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The Parenting Puzzle – How to Balance Guidance and Acceptance of Adult (Or Near Adult) Children

By Kurt Smith April 16, 2024 Family

Raising a child is an incredible journey filled with joy, challenges, and decisions. But it’s also complicated. We all want the best for our children, and as parents that means ensuring they stay on the right path by course correcting when necessary. The problem is knowing when it’s really necessary to step in and when we need to step back and allow them to find their own path.

This is particularly difficult when your children reach adulthood. Beginning in their later teens your children need to begin making larger and more impactful decisions for themselves – even if they’re not the decisions you’d like them to make.

Underlying this is a crucial aspect that most of us miss – understanding when and how to accept your adult children for who they are vs. who you wanted or expected them to be.

For instance,

  • You expected Luke to become a doctor, but he’s determined to be a drummer and travel with his band.
  • Aileen just decided to change her major from business to art history.
  • Instead of waiting a few years, Juan and Lisa just announced they’re getting married. They’re only 20.
  • Your plan was for Reed to take over the family business, but instead he’s decided to pursue a career in journalism – in New York.
  • Janelle and Dan are both extremely successful in their careers and have decided not to have children.
  • Rudy wants to introduce you to his significant other and it turns out that Randy is a man and not a woman as you’d assumed.

Any of these deviations from what was expected or imagined as a child’s path can throw a parent for a loop. They can also cause well-meaning parents to feel tempted to “counsel” and “guide” their adult children, when perhaps what they need to do is simply accept them.

Knowing how to strike the right balance between giving direction and allowing your child to grow on their own terms is critical to helping them develop into healthy, confident, and successful adults.

Unfortunately, this process is full of shades of grey and very little black and white.

So, what’s a well-meaning parent to do?

The Difference Between Guidance and Acceptance

Before we can truly talk about navigating all the shades of gray, it’s important to understand the difference between guidance and acceptance. Knowing what each looks like makes it easier to determine which one to apply.

Guidance is using your experience, knowledge, and wisdom to

  • Teach,
  • Lead,
  • Set boundaries,
  • Encourage behavior that’s healthy, positive, and lays the foundation for success (understanding that the definition of success is relative to the situation and person),
  • Lay the foundation for an independent, happy, and productive life.

In short, guidance is what parents do to give their children the tools to make good and healthy decisions.

Acceptance is more about recognizing and respecting your child’s autonomy.

When you accept your child, you recognize their

  • Individuality,
  • Refrain from attempting to change them,
  • Support their pathway, even if it’s not the one you would have chosen,
  • Allow them to make mistakes (and then guide them into learning from those mistakes).

Acceptance is recognizing your adult children for who they are and not trying to change or influence them to be who you would like them to be.

It can be a source of internal conflict for parents, especially when your children are adults or approaching adulthood.

Why Knowing When to Guide and When to Accept Is So Confusing

Knowing when to provide guidance and when to accept your adult children can be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting older children.

On the one hand, we want our children to be successful and do things that bring them joy. On the other hand, we don’t want them to make decisions that could lead to negative consequences.

And because we’re looking through lenses colored by our own experiences and acquired wisdom, we can feel compelled to simply tell them:

  • “Don’t do it that way – you’ll regret it.”
  • “You’re too young to make that choice.”
  • “You’re wrong.”
  • “You don’t know what you want yet.”
  • “That’s a bad choice.”

The refrain of well-meaning attempts at redirection can go on and on.

Guiding and advising them to make healthy choices without alienating and stifling them, or crushing their spirit is a very tricky balance to maintain.

Why is it so hard?

Short answer – because we love them and want them to be happy. But what we forget is that everyone’s version of happiness is different. Your kids aren’t you.

Still, even the most aware parent can find knowing when to offer guidance and when to accept their child and their choices difficult to discern.

Part of the reason this is so confusing is because children go through different stages of development that require different types of care.

For instance, babies and toddlers need more help learning and developing basic skills, while adolescents may require more freedom as they build autonomy.

Many parents get stuck in the purgatory of toddler to young child parenting behavior – even with their adult children. Helicopter parenting an adult leads to being over-protective, meddling, or nosey. It’s unhealthy and can cause:

  • Co-dependent relationships,
  • Adults who don’t know how to take care of themselves,
  • Prolonged immaturity,
  • Failed relationships,
  • Resentment,
  • Alienation of children from their parents.

Add to that the fact that every child is unique and has different needs, some require guidance longer than others. How do you know how much guidance to provide without inadvertently making them feel criticized or judged, or dependent?

Tips for Guiding vs. Accepting Your Adult Children

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or confused when it comes to knowing when to offer guidance and when to accept your child. Sometimes as guides, we need guidance ourselves.

When to Guide Your Adult Children

Guiding your child is essential for them to learn important skills that will help them make wise decisions. The hallmark of successful parenting is creating an adult that doesn’t need you anymore and feels comfortable leading their life on their own.

Guiding your adult children should happen when they’re:

  • Having difficulty dealing with and sorting out their emotions. In this case you can provide support and help them see things from different perspectives.
  • Need advice based on your past experiences. You can help guide them on the right path by providing advice, tips, and direction.
  • Experiencing social difficulties that are threatening their mental health or self-esteem. As a parent you can help them develop better communication skills and coping mechanisms.
  • Making choices that could cause harm (emotional, psychological, or physical) to themselves or others, you can clearly explain the consequences of poor decisions.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or lost, you can help them stay focused and motivated.

It’s important to remember that guidance should be positive and not done with recriminations, judgement, or insults. It also should be done with limits – you’re not supposed to be their therapist.

When to Accept Your Adult Children

Accepting your child is just as important as guiding them. And in many situations, acceptance is the best course of action.

Accepting your child means recognizing and validating their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, even when yours are different. It shows them that you are listening to and respecting their viewpoint.

Acceptance should occur when they:

  • Express frustration or sadness – you can’t fix everything. And they need to learn how to handle their feelings and move forward. So, allow your child to feel their emotions without judgment and let them know it’s okay to have negative ones, like being sad or angry.
  • Share their accomplishments. Expressing unconditional pride for their accomplishments, even if you don’t consider the accomplishment monumental, maintains your relationship and promotes their self-esteem.
  • Make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of life, so show your child unconditional love and support while they learn from their mistakes.
  • Talk about something they’re interested in, even if you find it ridiculous. Listening intently and asking questions to show your interest is not only respectful, but it also continues to reinforce the parent-child bond and keeps you close to your child. And when a child feels they have enlightened their parent, it boosts their confidence and makes them feel valuable.
  • Develop their own sense of style or personal expression. It can be difficult to accept things that you dislike, especially when it comes to your child. However, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to indecency or offensive, accepting your child’s personal expression of style shows respect and helps build their self-identity.
  • Make decisions that are well thought out and logical – even if you disagree. This one applies more and more as a child grows. By the time they reach adolescence and adulthood, they may make decisions that are right for them, but wouldn’t be right for you.

Many things in life come with instructions. Sadly, parenting isn’t one of them and no one parents without mistakes. No one.

Remember your goal – healthy, happy, self-sufficient adults and a strong parent-child relationship. Achieving this only comes with compromises and learning the balance between guiding and accepting, which also means a balance between staying close and letting go.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you navigating the ups and downs of being the parent to an adult child? Have you found ways to successfully guide and accept your child? Do you have challenges and questions you’d like some advice on? Share your story and join the conversation.

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Sherry Bronson

This is one of the trickiest challenges a parent faces and Dr. Smith does a great job of addressing the issues in this article.

Dr. Kurt Smith

Hi Sherry, Great description for it – “one of the trickiest challenges.” It certainly is. Being a parent can be even harder when they’re adults and we shouldn’t be parenting them anymore. -Dr. Kurt

Susan Taylor

Thank you for this great article.

Dr. Kurt Smith

You’re welcome!


I am positive and try to find a solution for everything. My daughter is negative and needs to wallow in it before she moves forward. She taught me to wait to “solve” by asking her what she needed me to be for the story she was going to tell me. Am I just an ear? Do you want my opinion? Do you need help solving? This is just one lesson tool we learned in comparison to the whole tool box we’ve had to develop to manage boundaries and respect for each other. Great article! (I have no idea where that “harried” face came from next to my name!! Ha!!)

Last edited 1 month ago by Stacy

I love this! I am in the identical situation with my daughter, I need to learn how to be better and ask these great questions!!

Carol Anne Cole

I love what you have said here. I need to do that when talking to my granddaughter! I must remember to do that when she calls with issues. I don’t always have good answers but she knows I love her no matter what.

Dr. Kurt Smith

Hi Stacy, Great advice. It’s easy for all of us to jump into ‘fix-it’ mode and despite having good intentions to make things worse. Slowing down and asking what they need first is always. Good job in recognizing and respecting how you each are different. Thanks for sharing! -Dr. Kurt


Thank you for this article. I will be re-reading it as I navigate my relationships with my adult children.

Dr. Kurt Smith

Hi Sharon, Glad it will be a resource for you to refer back to. We all need to check ourselves periodically, so wise idea. -Dr. Kurt

Becki Cohn-vargas

Great article. I like the distinction between guiding and accepting as opposed to counseling or pushing an adult child in the direction you think is best. It gets harder when dealing with substance abuse and mental health, but these factors still apply. That was when I sought help from a therapist to help me with the boundaries and goals of staying connected and helping when I can.

Dr. Kurt Smith

Hi Becky, You’re right that it’s harder when when your adult child is dealing with substance abuse or a mental health issue, but as you said the same guidelines still apply. And I would argue even more. Seeking help when needed is smart too. Great feedback! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. -Dr. Kurt

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The Author

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director at Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching and works with men and the women who love them. He is an expert in understanding the unique relationship challenges facing couples today. Check out his weekly tips on Facebook or Twitter.

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