Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Ways to Help Your Adult Child Who Lacks Ambition

Become a constructive parental encourager, not a destructive nagger.

Key points

  • Motivating an adult child can be challenging, as they are independent individuals with wants and needs.
  • Listen to your adult child's concerns and be open to their ideas.
  • A calm, firm, and non-controlling mindset helps parents bypass their own and their adult child's emotional reactivity.

When coaching parents, I hear many stories of major frustration about adult children being stalled out, shut down, and lacking any foreseeable, realistic plans to gain independence. In this post, I'll share how to engage struggling adult children with frequent denial, anger, and helplessness related to their stagnated motivation. Motivating an adult child can be challenging, as they are independent individuals with their wants and needs. However, there are some things you can do to facilitate motivating them:

1. Validate When You Communicate. Listen to your adult child's concerns and be open to their ideas. Show that you respect their opinions and are a safe sounding board to find solutions. One client, Lisa, discovered how important it was to stop imposing her own job advice to Annie, her 27-year-old daughter. Lisa was understandably worried when Annie decided to drop out of training to be a dental hygienist. Yet, once Lisa switched lanes from an overbearing parent to a supportive emotion coach, she began to listen with validation, and Annie then shared her desire to work with animals in the veterinary field.

2. Recognize When You Are Not Supportive. Take a look in your accountability mirror to see when you are not offering acknowledgment or encouragement for your adult child's efforts and accomplishments, no matter how small. Serena thought she was always supportive of her 26-year-old son, Dante, who had dropped out of two colleges as well as an even shorter certificate program in an attempt to become a software engineer. Dante told Serena that her tone felt critical when he mentioned his new plan to sign up for military service. Serena then realized she had been critical and changed her tone. Dante explored and confirmed that the structure of the military was a good fit for him, and he went on to gain high-tech skills through this route.

3. Praise Perseverance. Grit refers to perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It is the ability to stick with a task or goal even in the face of difficulty. Grit can be developed and strengthened through practice, effort, and self-reflection. Helping your adult child identify past struggles they pushed through will help them feel empowered to reflect and gain the grit to move forward. This was the case for 33-year-old Edwin, who gained sobriety and met with a job coach to "start my life over for the better."

4. Encourage Independence. Give your child the space and freedom to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. Ultimately, the most important thing is maintaining a positive and supportive relationship with your child and being there for them when they need your help. Let them solve their problems and offer guidance rather than rushing in with solutions. Show trust in their abilities and decision-making. Communicate openly and actively listen to their thoughts and ideas.

A Sample Soundbite to Help Your Stuck Adult Child

The soundbite sample below comes from the trenches of parents adopting my Calm, Firm, Non-Controlling approach, which helps them bypass their own and their child's emotional reactivity and the resulting power struggles. (For more details, see my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child.) Seeing yourself as your adult child's emotion coach, for example, helps you break from being typecast as a nagging, adversarial parent:

I hear you're annoyed that I asked again if you got a job. I'll keep working on backing off. I realize that putting yourself out there to get a job can feel overwhelming. At the same time, we both know you'll feel better having more independence and structure in your life. Just know that I am here to be supportive of you.

I hope you find the above tips and examples helpful. Keep in mind they are intended as a guiding, healthy, mutually empowering mindset, not a set script. Some frustrated and hurt readers may understandably want to weaponize this post by sending it to their adult children. That is not the intended purpose; in doing so, you would be truly undermining yourself.


Bernstein, J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (3rd.Ed), Hachette Books, New York, NY.

Birditt, K.S. (2009). Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence, Psychol Aging. 2009 Jun; 24(2): 287–295.doi: 10.1037/a0015196, PMCID: PMC2690709, NIHMSID: NIHMS94367

Yang, J., & Zheng, Y. (2019). Links Between Perceptions of Successes, Problems and Health Outcomes Among Adult Children: The Mediating Role of Perceptions of Parents’ Feelings and Intergenerational Relationships. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

More from Psychology Today

More from Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today