Relating to adult children — 11 February 2013
Helping your adult child with marital difficulties

Though parenting is a lifetime assignment most parenting research and literature focuses primarily on aiding parents in raising young children and adolescents to adulthood. Beyond the youngster’s emancipation the guidance is scarce and the need is great.

Many parents are bewildered about how to best assist their frustrated child without negatively impacting their marriage. They feel their offspring’s pain but are unsure about what to say that will best serve him/her in the future. Some words that may soothe the child at the moment may not be most helpful for the long run.

Though most adult children crave their independence they still look for parental approval, guidance and support throughout their lives, particularly during stressful times. To be effective in supporting your child during his/her distress you must recognize the difference between being helpful and meddling. How can parents help their adult children in times of a relationship crisis?

Three common ineffective ways of attempting to support a child in his/her relationship distress are: Bonding, Dissuading and Placating.

Bonding with your child’s view of the situation is natural, yet potentially destructive. As compelling as it is to affirm your child’s complaint about his/her spouse, it may be betraying the son/daughter-in-law and harming their relationship. Not affirming your child may be viewed as criticism, abandonment and alliance with this moment’s “enemy”.

Dissuading is a technique used by some parents to alleviate the child’s momentary distress by providing reassurance that the distressed feelings are temporary and need not be heeded. This advice is often perceived as invalidating, discounting and hurtful to the child in pain.

Placating messages may provide generalizations such as “all couples fight, get angry and even sometimes hate each other. It is normal, it passes and all returns to normal.” This attempt to deflect the pained emotions actually minimizes and invalidates them.

None of these efforts is helpful to your child. Bonding with the child discredits the spouse and abandons the “mutual responsibility for conflict” that both spouses bear. Dissuading and Placating attempt to change the adult child’s reality, which is disrespectful and infantilizing.

What anyone in distress can benefit from is a caring, compassionate listener to be present as the sufferer sorts his/her emotions toward solutions. The method that works best in helping your adult child in a relationship crisis is to use what I term, “Ask Don’t Tell”. Facilitate your adult child’s self-exploration of emotions, thoughts and reality so he/she can more clearly chart his/her course of soothing solutions.

Listen compassionately to your child’s feelings and ask what evoked them and how he/she can restore the desired emotional comfort. This helps your child become accountable for him/herself. Feeling your parental supportive, non-instructive presence opens up your child’s self-awareness, wisdom and healing power.

Help your child in relationship distress:

  • Listen compassionately and validate your child’s distress.
  • Abstain from suggestions, advice, bonding, dissuading or placating.
  • Prompt your child to express his/her emotions and find healing solutions.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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