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Changing Behavior in Adult Children

Dear Joseph,

My daughter just turned 40 and has gained more weight than ever. Conversations about her weight gain over the years have mostly been negative, though she did actually lose weight with the help of a trainer about eight years ago. She says her schedule doesn’t allow time, but I disagree. I need help on how best to approach her again without offending and/or causing her to stress and eat even more. Thank you.

Signed,
Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

My advice to you will be simple but hard. These three words will not give you control, but they are your own path to healthy influence: Let it go.

Her weight is not your job. We can debate about whether it was prior to age 18. But we’re long past that. She has been an adult for 22 years. You refer to “conversations about her weight gain over the years” which leaves the impression that you have been on a run about this for a while. And the fact that the conversations have been “negative” means she is telling you clearly that she doesn’t want your help. If you are, in fact, having a debate with her about whether or not she has the time to go to the gym, you are way past any healthy boundary.

Let it go. Her weight is her responsibility, not yours.

I can sympathize with the plight of a parent who sees an adult child doing something that you know will cause harm. I have felt it many times myself, and sometimes with things far more threatening than obesity. But it is crucial to both your own emotional health and your relationship with your daughter that you learn to distinguish what you care about from what you are responsible for.

Learn to calm yourself when you panic about her choices. Learn to detach yourself from your need to fix her problems. Learn to think of her choices the same way you would someone you see ordering more in a restaurant than you think they should. Because that is who she is today.

I know what I am suggesting will take enormous work from you. But it is, in my view, your only path to peace.

Warmly,
Joseph

Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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33 thoughts on “Changing Behavior in Adult Children

  1. Perfect answer. The daughter undoubtedly has medical and psychological issues that nobody is addressing. All she is going to accomplish by continually talking about her weight is alienating her daughter, possibly permanently. And that would be the real tragedy.

    1. Not every parent nags. My son has been suffering from obesity for ten years since his mood disorder became so apparent he had to be put on medication. This medicine has made him steadily gain weight. His eating signals are off. Cravings impossible to deny and his metabolism slowed. He used to be physically fit ran 3 miles a day and healthy. It’s a horrible choice or psychotic mood swings. For you people to just put it down to nagging mothers is sexist. My son is in charge of his health. Nobody forces him to take his geodon. Nobody forces or nags him to go to the doctor. He has found a doctor on his own who is sympathetic and serious about his condition because she knows he is. He’s further tormented by seeing how handsome he used to look when the girls sought his attention and now won’t look at him. He bought a bike, he walks, running right now is out of the question until He loses weight. He lives 2000 miles from me and is in a wonderful career. He makes more money than I do! And thankfully has good health insurance. But he is four steps to a gastric bypass. Quit “mommy shaming.” Perhaps there are some women out there who don’t know how to let their children become adults, but the rest of us are more than happy to see the grown up people we raised them to be. I don’t have to change diapers. I get to read a book! No more teachers picking on me being a single mom when my kids have turned out better than children from married affluent people. Both have college degrees great careers and I get bought flowers every mother’s day. Obesity is more complex than “putting down the fork” and nagging will never help but shaming a concerned mother who lacks the skills of being a parent to an adult certainly isn’t helpful either.

  2. I like your answer. However, I do think Mom might want to say something first, like: “I know I’ve nagged you about your weight in the past. I’m going to stop doing that. You’re an adult and make your own decisions. But I want you to know if you’d ever like to talk about it or want my help in anyway, I’ll be here for you.”

  3. THANK YOU for this answer! I wish I could send this to my mom. As an adult child that has been nagged since childhood about my weight, I can testify that it has been damaging to our relationship. I finally made the decision on my own to lose weight – it had nothing to do with her nagging – believe me! I don’t think I have lost enough in her eyes, but at least the nagging has stopped for the most part. One good thing that came out of it was that I learned from her mistakes and I do not harp on my daughter about her weight. I never have – I think our relationship is better for it and her attitude towards her body is as well. As parents we have no idea how powerful our words can be!

  4. I have adult children and the hardest thing to do is stop mothering. We’ve been at it since they were born. The advise provided in the answer is spot on.

    I would like to add additional wisdom as I have been there too – watching and knowing choices made by my daughter were destructive to her health. There came a time I knew even mentioning in a kind way much like I would do for a friend, wasn’t going to do anything but push my daughter further away. I prayed a lot and truly surrendered her to God. I acknowledged I could and would continue to trust God to get her back on a healthy path. He’s fulfilling that promise and life is turning around for her. For me, surrendering her to God lifted a burden off my shoulders that is hard to describe and it provided a sense of peace. It also opened the door for me to see her differently, more as my adult daughter that is capable of making decisions and will live out the good and not so good of those decisions just as I do every day with my own decisions.

    1. Thank you for this!!! I needed to read this tonight. I have an almost-20-year-old daughter who doesn’t always make very good decisions. Letting go has been very hard for me.

      1. Wow! Same here. My daughter is 20 and her weight scares me. We’ve had this conversation over and over but I just don’t know what to do anymore. I guess nothing huh? It makes me so sad.

  5. THANK YOU as well. I find it hard to fathom someone who thinks they should control someone other than their own self.
    My own philosophy about nagging is that if I ask/remind someone three times to do/not do something and they still do/don’t do it, there are other issues at play and to mention it any more is nagging, which I definitely don’t want to do. Adults make their own choices for their own reasons and all the mentioning/reminding/nagging in the world will not get anybody else to change.

    1. Your philosophy on nagging is refreshing! I shall adopt your approach of three times and then stop. Thank you. :)

      1. For weight related things or appearance, etc. just don’t nag…keep comments to yourself. None of anyone’s business to insert a hurtful comment.

  6. Perfect answer and easier to do if you have a strong faith and prayer life. Praying for someone is truly the best option. Having faith that God is in control and will always answer prayers at the right time.

  7. Thank you SO much for this perfect answer! I was actually holding my breath in paused concern/horror after reading that question in my email (especially with the subject). As an adult child who has had to have hard conversations in both directions with her parents & grandparents (and really who hasn’t?), this was such a relief to read as an answer. Thank. You.

    To the parents out there in a similar situation [any non-self harm scenario]: The comment in here about letting them know you have been on them about it _but_ will stop & are there if _they_ want to talk – is critical. Sometimes the weight of knowing you’re not safe from critique makes it worse too [and if they’re stubborn, can make them dig in without realizing it *ahem* guilty *ahem*]. And if your kids are having hard convos with you in a similar vein, talk to them about it with this script flipped! It does work, I have done it multiple times both ways, I promise, despite it being a little rough initially!

    To the adult kids out there in a similar situation [any non-self harm scenario]: Same thing. Know what is and isn’t on you and them, have the hard convo whichever way it needs to happen, but acknowledge where concern is for a loved one VS where responsibility and pressure are for the issue at hand.

  8. Thanks you for all the replies- good to reinforce the answer by reading all the others who agree with Joseph. As a Mother of 2 young 20-somethings I am making the transition to trusted advisor (when they ask for it only) and friend from Mom. Phew- so hard! My23 year old son smokes (among other habits) and it drives me crazy- I see it as harmful and dangerous. But have already voiced that and now need to fully let those habits go and love on him with gratitude for the ways he IS growing up and being an amazing person.

    Progess not perfection-

  9. I like your answer. Far too many times parents of adult children feel its their job to continue nagging and pointing out the “child’s” errors based on the parents thinking. Until any person is ready to make changes, no amount nagging will help from parents, friends, significant others, etc. In fact it will probably harm the relationship.

  10. I grew up in a family with three skinny sisters and a skinny mother. I was not fat but physically I took after my father’s side of the family and that concerned my mother to the point that she hovered even before I became overweight. I can blame my her for my weight problems and food obsessions but I’ve long ago let that go and had to look at why food is my addiction. I’ve been reading Harriet Lerner books to improve myself and understand my behavior. My favorite so far is “Fear and Other Uninvited Guests.” My mother was an over-functioner with regard to my weight and in some areas I have done the same with my children. They are adults now and as hard as it is I’ve had to let it go. All I say now is, “If you need me, I’m here for you. Always.” Everyone has their own inner battles and their own way of coping, sometimes via addiction. And some addictions are more obvious than others. Thank you for this story as well as the comments.

  11. I had a mother who commented on my weight almost every time I saw her. It make me realize that my worth to her was affected by this. Had a crucial conversation with her that my weight was my problem and the fact that it bothered her so much was less about me and more about her and where she places her opinion and value of an individual.
    I therefore like your answer.

  12. Thank you for your answer. I, like so many others, have been guilty of nagging my young, adult daughter about her weight. To the point where I made her cry and hurt her feelings. I will never do that again. It is not worth risking my relationship with her. She knows I love her and will always be there for her regardless. It is hard to let go, especially when you see the self destruction. However, I have faith she will decide to become “healthy” when she is ready. It was very nice to be reminded though.

    1. Don’t think you are off the hook -the damage has been done. Watch your facial expressions and wandering eyes scanning her body when you see her. Go and get help please for your problems.

  13. Thank you for your answer and I hope that mom takes it to heart! As a 58 yr old woman who has battled weight all her life ( I was on Weight Watchers at the age of 8) I am still doing the hard work to repair a life-time of damage done by a parent who tried to “help” but in reality was un-knowingly sending me the message that I was not good enough or lovable as I was. The reality is that my parent was not happy with themselves and in turn tried to “fix” me!

  14. I registered for a half day VitalSmarts event and need to cancel the registration. The link to cancel registration leads to a dead end. I’ve emailed a couple of people there and gotten no reply. I’m trying to work with these guys and let them know I’m not coming.

    This is totally changing my image of the company.

    Somebody at VitalSmarts call or email me. Please.

  15. I totally agree with Letting it go! I tell myself I raised my children the best I could with the knowledge I had at that time. I also let them know they are adults and can ask if they want my advice. My hardest challenge is who they chose as significant others, but that is out of my control so I do my best to be cordial.

  16. Joseph: Though it is very hard,I have followed your advice regarding my 30-year-old daughter’s weight gain, namely, let it go. But lately I have myself become a lot more fit, so my daughter opened up to me and asked me how I do it. She says “I’ve cut out sugars and eat more protein, but my body is resistant to weight gain.” I replied with the truth, “I can only exercise regularly and lose weight if I’m on some type of program – otherwise I don’t have the self-discipline.” She let it drop then. Can I raise the subject again a couple of days later and ask her if she’s looked into any supportive programs? Thanks in advance if you reply.

  17. My 27 year old daughter approached my husband and I about her weight, she is considered to be morbidly obese. She is married with a toddler. We sat and chatted about how we could help her and what was the steps she wanted to take and we would be there to help. She went to a clinic in Dubai that deals with weight loss and the psychology about food. My daughter just keeps on eating. Upon her return there was no improvement and the weight is still going on. In this current time of the Virus and thinking that should my daughter get Corona the possibility of her dying is strong. She is asthmatic and very over weight. As a parent, I cannot sit back and just say its not my problem! Remember she came to us first. She doesnt like groups, being new to the country (UK) has no real friends as yet. I do not know what to do anymore and I am getting really quite depressed about it. So, I cannot just let it go,!

    1. Exactly, this is life or death. If your child was about to OD on drugs, jump of a cliff, or some other life threatening act, you would just not say anything? I feel it is a cry for help… I do feel partly responsible, but quit blaming parenting on every poor decision a person makes. It doesn’t feel good to be overweight, its hard. Our fear of saying anything to people about weight is causing MAJOR health crisis’s in our country. There are ways to eat healthfully, feel satisfied, feel good! Complacency is NOT the answer.

  18. Why are you NOT being much more strict with this parent & trying to “parent” her?!!!!! I know exactly what this woman is dealing with, as I am dealing with the exact same thing, except for me, it’s about my diet instead of the gym. You should have told her, point blabk, “Your daughter’s choices are not of your business, She is an adult & has been for 22 years, so you will either get that through your thick skull right this minute, or I will personally enroll your ass into the best quality abuser program there is, & have them not give up on you until you have gotten the message that your daughter’s choices are none of your business anymore now that she is 40. Are we perfectly clear on that?!!! ARE WE PERFECTLY CLEAR ON THAT?!!!!

  19. My daughter is 55 has been single for over 10 years, has her own home and no money problems. She is a pretty girl but had a problem with overeating when she was younger did comment, which did cause conflict so I stopped saying anything.

    She is under a number of consultants for we believe for auto immune conditions and most of her conversations is about this, dry skin dry eye and high blood pressure some kidney damage, as well as us worrying about her health she has put on a lot of weight over the last 3 years was a UK 14 now a Size 18 is 5’ 2” with a BMI 40

    Do I still stand by and say nothing, she works for the NHS and her supervisor has mentioned addressing her weight/BMI Health & safety risk assessment

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