Help! I Have Trouble Talking with My Adult Children

This article is part of the Help! series.

Be curious.

My son was living in Nashville when he met the love of his life, Hannah. Naturally, I wanted to meet the woman who had captured his heart, and I prepped myself for the meeting by heeding the advice given to me: Don’t talk too much. Give her a chance to speak. Don’t riddle her with a hundred questions. You don’t want to make her feel cornered. Just smile and nod and hope for the best.

Not talking proved difficult, but I managed to let my words be few. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.

A week after our meeting, I felt brave enough to ask my son, Nathan, “How do you think the visit went?”

My husband had a habit of rating our family trips on a scale of one to ten, with one being a Titanic experience and ten being The Love Boat. Taking a page from his dad, Nathan said, “I’d give it a three. Maybe a four.”

“Oh.” Nothing prepared me for “. . . a three. Maybe a four.” I had hoped for at least a five, and quite possibly a six-ish. “So, where did I go wrong?”

“You didn’t ask her any questions, Mom. Hannah wasn’t sure if you had any interest in getting to know her.”

Loving Your Adult Children

Gaye B. Clark

Loving Your Adult Children offers gospel hope to parents who struggle with pain in their relationships with their adult children. It reorients their focus—pointing to Christ as the only source of lasting peace and to his gospel as the only hope for lasting relationships.  

Don’t bite your tongue.

Ask questions. When James exhorts us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19), he didn’t say don’t speak. The beauty of asking questions is reinforced in many arenas. Ted Lasso exhorted the overconfident bully who had challenged him to a game of darts to “be curious.” 2 Had the man been so, he might have learned Ted wasn’t new to the game of darts. Clinicians don’t rely on medical tests alone to get a proper diagnosis. They must ask their patient questions. The New Testament records more than 300 instances where Jesus asked questions of both his followers and accusers.

In the trickiest of transitions, when we move from parenting a teen to mentoring our adult children, asking questions is the best and first approach to difficult conversations—far better than biting your tongue. For example, let's say your twenty-year-old son (we’ll call him Jonathan) finds a credit card bill a blow to his budget:

Jonathan: Mom, can I talk to you for a second?

Mom: Sure. What’s up?

Jonathan: I bought some clothes—for work—I really didn’t have a choice. Anyway, when I got to the cashier and she rang up all the stuff, well, the amount I owed? It was a lot. She suggested I open a credit card through the store, and I’d get five percent off.

Mom: Is that what happened?

Jonathan: Well, not really. She didn’t tell me about all the interest I would owe. I’m sure that knocked out any five percent savings.

Mom: That’s frustrating, I’m sure. What are you going to do? (Mom is still asking questions, withholding judgment, wearing a poker face, and keeping the problem squarely on her son’s shoulders.)

Jonathan: I . . . I have no idea.

Mom: That must feel overwhelming.

Jonathan: You’re telling me!

Mom: Would you like to hear a couple of ideas? (Always, always ask before giving your adult child advice.)

Jonathan: (folding his arms across his chest) Sure, Mom.

Mom: You could take some of the clothes back—if you haven’t worn them yet. Would that be possible?

Jonathan: At work, they expect me to wear a coat and tie. A suit would be better. You know I don’t normally wear stuff like that! I only bought a few things. Men’s dress clothes are expensive, but I still need the clothes, Mom.

Mom: Yes, I see your dilemma. Well, I have another idea. Want to hear it? (Mom continues to ask permission before giving advice.)

Jonathan nods and lets out a sigh.

Mom: You could map out a plan to make automatic payments—one that you can afford but is still above the monthly interest rate—and keep the clothes.

Jonathan: Would you consider lending me the money to pay it off?

Mom: Your father and I aren’t comfortable with that option. I’m sorry you are feeling this strain. It may seem like a mountain of debt, but we’re confident you can conquer it.

This was an actual conversation that occurred with my friend and her son. Jonathan marched off in a huff, but I give him credit for hearing his mom out. No one likes to hear advice that is difficult to follow.

Mom didn’t feel great about the conversation either. She called me in tears. Here’s the rub: sometimes talking to your adult children in a healthy manner won’t end in smiles and hugs. The immediate outcome of a conversation is not the only determinant of whether your communication was successful. Give your adult child time to ponder what was said in a conversation, and don’t write him off as foolish because he didn’t see your wisdom immediately.

Ask questions. Don’t lecture.

Not every adult child feels comfortable talking with their parents. Adult children might avoid conversations with their parents because they don’t want to be criticized, lectured, or treated like children. Sometimes Christian parents fall into the lecture trap by forgetting the truth they instilled in their children for years, that good news is to be shared, not used as a weapon to win an argument. When are we sharing the truth versus delivering a lecture? Lectures are for dependent children, not adults. They are sometimes delivered in fear with a desire to control. Truth is shared in love with a desire to see a person grow: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

You can love your child by listening to him when he’s near, and praying for him when he is not.

An adult child may mention things that are hard for us to hear—such as a decision to leave the faith. If your adult child’s words catch you completely off guard and you have no answers or good questions but only lots of emotions, your words should be few. It’s okay to tell him, “Can we decide on a time when we can talk after I’ve had a chance to think and pray about this?” The crucial point at a painful moment like this is to keep the conversation going, not to win an argument. If you taught your children the foundations of the gospel, they already know your responses to much of their doubts. If you opt to argue or be defensive in the name of sharing the truth, you might end up making the most profound apologist for the faith but lose your relationship with your child in the process. A loss of relationship leaves little opportunity for you to continue to offer gospel influence.

Asking questions is a demonstration that you value his opinion and are interested in what he is thinking even though you disagree with him. This assures your child that your faith isn’t afraid to hear objections. Questions like, “I’d like to hear more. How did you come to this decision?” Allow your adult child to be heard without interrupting with a rebuttal. Being heard, as David Augsburger notes, “is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.”1 Again, this is too big of a problem for you to fix. Remember salvation is of the Lord. You can love your child by listening to him when he’s near and praying for him when he is not. His doubt is your opportunity to fully trust the Lord with his never-dying soul.

Questions treat adult children as adults.

Asking questions also keeps the focus on your adult child, not on you. Jonathan’s mom had her own life lessons with credit cards, but she avoided the temptation of sharing those experiences so she could keep the focus on her son. Notice, too, she didn’t owe her son an explanation as to why she would not lend him the money. Instead, she (1) asked questions, (2) avoided lectures, (3) offered suggestions only after asking her son if he wanted to hear them, (4) offered empathy, and finally, (5) reinforced confidence in her son’s ability to manage the problem on his own. Jonathan eventually paid off the credit card, and then put it in a shredder. Mom was able to hold her adult child accountable without raising her voice or jumping into lecture mode. In other words, she treated Jonathan like an adult. Jonathan, in turn, rose to the occasion.

Remember your adult child has answers too.

My daughter-in-law proved to be a gracious and confident woman who wouldn’t be intimidated by my asking questions. Since our first meeting, she has continued to model better conversation and teach me other things as well. Our adult children aren’t simply sponges designed to soak up our abundant wisdom. They are image-bearers of God who have much to share if we are humble enough to ask them questions.


  2. Augsburger, David W. Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard: How to Hear and How to Be Heard in Equal Communication (Baker, 1982).

Gaye B. Clark is the author of Loving Your Adult Children: The Heartache of Parenting and the Hope of the Gospel.

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