Before Giving Your Adult Kids Advice, Ask This One Key Question

The wrong advice at the wrong time can drive you apart. One question will clear it up. Works for teens and even our closest friends, too!

Brunette mother and adult daughter with olive skin tone and white collar shirts smile at camera yonikamoto / shutterstock

At a certain age, we all think we’re experts. Whether married, divorced, remarried, or never-married, we believe we know what everyone else should do on these matters, and myriad others, from work to end-of-life choices. We have advice for friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and, of course, our adult children.

Do we have a crystal ball through which we can see the future? I think not. Do we believe we’re right? Yes, we do. Are we right? That’s open to debate.


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When should you give advice to your adult children? 

Consider how you feel when you get home, something’s gone terribly wrong in your day and you’re excitedly telling your partner about it.


Do you want advice at that moment? Maybe, but often you just want to vent.

Consider what happens when your partner starts problem-solving for you, i.e., offering unsolicited advice. If you’re like most people, it’s infuriating: He thinks he knows better than me, She doesn’t understand what I need, and so on.

Even worse, you come home and talk about the problem, which you have already taken steps to solve, and your partner tells you, or implies, that you did the wrong thing or could have done something better. Ugh. That’s definitely grounds for outrage.

Just imagine how similar conversations go with an adult child. Kids often get much hotter when a parent starts giving advice or judging actions. How dare they! I’m not 12!


Herein lies the problem we face when dealing with our adult children. Because we often still think of them as children, it’s easy to believe they need our guidance and wise counsel when faced with big decisions and difficult situations.

When my son was seriously dating a woman who, for reasons unknown, did not like me, I knew I had to keep my mouth shut. Tightly shut. That’s what got me thinking about the one question.

I realized how often my friends and clients offer advice to their kids, completely unsolicited, and it turns into a conflict to which my friends and clients lament, I was only trying to be helpful.

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Practice restraint with this one thoughtful question

When faced with a situation in which your child is about to do something (or has done something), is involved with someone you deem problematic, or is contemplating something big (marriage, buying a house, changing jobs) you must consider this one question before offering your advice:

"Would you like to know what I think?"

This one question is also a memo to self: I’ll just check in to see if they want input as I remind myself that I have no control over this and certainly do not want to get into a conflict about it.

Your kid is grown ... they don’t have to listen to what you say. If you’re invited to give an opinion it’s a lot harder to completely ignore what you’ve got to say. Although they still may, and you need to be prepared for that.


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There are many ways to ask this important question 

You can also consider variations on the one question, like: "What do you need right now? Would you like suggestions?"

Sometimes you see that your child would like support for their point of view, one with which you do not agree. This is a tough one since you don’t want to lie and it’s dicey to express an opinion that you know will not be welcome.

Silence is golden. Or punt, with: "Tell me more about your thoughts."

Some people believe that if the adult child is about to make what appears to be a terrible choice it is one’s parental duty to intervene. I disagree. Unless your adult child is a total dolt, they know there’s an issue and don’t need mommy or daddy to point it out. Honestly, your kid usually knows what you think anyway, don’t they? They can tell by the look on your face, the sound of your breath on the phone, or how long it takes you to respond to their text.


You can always take time to consider whether or not to dive in, a useful interpersonal strategy for many fraught situations. Few things cannot wait an hour, two, or even 24. Maybe 48. You might change your mind about intervening.

And yes, if someone is about to go off a cliff, you’ve got to tell them. But this is providing information, because maybe they missed the end-of-trail sign, not giving advice. The danger of bodily harm is quite different from the usual life and love issues we’re faced with.

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The upside of restraint

Think of the positives. You are empowering your adult child by affording them agency to make their own decisions. It will help their independence and confidence to know that you trust them to make good choices. Oh, wait, you don’t trust them? Well, it’s too late now. You’ve done your job and, like you, they will make their own mistakes.

It’s also good for the future of your relationship. Each time you give only the input you’re asked for without prescribing the “correct solution,” you’re letting your child know they can come to you with issues, and you’ll be there for them in a respectful way. You’re treating them as equals. You no longer know better than they do. Really, you probably don’t

It wasn’t until well into my own parenthood that I realized my parents almost never gave me unsolicited advice. When they did, because it was so rare, I could listen without fury. They didn’t consider themselves experts in everything just because they’d been alive longer. It was a great gift because I think it’s made me a better parent.

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Judith Tutin, Ph.D., ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. She aims to bring more passion, fun, and wellness into her clients' lives.