Home Family & Relationship Discovering the Right Words Can Empower a Struggling Adult Child

Discovering the Right Words Can Empower a Struggling Adult Child

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When an adult child is facing challenges, the words chosen by their parents can have a profound impact on their mental and emotional well-being.

These words can either be a source of comfort and strength or, conversely, a trigger for further distress and isolation. The key lies in understanding the power of language and its emotional implications. Parents need to be acutely aware of how their words, tone, and even non-verbal communication are perceived by their adult children, especially in times of struggle.

By choosing words that are empathetic, encouraging, and supportive, parents can play a crucial role in helping their adult children navigate through difficult periods in their lives.

Understanding the impact of language

Language is a powerful tool that can either uplift or further distress an individual. For parents of adult children facing difficulties, it’s crucial to be mindful of the words used during conversations. Studies have shown that certain phrases can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and inadequacy.

For instance, a 2014 study highlights the detrimental effects of dismissive language on an individual’s self-esteem. This study underscores the importance of choosing words that convey understanding and support rather than judgement or dismissal.

It also emphasises the need for parents to be sensitive to the emotional state of their adult children, acknowledging their experiences and feelings as valid. Adopting a language of empathy and validation can significantly alter the dynamics of the conversation, fostering a more positive and supportive environment. This approach not only aids in building trust but also enhances the adult child’s sense of self-worth and resilience. Therefore, the careful selection of words and phrases becomes a crucial aspect of nurturing a healthy and constructive parent-child relationship.

Words to avoid and their alternatives

It’s important to steer clear of phrases that may seem trivialising or judgmental. Saying things like “Just get over it” or “You’re overreacting” can make an adult child feel misunderstood and isolated. Instead, opt for empathetic responses such as, “I can see you’re going through a tough time; how can I help?” This approach shows empathy and willingness to support.

Another phrase to avoid is “When I was your age…”, which can come across as dismissive of the unique challenges your child faces today. A more effective approach could be, “I can imagine how difficult this must be for you,” which acknowledges their experience as valid and significant.

Such thoughtful responses help to create a safe space for open communication, allowing the adult child to feel heard and supported. This shift from judgement to empathy can significantly enhance the parent-child relationship, fostering a deeper understanding and connection. It also enables the parent to become a source of comfort and guidance, rather than adding to the stress and anxiety their child may already be experiencing. The goal is to build a foundation of trust and mutual respect where the adult child feels valued and supported in their journey.

Encouraging resilience and independence

While it’s important to be supportive, it’s equally crucial to encourage resilience and independence in your adult child. Avoid phrases that may undermine their sense of autonomy, such as “You’ll never be able to handle this on your own.” Instead, foster their confidence by saying, “I believe in your ability to navigate through this.”

A 2021 study highlights the positive impact of supportive yet autonomy-encouraging language on adult children’s resilience. This balance can help them feel empowered to tackle their challenges independently.

The role of active listening

Active listening is a critical component of effective communication. Instead of rushing to offer advice, it’s beneficial to listen attentively and acknowledge their feelings. Phrases like, “I’m here to listen; tell me more about what you’re going through,” can provide the necessary space for them to express themselves freely.

This approach is supported by a 2022 study, which found that active listening significantly improves the quality of the parent-child relationship, fostering a deeper sense of understanding and trust.

Navigating sensitive topics

When discussing sensitive topics, it’s important to approach the conversation with care and sensitivity. Avoid blunt or intrusive questions like, “Why haven’t you figured this out yet?” Instead, use open-ended questions such as, “What do you think would help you in this situation?” to encourage a constructive dialogue.

Remember, the goal is to provide a safe and non-judgmental space for your adult child to explore their feelings and thoughts without the pressure of unsolicited advice or judgement.

Embracing positive affirmations

Finally, incorporating positive affirmations into your conversations can significantly boost your adult child’s morale. Phrases like, “I’m proud of the person you are becoming,” or “Your strength and determination inspire me,” can have a lasting positive impact on their self-esteem and confidence.

Positive affirmations, as highlighted in a 2016 study, have been shown to enhance mental well-being and can be a powerful tool in supporting an adult child through their struggles.


The way parents communicate with their adult children during challenging times is of paramount importance. Words wield the power to either heal or harm, and it’s crucial for parents to choose language that is empathetic, supportive, and encouraging. Avoiding judgmental or dismissive phrases and instead fostering an open, understanding dialogue can significantly strengthen the parent-child bond.

Active listening, sensitivity to the adult child’s unique experiences, and positive affirmations play a key role in enhancing their self-esteem and resilience. The careful selection and use of language can create a nurturing environment, essential for guiding adult children through their struggles and fostering a relationship built on trust, respect, and mutual support.

Oliver Henderson is a family therapist and author, known for his insightful approach to parenting adult children. 

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