying out of it can be a gut-wrenching dilemma.

When they were kids, you used your position of authority to swoop in and save the day, to impose consequences, or perhaps to step back and watch them fail and learn. But what do you do when adult children, living independently, head down the wrong road? Whether it's a bad relationship, financial decisions or school problems, stepping in or staying out of it can be a gut-wrenching dilemma.

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Step Back, Slow Down

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is reacting emotionally and immediately. You love your kids, and you’ve spent years both protecting them and teaching them to be independent. It is easy for your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and insecurities, to cause you to react and intervene in ways that are ultimately unsuccessful and sometimes even damaging to your relationship with your child.

The best remedy for this is restraint. Breathe deeply and take your time considering your response. Talk to your spouse, your friends, your parents, your therapist—whomever you need. Unless the situation absolutely requires immediate action (and by that, I mean lives are in danger), step back, slow down and talk it through. This process will help ensure that you effectively assess which action to take next.

It’s All About Autonomy

The urge to leap in and share the wisdom of your vast experience can be overpowering. After all, why would they want to make their own mistakes when they can learn from yours? Watching your children fail—and consequently learn—is one the hardest things you'll ever have to do. But you must do it. The reality is that in most circumstances, people learn more effectively from their own successes and failures than they do from hearing about those of others.

This also will serve as an opportunity for your child to develop important skills. Making the decision to stay out of your kids’ business (yes, they do have business that is not yours) can cause you to lose a lot of sleep, but often it is the best path to help them develop long-term independence and confidence in their own decision-making abilities. So stay out of it whenever possible. Your kids will gain more knowledge and self-confidence from solving their own problems, and your relationship with them will be better off because of it.

Stepping in Carefully

So you’ve thought it over, struggled, deliberated and tried staying out of it, but you just can’t take it anymore. Or, maybe you got lucky and your kid has actually come to you to discuss the problem. When this happens, be thoughtful and deliberate in your approach in order to ensure you are actually accomplishing what you set out to do. When you engage with your child, take it slow so that you don’t allow your emotions to dictate your responses. Be sure to listen more than you speak and check in to verify that you understand what you’re hearing before you respond.

It’s also absolutely fine to let your child know you’ll offer your thoughts later, after you have taken some time to talk it over with others and give it careful consideration yourself. This action not only allows you to ensure that you're giving a response you’ll feel good about, but it also sets an important example for how to deal with real life problems effectively.

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Once you’ve made sure you’re ready to respond, remember that even though you're stepping in to help, it is still all about autonomy. Try asking open-ended questions (not yes or no) that provide the opportunity for conversation and contemplation. Empathize, and let them know that you understand their situation is difficult, stressful and tough to talk about, and that you might even struggle with making the best choice if it were you. When giving your opinion, be direct but caring. Express your concerns with love and support and without judgment.

Finally, and this is the tough one, only offer advice if it is requested. Sometimes, kids simply want to listen to your concerns, get things off their chest, and feel some empathy and understanding, and then they are ready to get back to being autonomous and solving their own problems. The reality is that offering advice when it isn’t requested risks two undesirable outcomes: First, that your kid will feel driven to do the opposite in the name of independence, and second, that they’ll think twice about talking to you about things next time.

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Keep in mind that when it comes to addiction and other issues of health and safety, it is likely that you will need to take a more definitive stand and enlist the help of others. These issues must be taken very seriously, and following the steps above may not be appropriate or effective. When in doubt, contacting a professional is always a good choice.

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