Hard Conversations with Adult Children
by Lori Stanley Roeleveld
I wasn’t prepared to be the mother of adult children.
Not sure if I imagined they’d remain young forever or if I just didn’t do the math on what it feels like to have my heart walk out the door—twice. Especially when one of those hearts makes decisions that don’t exactly line up with my plans for him.
Our family is tight-knit, and we’ve always talked things through. When my adult son made some choices I didn’t like, I knew I’d have to open my mouth, but we were entering a new phase of relationship. How to approach things now that he was a young man?
At first, I allowed myself to get caught up in anxiety and fear. What if he was entirely rejecting the way he was raised? What if he made decisions that ruined his life and I could do nothing about it? What if I spoke up and he rejected me? He’s old enough to cut me out of his life entirely. Would he do that?
And I confess to less noble fears mixed up in all this. Fear of what others would think of my parenting. Worry about the judgement others might make of our family.
With four years between my son and his younger sister, he was the first one with whom I had to sort this out. We’d homeschooled, and so we were very close. But as Zack approached adulthood, several times he’d set gentle boundaries around my “helpful” chats. “I need to start figuring things out for myself, Mom. Don’t worry. You’ve taught me well.”
I wanted to trust that, but I don’t believe we parent children to perfection. Sin persists and children raised in believing homes need to own that relationship with Jesus. How should I now approach hard conversations with my adult child?
My first step was to have a hard conversation myself with my Heavenly Father. I confessed my anxiety and fear, turning from it to turn to Him. God brought to mind all the poor decisions I’d made along the road to growing up and reminded me of the many ways He’d guided me back to the right path.
I realized part of parenting a young adult is to trust that God is at work in his or her story, and there will be times I need to step back. My husband and I recommitted to prayerful parenting, and I determined to intensify my daily prayers for my son (and my daughter as she grew up and left my household).
The next step I took was to seek out and listen to older Christian women who had already walked this road. I asked questions about how they handled relationships with their adult children. How did they navigate hard conversations? A couple of women had sound counsel and I still turn to them for advice. I was dismayed, however, to learn many of them either simply didn’t have hard conversations or had them and regretted them because they’d damaged their relationships. Surely there was another path.
Thirdly, I prepared for my talk with Zack. I prayerfully considered what I hoped to communicate and what my goal was for our chat. I thought about Zack and how he best receives information. This led me to carefully plan the timing and setting for our discussion. I made sure my concerns were based on biblical standards and not just our local church’s cultural standards. I prayed more and confessed my fear, anger, desire for control. I repented of my worries about what others would think. This cleared my head for God to help me focus with love on my son.
Finally, I scheduled a time to talk with Zack and let him know I wanted us to clear the air about a few things, so he wouldn’t be caught off guard. When he arrived, we sat on my front porch and caught up with one another for a while. We talked about the fact that we’re learning new ways of relating now that he’s an adult. I told him I respected his adult status and would respect him if he set boundaries around topics we could discuss. However, being the Christian mama I am, I would speak up when I felt the Spirit move. He laughed and said he expected nothing less.
At last, I asked him the question that changed everything. “Well, I told you I wanted us to clear the air and discuss some things that are making me unhappy. You know me well. What do you imagine those things are and what do you imagine I’m going to say?”
He smiled and then went on to list every concern without me having to interject a thing. He stated what he imagined I had to say about it all (and was right on the money about that!). Then, he explained his perspective, his reasoning, and his current struggles with making other decisions. I almost didn’t have to say a word except to affirm that I was listening.
He didn’t immediately alter his choices, but I was assured that he’d absorbed the teaching he’d received in our home. He clearly understood the biblical teaching and could articulate his own struggle with following through—giving me a window into his current relationship with Jesus and a better understanding of how to pray. All without a moment of lecture from me.
I emphasized what I felt was biblically imperative. I affirmed my support for him as a son, but I also stated things I wouldn’t support and what that would look like. He validated my perspective as fair.
I asked more questions, frequently using the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” We parted that day with a more mature relationship, and I had his permission to invite him over for hard conversations whenever I felt the need.
It’s been over a decade since that chat, and we’ve had many more. I’ve learned some key elements to effective talks with my adult children and now with their families. These key elements are:
Prayerful, loving preparation—letting God have a hard conversation with me first.
Full-disclosure with the invitation so there’s no “gotcha” moment and so they can feel prepared.
Words of affirmation that frame the conversation with respect.
Demonstrating that respect by asking permission to share opinions about their lives.
Before lecturing, asking the question: “What do you imagine I’m going to say?” Then, listening carefully. Frequently using the phrase, “Tell me more about that,” before launching into my own counsel.
Stating biblically-informed opinions and boundaries simply, without judgement.
Always trying to end with permission to revisit that topic later, but also with reaffirmation of love.
My children are more God’s than mine. Now, as they are adults with families of their own, I need to remember that their story is a work between them and Him. I’m thrilled to have been chosen to be their mother, but God is the primary caretaker to whom they will answer and to whom they must turn.
But I’ll still be my mama-self and share my thoughts—prayerfully, plan-fully, respectfully, biblically, lovingly, and now, by their invitation.
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is an author, speaker, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books. Her latest release is The Art of Hard Conversations: Biblical Tools for the Tough Talks that Matter. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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