What to Do When Your Adult Child Makes Regrettable Choices

No one said parenting an adult child who violates your values would be easy, but the very best chance for success is when there is good communication and understanding between you. Here are some strategies that work.

Offer your adult child tough love. Tough love is a disciplined and strongly expressed boundary with the intent to promote responsible behavior and long-term change. You offer tough love when you set firm limits and enforce consequences. Tough love might mean not allowing a drug-using adult child to move back into your home without first getting help. Tough love is not being willing to bail your son out of a financial crisis one more time, even if it costs him dearly. The purpose of tough love is to stop the problematic behavior and encourage positive growth and responsibility in your adult child. Don’t confuse tough love with meanness. The purpose of meanness is to be hurtful, which is the opposite of tough love. Tough love is intended to put your child on the path to healing and wholeness.

Don’t bail them out. If you take on the consequences your child should be experiencing, you are robbing them of an opportunity for growth and change. Their crisis doesn’t need to be your crisis. Crisis is almost always self-defined, which means what you consider a crisis may not be a crisis to your child or vice versa. Don’t allow your adult children to make their problems your problems.

Don’t be a one-topic parent. We’ve talked about this principle before, but it bears repeating here. Even in the depths of heartbreak and worry, you still need to bring a balanced approach to the relationship. You don’t have to give up your values to stay strong with the relationship. I know a woman whose daughter had left behind the values of her family and was living the life of what might be called a “party girl.” When the woman asked me what she should do, I said, “Since she already knows how you feel, take her to dinner once a week and talk about other things. Get to know her beyond what is breaking your heart.” It worked! Eventually, her daughter turned the corner on her life choices.

Don’t dump your anger and frustration on your child. It’s never a good idea to dump our “stuff” on them. If you need to have a conversation, and you will, make sure you aren’t just unloading your feelings on them. That will only lead to resentment and further distancing. Even in the toughest times, endeavor to be their greatest cheerleader. A good friend of ours was deeply upset by her daughter’s irresponsible sexual behavior and unwed pregnancy. However, she was determined to maintain the relationship and found the strength to be the main support for her daughter through the pregnancy. Did she still need to vent her anger and frustration? Yes, but she did that with a trusted friend and not her daughter.

Find support for yourself. Sometimes the most difficult grief to bear is that which comes from watching our children live with self-destructive decisions, and this is something we just can’t do alone. Who are the replenishing and supportive relationships in your life? A healthy and supported parent has a much better chance of helping their adult child. A dad at our church brought up his son’s drinking problem in a men’s group he attended. It was a smart move because he needed the group’s support and encouragement. Ultimately, he also admitted to his men’s group that he had a drinking problem as well, and they helped him find a treatment center. The day after he entered treatment for his alcoholism, his son followed him into the treatment center. The dad’s willingness to seek help and support was the turning point that changed his son’s life. Never underestimate the power of seeking out support for yourself.

Seek out professional wisdom and counsel for difficult issues. Some issues are so complex or deeply rooted, they won’t be solved with a new set of boundaries and expectations. Some examples include:


  • Addictions
  • Trouble with the law
  • Clinical depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Abuse
  • Suicide attempts
  • Self-injury
  • Eating disorders


For issues such as these, seek professional expertise and counsel. The Bible is clear, “Where there is no counsel the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14 KVJ).

Relinquish your children to God’s care. Releasing your children to God’s care is a daily, intentional act of the will. God loves our children even more than we do. The act of relinquishment is seldom easy, but it is of utmost importance. This is the prayer I pray each day, “God, I release my children to your loving care and tender mercies.” Yes, it’s that simple. Every time I pray that prayer, it’s a great reminder that God is in charge and I am not.

Whatever the issues causing your heart to break, remember that ultimately, the question in the heart of your adult child is, “Do you still love me?” Although there will be times that it takes a great deal of discipline, we can choose to shower our adult kids with love even when they wander off the path we had hoped for them. God’s love for us is the perfect example of the kind of unconditional love we must strive to lavish on our children. His love is unfailing and never ending, and yet he does allow us to experience the natural consequences of our life choices. In fact, the entire storyline of the Bible is one in which God’s people rebel against him, suffer the consequences, and then are restored by God’s redemptive love that draws them back to him. That’s the kind of love we need to have for our children, a love that draws them back to us. The promise of God’s story is that ultimately, love prevails.

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the president of HomeWord. He speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 20 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord, which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, Closer, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; three sons-in-law, Steve and Matt, and Andy; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte and Huxley.

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