ADVICE: How to Give it – and When to Zip it – Part 2

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

We ended last Thursday’s post with the thought that many parents of adult children felt frustrated because their advice was neither sought nor welcome. In giving advice psychotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Wolfson suggests, “First be aware of your own agenda and frustrations. Examine your motives and challenge your certainty that what you know to be best may not be best for your child. Nurture yourself internally; you are in a true dilemma of instinctively wanting to protect your child while not being able to. There is nothing bad or wrong with that—it is nature taking its course. But it may not be what your child wants or needs.
     “Your challenge is to bite your tongue,” she continues, “and follow your children’s lead. Are they asking for your input? Are they sending double messages about seeking advice and then rejecting it? They are in a dilemma. Cultivating an adult identity separate from one’s family of origin is a confusing and tricky endeavor filled with mixed feelings. No wonder they are sending you mixed messages! Still, when you feel you absolutely, positively must weigh in (or are asked for your opinion), I suggest you keep your tone as neutral as possible. It is a delicate dance potentially filled with missteps and stumbles. Provide advice and insights gently, communicating that these are just your thoughts and of course, you know your adult children will do it in the way that suits them. Couch your advice in terms of “it’s been my observation,” or “what’s worked for me is,” or “here’s how I see it ”—and then sit down and clam up.
     “If you think your children are really in trouble, you can ask what their supports might be and whether they have considered professional support (counseling). Ultimately, it’s THEIR life. They know themselves better than we do, and the world they are negotiating is different from the one in your frame of reference. The most powerful thing you can do is communicate your confidence in your adult children’s judgment and ability to make good decisions. Then disengage and focus energy on your own life while staying loving and available should they need you.”
      We’ll return to the topic of advice many times in the future because it’s such a flash point in parent/grown child relations. In the meantime, please share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for you in giving advice.

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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