ADVICE: How to Give it – and When to Zip it – Part 1

Adult children often don’t want to hear their parents’ opinions on decisions in their lives. Since Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson deals with this issue in her psychotherapy practice, I met with her to gain insights on how parents can share advice so it will be heard.

Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD

Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD

No subject is more fraught when it comes to parent/grown child relations than advice: the giving of it, the taking of it, the consequences of it. In every culture and age elders were respected for their wisdom. In fact, they were the leaders of the community as priests, generals, medicine men, judges, marriage counselors, fertility experts, chiefs—you name it. In the United States they were the pillars of the community.
     Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century in America: the parental generation was suddenly disregarded and disrespected. On TV and in movies, fathers went from authority figures to ineffectual bumblers and mothers went from saints to meddlesome yentas. Hippies said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”, psychiatrists said, “It’s all the parents’ fault,” and kids said, “They don’t even know how to turn on the computer.”  As I came to realize through the research for my book, Children Through the Ages: A History of Childhood, the age of self-conscious parenting was upon us.  Ancestor worship was out; child worship was in, and we’re seeing the results in our grown children.
     A lot of parents are afraid to open their mouths lest their grown offspring jump down their throats. To stay on good terms with their children, they refrain from sharing all they’ve learned from their decades on this planet. That’s a lot of accumulated wisdom down the drain. But, according to Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson, a practicing psychotherapist for over thirty years and Chair of the Masters of Clinical Psychology at Antioch University Santa Barbara, there’s a valid reason for the adult children’s attitude.
     “Young adults generally don’t seek advice from their parents, in part, because they are developmentally at a place of separating from parents and cultivating their own adult identities,” she says. “Parental advice may then be interpreted as criticism that they are somehow not doing it right or are not capable of establishing their own adulthood. And despite the “wisdom of experience” parents may be able to offer, most of us need to learn experientially, that is, by making our own mistakes.”
     All this leaves parents frustrated because they love their children and feel they can help them make better choices or at least save them from making disastrous ones. And, yes, they still want to feel they play an important part their children’s lives. Moreover, if a parent feels her relationship with a grown child is so fragile that she must continuously walk on eggshells to preserve it; if she must be the ever-enthusiastic cheerleader endorsing every move her adult child makes, even if that move is off the walls; if her role is just to be a walking, talking smiley face—how fulfilling is that?

In next Thursday’s post, we’ll learn Dr. Wolfson’s response. In the meantime, please let us know how you have fared as an adviser. We’re all ears . . .

Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, is Chair of the Masters of Clinical Psychology Department at Antioch University Santa Barbara. She also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in which she works with people of all ages and backgrounds. To contact Dr. Wolfson, please call 805-564-6642 or email her at

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