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4 Words All Struggling Adult Children Need to Hear

Someone needs to believe in them. Why not their parents?

Key points

  • Parents who are dismissive or critical can exacerbate emotional distress in struggling adult children.
  • Adult children whose struggles are acknowledged may experience reduced feelings of isolation and frustration.
  • Validating your adult child can help them navigate challenges more effectively.

Mary, a new parent-coaching client of mine, told me, "I don't know what to do anymore to help our 26-year-old son, Tim. He flunked out of two colleges and each time lied, claiming he was passing his courses. It is like he tells us what we want to hear, and then when we try to get the truth he gets angry at us."

I responded, "Would you be willing to tell Tim these four words: I believe in you?"

"But Tim lies to us. He has ruined all trust we had in him."

I told Mary, "I get that you are frustrated with Tim's choices and behaviors. I feel for you because I know that seeing him struggle is upsetting and draining. I also recall that you shared that Tim has a younger sister who is thriving in college and an older brother who is doing great at his job out of college."

"When you say it like that, I feel myself shift. It's like I lose my anger and realize what Tim feels he is up against."

I told her, "I empathize with your frustrations with Tim. Yet, isn't it quite likely that he feels pretty lousy about himself? What is the downside to gently reminding him that he has value and can do valuable things to help himself?"

Someone Needs to Believe in Your Struggling Adult Child. Why Not You?

As I explain in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, struggling adult children need to feel validated—like everyone else. Being validated promotes their emotional well-being and helps them feel heard and understood. Struggling adult children often grapple with various challenges, and having their experiences acknowledged can reduce feelings of isolation and frustration.

Below are more scenarios showing how parent validation helps adult children in three different ways:

1. Validation enhances self-esteem. Tina had an adult daughter, Jodie, 31. After a long, windy road of substance abuse and chaotic relationship partners, Tina was highly skeptical whether Jodie could "make it in the real world." In speaking to the importance of validation, Tina said that learning to validate Jodie helped raise her self-esteem and self-worth. She elaborated, "When I let Jodie know I appreciate her efforts to stay clean, I see that boosts her self-image." It was gratifying for me to hear a few months later from Tina that after staying clean and pursuing her interests in animals, Jodie felt successful in her job as a tech at a veterinary clinic.

2. Validation improves communication, trust, and resilience. Scott, the father of 33-year-old Elijah, experienced firsthand how validation promotes open and effective communication. After focusing on validating Elijah's fears and anxieties instead of reflexively "trying to fix" Elijah, Scott experienced more productive discussions about problems and, eventually, potential ways for Elijah to make some progress. Elijah finished a software engineer boot camp and just got hired by a start-up company.

Another client, David, told me that by learning to validate his 23-year-old son, Zach, he began to observe Zach using coping strategies—going to the gym, being more open about his feelings, getting together with friends—and acting more resilient. David saw that as Zach felt more accepted by hearing from David that his emotions were normal, he was more motivated to seek help, learn from his challenges, and develop healthier ways to cope with adversity. Zach saw an Army recruiter and scored well on his ASVAB test. He is now excited to study language in the military and apply those skills to areas of Army intelligence.

3. Validation improves motivation and mental health. Validation can motivate struggling adult children to take action to address their issues. This positive reinforcement reinforces their belief in their abilities and the significance of their contributions, leading to increased self-esteem and a greater desire to excel. Validation catalyzes continued hard work and dedication, as individuals are more likely to invest their time and energy in endeavors where their efforts are acknowledged and validated, ultimately driving them to achieve even greater success.

Invalidating experiences, on the other hand, such as when parents are dismissive or critical, can exacerbate emotional distress in struggling adult children. Validation, however, helps reduce an adult child's distress by providing emotional support and understanding of their struggles, leaving them feeling less alone. Validation respects the autonomy and independence of adult children. It allows them to express their feelings and make choices about their lives while still feeling connected to their parents.

Final Thoughts

In summary, struggling adult children need validation because it has a profound impact on their emotional well-being, self-esteem, communication, coping abilities, motivation, and overall mental health. Validating their experiences and emotions can help them navigate life's challenges more effectively and build stronger, healthier relationships with their parents.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

© Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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Aremu, T. A., John-Akinola, Y. O., & Desmennu, A. T. (2019). Relationship between parenting styles and adolescents’ self-esteem. International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 39, 91–99.

Bernstein J. (2023). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, Hachette Go Publications, New York, NY.

Pinquart, M., Gerke, DC. (2019). Associations of Parenting Styles with Self-Esteem in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analysis. J Child Fam Stud 28, 2017–2035.

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.

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