Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

How to Communicate Better with Your Grown Child

Reading Time: 9 minutes

It’s common knowledge that talking to teens isn’t easy. They tend to push back, shut down, or give a one-word answer to every question. But parents often expect that when their kids cross over into young adulthood, all that will change. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. 

Communicating with your grown child can take some work. Adult children have their own interests, beliefs, relationship, and lives. Their parents are no longer the center of their world. Now that the dynamics of the relationship have changed, a different approach to communicating is required. 

Key Takeaways

  • Adult children may refrain from having deeper conversations with their parents because they don’t want to be judged, criticized, lectured, or treated like children.
  • Asking open-ended questions is more likely to lead to meaningful conversations with young adult children than questions with “yes” or “no” answers.
  • Actively listening rather than offering advice is one of the most important ways to improve communication with your adult child.
  • Young adults whose communication with parents is often hostile, monotone, or mostly non-existent may be struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Why It’s Hard to Communicate on a Deeper Level with Adult Children

The older children become, the more independent they become. While the transformation from child to adult is normal and expected, it can still be painful for some parents. Their warm and cuddly kids have been replaced by larger and vastly different people. Reading them sweet and funny stories before bed is no longer an option.

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Parents may long to have meaningful conversations with their adult children, but feel their kids aren’t particularly interested. It’s important to understand that various underlying reasons could be at play. Here are some of the reasons why talking to grown children about their feelings can be tough.

They Don’t Want to be Treated Like Kids

Some parents struggle to view their kids as adults and relinquish their parental role. Without realizing it, they may talk to their adult son or daughter as if they’re still dependent children. They may offer unsolicited advice or warn them about situations they’re old enough to manage on their own. While parents are naturally inclined to feel protective of their children, it’s not appropriate to micromanage adult children. Not feeling respected is one reason young adults shut down.

They’re Afraid You’ll Judge or Criticize Them

Even though your children are grown, they still want your approval. They also need to be accepted for who they are. When you judge or criticize their adult choices—of a partner or a job, for example—you push them away. Rather than initiate a conversation about something sensitive, they’re more apt to clam up to prevent themselves from getting hurt.

You’re Invading Their Space

If you’re frequently calling and asking intrusive questions about their finances or a new relationship, don’t expect them to open up about their feelings. They may feel you’re overstepping their boundaries. Remember that your adult children’s ideas of privacy may be different than yours. One thing is certain: if you invade their space, they’re less likely to be open with you. 

Their Unresolved Emotional Pain Gets Triggered

Relationships between parents and young adult children can be strained for many reasons. Personality differences may have become longstanding conflicts, some of which can even lead to parental estrangement. In other cases, past experiences are the reason for communication problems. Adult children who’ve experienced trauma and not resolved it can harbor resentments. When adult children get triggered, that emotional pain can resurface and make communication difficult. 

There’s a Generation Gap

Another reason children shy away from having more meaningful conversations with parents is that they don’t want to risk the conflict that might ensue. Some of these conflicts are due to the generational gap. Tension and misunderstandings can arise due to differences in political views and religious beliefs. If a parent has discomfort around race or other groups, such as the LGBTQ community, adult children may hesitate to be too forthcoming. 

Why It’s So Important to Foster Communication with Your Adult Children

Having deeper conversations with grown kids can be hard, but the support parents can offer their young adult children shouldn’t be underestimated. Even though they are building independence and autonomy, knowing they can turn to their parents for help can give them a feeling of safety. Having a sturdy foundation of parental support allows them to try new things and navigate the ups and downs of adult life with greater ease. 

In fact, a study of more than 15,000 adolescents found that those who reported high levels of satisfaction with their communication and overall relationship with their parents had better health, greater optimism, and higher quality romantic relationships in adulthood. They also reported fewer depressive symptoms and less substance abuse.

Given that over one-third of young adults between 18 and 25 suffers from some kind of mental illness, parental encouragement and validation are vital to help many young adults maintain their mental health and well-being. When they feel understood and loved, young adults experience less stress. They also feel a sense of self-worth and belonging, which reduces their mental health symptoms.

How to Connect with Your Grown Children 

If you haven’t spoken openly with your grown children recently, it may take some work. Sensitivity, empathy, patience, and practice are required. Many parents may find they need to improve their communication skills if they want to have hard conversations. More than one overture may be required. But there are ways to make it easier.

Ideally, having an open conversation about a personal matter shouldn’t be a special occasion. If you live in close enough proximity, do things together that you both enjoy, like visiting a museum or going for a hike. Face-to-face communication is ideal because you can see body language and hear tone of voice. If meeting in person isn’t possible, there’s always video. Either way, make talking to your grown children part of your weekly routine if possible. That way, broaching a sensitive topic won’t feel like it’s coming out of left field.

If you’re not able to spend time or arrange calls with your children on the regular, invite them for a meal or an activity (or a video call) that allows you to slow down and connect. Talk about lighter topics at first. If it goes well, you might broach a more delicate subject.

Parents communicating with their grown children

10 Conversation Starters for Talking with Young Adult Children

When it feels like the right time to initiate a more heart-to-heart conversation with your grown son or daughter, avoid asking questions with a “yes” or “no” answer. Instead, encourage dialogue with more open-ended prompts such as:

  1. How’s _____ going? 
  2. What’s _____ like?
  3. How are you feeling about ____?
  4. Tell me about _____.
  5. So what you do you think about _____?
  6. What do you think the best way to handle _____ is? (Asking for their advice shows you respect their opinion.)
  7. How did you handle _____? 
  8. What do you remember about _____? (Use this prompt if you want to talk about something related to a past experience.)
  9. I’ve noticed _____ lately. I’m feeling concerned—would you be open to talking about it? (For example, you’ve noticed they don’t return your calls, seem to be drinking a lot, or sound sad or stressed when you talk.)
  10. When I was your age, I _____. Is that something you experience?

What to Do and What Not to Do When Communicating with Your Grown Children

Striking a balance between being a friend and a mentor to your adult child isn’t always a simple task. How do you encourage openness without appearing nosy? How do you make suggestions without appearing controlling? Some approaches invite honest conversations while others shut communication down.

Conversation Dos

Listen Closely

To improve communication with your adult child, listening skills are perhaps the most important skills you can develop. When your adult kids are talking, don’t formulate your response. Instead, breathe and focus on their words. Refrain from interrupting to fix whatever they’re dealing with. Just listen. Notice their facial expressions and body language. Be present with them as they share what’s going on in their lives. Don’t seize every opportunity to share a similar story of your own. Keep the focus on them. The more you listen from a place of genuine curiosity, the more your adult child is apt to share. 

Validate Their Feelings

Rather than judge your adult children or try to solve all their problems, validate their feelings instead. Let them know you’ve heard them. Empathize with where they’re coming from. Paraphrase what they’ve said so they feel understood. When you validate their feelings and experiences, you open the door for more upfront communication.

Offer Praise 

Appreciating your grown children for who they are goes a long way toward creating an environment for open communication. If your son or daughter knows they’re unconditionally loved and supported, they’ll feel safer expressing vulnerability. Remarks like, “I’m so proud of you,” “You’re so good at _____,” and “I’m so impressed by your ability to _____” lift children up. The result is greater closeness and openness.

Admit Your Own Imperfections

Some families present a perfect front to the world. Some parents even present a perfect front to their children, never letting on that they have vulnerabilities or problems. Children of “perfect” parents can feel they’ll never be able to match up and thus rarely discuss their struggles. To encourage more open conversations, admit to your adult children that you aren’t perfect, and that your family isn’t, either. Share a struggle or two. Tell them that being imperfect is acceptable, that they won’t be rejected.

Respect Their Point of View

If you want your adult children to feel comfortable talking candidly to you, take their point of view seriously. It’s not necessary to agree with everything they say, but you do need to respect their right to have beliefs that are different from yours. Trying to prove that your political, religious, or social views are more accurate than theirs will cause either friction or distance. You can say, “We see it differently, but that’s okay. I love you and respect your point of view.”

Be Open to Criticism

In the midst of having frank conversations about the shifting dynamics of your relationship, your son or daughter may point out some of your flaws. They may describe times they felt hurt. They may voice their difficulties with you or unhealthy patterns they’ve noticed. Before leaping into defensiveness, pause. Take a breath. Then take a look at yourself and see if there’s some truth to your child’s observations. When appropriate, apologize.

Conversation Don’ts

Don’t Take It Personally

If you try to initiate a more substantial conversation and your adult child says they’re too busy, take them at their word. They may genuinely not have time for a drawn-out conversation on that particular day. Think back to your early adulthood and how busy you were. Respect their time and ask when a better time to connect might be.

Don’t Give Too Much Advice 

The last thing many young adults want is more advice. They’re finally at an age where they can make their own choices. Sharing another one of your great ideas or favorite resources can be a conversation killer. Try to keep unsolicited advice to a minimum. If you have something meaningful to share, don’t say, “Here’s what I think.” Instead, you might say, “I have a thought. Would you like to hear it?” That way, you give your adult child the opportunity to choose whether they’re in the mood to hear your opinion.

Don’t Be Rude

Just because you’re related doesn’t mean speaking disrespectfully is acceptable. The fact that you’re older and wiser isn’t an excuse, either. If the remark on the tip of your tongue is one you’d never make to a colleague, don’t make it to your child. If you’d never use that tone of voice with your friends, don’t use it with your child. Avoid rudeness. It’s not going to help you stay connected. On the contrary, it’s going to damage your communication. 

Don’t Try to Solve It

When you rush in with solutions at the drop of a hat, you don’t allow your adult children to be adults. Rather than attempt to fix every problem, ask good questions instead. Allow your grown kids to come up with their own solutions, even if they’re not necessarily ones you would choose. There’s value in learning from mistakes. Alternatively, entertain the possibility that their solutions may be even better than what you have in mind.

Don’t Tell Secrets

If your son or daughter shares something with you in confidence, don’t share it with anyone else. Unless they’re at great risk of harming themselves or another, honor their request. Keep the substance of your conversations private if that’s what your adult child would like. Just because they’re your children doesn’t mean you can divulge their struggles to the world. If you want to them to trust you, respect their need for privacy. 

Don’t Guilt-Trip Them

If you don’t see or speak to your adult children often, guilt-tripping them isn’t going to improve your communication. Don’t say, “Is a quick visit or call once in a while too much to ask?” Instead, take ownership for your part in the relational dynamic you’ve helped to create. You might say, “I imagine there must be a good reason I don’t hear from you very often. I wonder if I’ve done something to push you away. I love and care about you very much. I’d like to understand what’s going on so I can do a better job of supporting you.”

Red Flags Around Communication with Your Grown Child

As young adults move through puberty and into young adulthood, it’s normal for them to exhibit moodiness and short-temperedness. It’s also normal for them to become somewhat more private as they begin to shape their own independent lives. 

When their communication is repeatedly hostile, monotone, or largely non-existent, however, it may be a red flag signaling an underlying mental health condition or substance abuse issue. Some red flags include:

  • Repeatedly not answering your calls or taking days—even weeks—to respond.
  • Being difficult to make plans with, though they make time for friends.
  • Deliberately changing the subject when you initiate a heart-to-heart conversation.
  • Speaking in a flat, apathetic tone of voice.
  • Showing little sympathy or concern for your problems.
  • Sharing little about what’s going on in their lives. “Everything’s fine” is the typical answer.
  • Storming away when you offer a constructive suggestion. 
  • Making sarcastic, cutting remarks about your appearance, behavior, or relationships.
  • Having unexplained emotional or aggressive outbursts.

Mental Health Treatment for Young Adults at Newport Institute

If you’re at a communication impasse with your young adult child, or if they’ve shared mental health symptoms with you, Newport Institute or another mental health program could be the right fit. We’re trained to help you and your child find a program that meets their needs, whether it’s one of ours or another program in your community. 

Our treatment programs are specialized for young adults. Whether outpatient or residential, they boast proven effective outcomes in measures of anxiety, depression, family attachment, and more. Various types of family counseling are available to strengthen the connection between parents and young adult children. We believe involving the family is essential to help repair relationships and improve communication. Contact us today to learn more.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is it so hard to communicate with my grown child?
  • Will working on communication with my adult child enhance their life in any way?
  • How can I get my grown child to open up more?
  • How do you broach a sensitive topic with your grown child?
  • What are some best tactics to improve communication with my young adult child?

JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Mar; 6(3): e233944.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2021

Family Connection / August 12, 2023

Newport Institute

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