Adult Children Living at Home? 9 Rules to Help You Maintain Sanity
By Debbie Pincus
More and more adult kids are coming back home--or never leaving in the first place. In fact, if you are in this situation, you are not alone. A recent study says that nearly 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. reside with their parents. Whether your child is contributing his fair share or driving you up the wall with irresponsibility and attitude, you're bound to lock horns from time to time. Find out how you can manage your adult children at home effectively--and how you'll know when it's time for them to leave.
Older children end up at home with their parents for many different reasons. Sometimes they want to get their nest built financially, so they come home to save money and secure their future. Other kids are coming home--or have never left in the first place--because they really can't make it out there on their own. For one reason or another, they haven't developed the maturity to launch successfully.
If your adult child lives at home with you and has made no move to save up for a place of his own, you've probably asked yourself, "Is he planning to stay here forever?" And the truth is, sometimes older kids do get comfortable back home. It takes a lot of pressure off their shoulders because Mom and Dad are there to cook and clean and pay the bills. So when is it appropriate to ask your child to leave? Should you wait until they get a job or get married? Is there a plan, or are you just moving forward blindly, hoping they'll get up on their feet and find their way eventually?
Are You an Over-Functioner?
Some adult children are slower to mature than other. Developmentally, they're just not "there' yet--they're not ready to take care of themselves, so they end up at home. When this happens, many times I find the parents have been over-functioning for their kids.
There's an important difference between helping and over-functioning. Helping your older child means doing something for him he can't do himself, such as driving him somewhere when he has a broken leg. Over-functioning means you're taking responsibility for things he can do for himself, like doing his laundry and cleaning up his messes after he's had friends over. Perhaps that pattern started years ago or maybe it began when he moved back home. The bad news is that when you over-function you're allowing the negative behaviors to continue; the good news is that it's in your control to change the situation.
What I recommend is to have a plan of action with your child. The message can be, "You're not just here for good. We're going to help you, but the goal is for you to get on your feet." Having a goal in mind is important because it will ensure that your child's stay back home doesn't drag on forever.
What happens when there isn't a plan? Frustration and resentment build when you hear your child says things like, "I'm looking for a job, but I can't find anything"--but you've seen him sleeping late every day and staying out partying at night. This resentment only adds to the stress of living together.
Kids Who Fail to Launch
Ever hear yourself repeatedly make excuses like, "He's really a good kid, he's just a little lost right now," or "He's going through a hard time--if I don't help him who will?" The truth is, when your kid can't launch, you are enabling him.
I know that many parents out there have kids who never launch. Perhaps they've been living with their parents ever since high school and now as adults they are controlling the house. Let me be clear: if your child is controlling your house, then you are allowing yourself to be controlled. And if your kids have never left, it's because you have allowed them to stay.
I've worked with many clients over the years with adult kids living at home. Typically, the more the parents feel controlled by their children, the more they will try to control them. But the more they do that, the more their child stays, digs in his heels and fights to get his own way. Now they have a huge power struggle on their hands, which is a dynamic you never want to get into if you can help it.
When you're feeling controlled, you have a few choices. You can get "reactive to your child's reactivity," and watch things escalate, or you can try to be objective and thoughtful about how you want to handle the situation. Saying things like, "You've been here for three years! When are you going to get a job?" is reactive and will result in a battle of will and control. Instead, speak in more direct terms: "What's your plan for getting a job? Please think about it and let's talk after dinner tomorrow night."
Kids with Disabilities
There are many, many kids out there with mental issues and disorders who have a very tough time out on their own. Launching can be a very difficult process for kids with ADD, ADHD or other issues. Some kids really need help cooking and taking care of an apartment and doing housework. No matter what, I believe the goal is for your child to be as autonomous as possible. I think the answer is to have a plan of action to help motivate your child toward independence.
Over-functioning gets played out even more when there's a disability. Sometimes this is used as an excuse, where the disability gets more exaggerated. It's also the reason why some kids can never leave their parents' house or why they can't make it on their own.
Many of us manage our own anxiety with our kids by over - functioning for them. And when a child has a disability, whether it's ADD or another type of learning disorder, it gives parents all the more reason to "overdo" for their kids. On the other hand, you often see young people with severe disabilities who are extremely functional and independent. I believe they were taught from a young age to be responsible and do things for themselves.
I understand how hard it is to know where to draw these lines as a parent. I think the key is to stop focusing on what's wrong with your child. Stop asking, "How do I get my child to be a certain way?" and start thinking about what he can do on his own. I also think it's important to think about what you need. Just turn it around.
When Your Anger and Frustration Start to Build
When your adult child is living in the house with you, you may feel infringed upon while he feels like he's being treated like a kid. Everyone has different preferences, needs and values and there can be lots of annoyances when you are living together as adults. But don't get caught up in who is right and who is wrong. Work to get along and don't keep assigning blame. Instead, take responsibility for your behavior and how you manage your own anger and irritation.
It's normal to lose it from time to time and have a fight. But your children, no matter how old, can be very sensitive to your anger. So don't interact impulsively when you're frustrated. Instead, be kind, firm and remember your own parenting principles. Here are some things you can do:
1. Be direct: Insist on dealing directly and straightly. The way to deal with anger is to use clear "statements of self." Make yourself clear and put it out there. You're not blaming, but you're telling your child where you're coming from.
Some examples of that are:
* "When you use the car without asking, I really don't like it."
* "When you make a mess and expect me to clean up after you, I feel like you don't appreciate being here. That doesn't work for me."
2. Apologize when you make a mistake: Be willing to take responsibility. You can say, "I lost it today and I really want to apologize for that." Or "I'm just tense myself and I'm feeling frustrated. I'm really sorry."
3. Soothe yourself: Often times the battles you have with your kids are really about, "I need you to behave a certain way to help me get calm." When you get into that, you are inherently trying to control someone else. This will naturally cause the other person to resist being controlled. Remember, you can't control your adult child; you can only let him know where you stand and try to be an influence.
4. Take care of yourself: I also think you need to take good care of yourself so that you have resilience. If your adult child moves into your house with a family and little kids, you'd better make sure that you're not overly-stretched. You can't afford to get worn down because you're over-functioning for everybody. So take care of yourself always.
Parental Roles: Manager vs. Consultant
When your child is young, you can think of yourself as a manager. You are involved in his day-to-day life in a very "hands - on" kind of way. But as your child grows and becomes an adult, you're really more of a consultant. That means you talk to him about what's going on like a consultant for a business might. You need to step back more and more as time goes by because now you're talking about an adult. So you can be helpful and check in, but you're not looking to give unsolicited advice.
I believe it's a good idea to ask your adult kids if they would like your advice - otherwise you'll end up in a situation where you're too much in their "box" and not enough in your own. When you're staying in your box, you're saying, "This is what I expect of you living here. This is what belongs to me. Here are the things you are free to use." You don't need to get in your child's box and tell him how to live his life. Instead, as your child gets older, you want to come across a bit more like an adult acquaintance. So you're saying, "How are things going; what's up? Can I be helpful to you?" This doesn't mean that you don't hold your child accountable; to the contrary, you define boundaries very clearly and let him know that you intend to stick to them. But you're also giving him some degree of respect and autonomy.
What Are You Ultimately Responsible for?
If your adult child lives at home with you and you're feeling overwhelmed or out of control, I think you have to ask yourself this question: "What am I ultimately responsible for?" Above all, you are not responsible for your child's choices in life or his behavior. If you think you are responsible for those things, then you're not going to be able to hold onto a clear sense of what your own limits are. Instead, you're going to try to get your child to be how you want them to be. That's going to create a dynamic where he's not going to be motivated and or function for himself.
So always go back to the self. Stop trying to figure out how you can get your child to do "_______________" and just go back to "What can I do for myself?" When you try to control somebody else, no matter what their age, it is simply going to backfire and hurt your relationship.
The goal is to recognize that you don't need your child to be different in order to have what you need. You can learn to establish your own bottom lines and make them clear; you can state what is important and the relationship will still work--in fact, it will be better. Remember, the only person you have to be in control of is yourself.
The Golden Rule
What's the golden rule of living with an adult child in the home? Clarify your expectations. This requires honest communication. Represent yourself honestly and openly as a parent. Do you expect your child to do housework, contribute to groceries and bills, and pay rent while he stays with you? How long are you willing to let him live in your home? Will he have access to your car? And what do you need to see him do in terms of job hunting, if he's unemployed? Really think through what you want and what you're willing to put up with, and then talk it through. If your child is to have the gift of living back home, so to speak, he also has a responsibility in the areas of courtesy, housework and possibly finances. Those are things that need to be discussed openly and honestly with your child.
In turn, it's important to listen to your child openly and respectfully. You have the final word as the parent but you should try to be open to your adult kid's input. Again, your role as the parent of older kids is to be a consultant, not a manager of their lives. Listen to your child's expectations as well. Most likely, he will feel a bit guilty or inadequate in some way. He may also feel like he's still being treated like a child. There are all sorts of things that come up for your kids that make living with their parents uncomfortable for them.
Here are 9 rules that can guide you through this time with your adult child:
1. Before your child moves back in: If your child is about to move back in with you, I think you need to sit down and hammer out some guidelines. Having a plan ahead of time is always good because everyone will know what to expect. Part of the conversation you'll have with your child is, "Let's talk about what each of us needs. What's going to make this work the best?" Make sure everything is clear, because the living situation is all new now. Remember, your adult kids are not coming back in as children. In a sense, they are coming home as guests. And don't go in with the assumption that it won't work; you're ideally working towards collaboration. You want to be very respectful of your adult child as a participant in making decisions, but ultimately, you are the head of the house. In The Total Transformation, James Lehman talks about the four questions you should ask your child when you are anticipating some kind of change.
The questions to ask (with some examples of answers you might give) are:
*How will we know this is working?
"We'll know because everyone will be doing their fair share. We'll be respectful of each other."
*How will we know it isn't working?
"We'll know if someone isn't pulling their weight or starts overstepping boundaries."
*What will we do if it's not working?
"You will make plans to leave within a month."
*What will we do if it is working?
"We'll continue with our original plan of six months."
You might also ask, "What's the goal?" Is the goal just to make a certain amount of money so your child has a cushion before he goes out on his own? Or is the goal to help him learn how to live on his own? These are all important things to establish before your child moves in. If he's already living with you, you can still use these questions and "start fresh." Sit down with your child and say, "Things haven't been working out quite the way we planned. Let's start over."
Don't forget to keep revisiting those conversations. From time to time, sit down and talk it through. Be sure to listen to what your child has to say and also tell him how you think things are going. You might have all the best intentions when your older child first moves in and then realize that it's not working out the way you thought it would. Some kids don't feel like they're guests in their parents' home, and that's often where the problems start. They may have a sense of entitlement about what you should do for them and what they deserve. I think having those little conversations can be helpful. Just be clear and tell your child what your expectations are.
2. Set limits: Be sure to set time limits and parameters on your adult child's stay. These can be readdressed or changed around; there can be some flexibility, but be clear about the plan. And that plan might be, "You'll stay until you get a job," or "You're going to stay until you get your first paycheck." If your child is going to stay until he makes a certain amount of money, be clear and in agreement about that.
Basically what you're helping to do is create motivation. If there's no guide and no set time limit, there's no motivation. You might say, "What we expect is that after six months, you're going to have your own place." You're not telling them what to do; you're making clear what you're going to live with.
3. Have a plan of action: Understand that helping your child get on his feet financially doesn't mean providing everything that he needs and wants. Rather, it's having a plan that in three months, six months, or a year, you'll help him get an apartment, for example. You might even start out by paying a portion of his rent, but let him know that after a certain amount of time you're going to reduce the amount you put in. That way, his responsibility grows while yours diminishes. He is working towards a goal with your help, but not relying on you completely. This is a gradual way of helping someone get on their feet. You might also tell your child that he needs to pay rent at your home. James Lehman suggests that you could consider keeping this money in a special account and then use it to help your child pay his deposit on an apartment.
Questions around finances can get complicated. Your child needs money, but how much are you willing to give? Are you giving it as a loan and expecting them to pay it back? How long do they have to do that? I don't think there's one right answer; I just think it has to be right for you. Consider what your finances are and what's going to stress you too much. I think people have to figure what's really okay with them and what's not.
Overall, the message has to be, "To live in this house, you need to show us that you are working towards independence. We need to see that--and you need to help yourself make that happen."
4. Consider your own needs: Always come from a clear sense of yourself. How will you consider your needs as the adult parent who didn't expect to have somebody back home? How can you make it work, and what are you willing to put up with? State your needs clearly and firmly to your child. As a parent, really think about what you can and can't live with. What are your bottom lines? What are your values? What do you expect your child to adhere to if they're living under your roof? Do you need them to pick up after themselves? Are you willing to let them have friends over and drink in your home, or not? Make sure your child knows those things and respects your rules. If he doesn't, there's too much room for resentments to build. You can say, "We're going to keep open and honest communication where we both listen to each other and hear each other. There are certain responsibilities that come with the opportunity of getting to live here. I expect the house to be kept in a certain order and that if you're coming home late you have the courtesy to call because otherwise I'll stay up all night worrying."
5. Don't get pulled into guilt: If you've always done everything for your child and now you're asking him to be responsible and contribute to the household, understand that you are changing a system. You will likely get resistance and what's called "pushback." Your child might get very angry and say things like, "I can't believe my own parents are doing this to me!" Don't get pulled back in and start to feel guilty. As long as you've thought it through and considered your own needs and principles, you'll be able to hold onto yourself through that anger as you insist that your child gets on his own feet.
Anytime you start to feel resentment, you have a responsibility to ask yourself, "How am I not addressing this issue and how am I stepping over my own boundaries here?" In honoring your relationships, you want to make sure that you take responsibility for what you need and what you are asking for. Otherwise you're going to be saying "yes" to something you really want to be saying "no" to--and that's not good for any relationship.
6. Try not to react to your child's anger: Try to be kind but firm and work toward being thoughtful. So rather than responding when your child says something you disagree with or that pushes your buttons, say, "You know what, let me think about what you're saying and let's talk later." Don't get pulled into that struggle. You can also say something like, "I hear you're not happy with this and you feel like you can't find work. I hear you saying that you don't want to leave. Mom and Dad need some time to think about this. We're going to discuss this and sit down and talk about this with you later." This is one way of not getting into a battle with your child--because often times, that's what it becomes.
I know some parents who are afraid to talk frankly with their adult kids because they don't want to upset them or make them angry. But remember, if you're afraid of someone's anger, you're never going to be willing to do what it takes. If you're too careful because you don't want anybody to be upset, then you won't come across strongly enough. On the other hand, when you stop being afraid of your child's anger, you'll be able to stand up for yourself and let them know you mean business.
7. When you're feeling controlled by your child: When an older child is living at home, the situation is usually emotionally charged for everyone. Again, if you're letting somebody control you, you'd better look at how you're letting that happen. Ask yourself, "Am I not making clear enough boundaries? Am I not making my expectations known? Am I not making clear how long my child is allowed to stay here or how much money I'm going to give him?" If the answer to any of these questions is "no," you need to address those issues with your child right away.
8. When the relationship becomes abusive: I've worked with parents who have been verbally or even physically abused by their adult kids. When that happens, the question you need to ask yourself is, "What am I willing to live with?" Remember, as James Lehman says, "There is no excuse for abuse"--and this includes abuse from an adult child living in your home. If you feel like you're in a dangerous situation and the abuse is scaring you in some way, seriously ask yourself, "Is it time for my child to leave altogether?" Another thing to ask is this: "If somebody's being abusive to me, in what way am I allowing them to do that? Where am I being too passive?" You may need to say to your child, "If I'm feeling endangered here, I will need to call the police. I don't want to do it, but I may have to."
Again, keep your own needs--including those for respect and safety--in mind. If the verbal abuse is continuous, the discussion with your child might be, "You need to make other arrangements because it's no longer working here. What I expect in my own home is peace and calm. If you can respect that, you're welcome to stay. Otherwise, this is no longer going to work."
A word of caution: don't contribute to the problem by reacting to your child's reactivity--this will only make things escalate. If every time you respond to your child's anger by getting angry yourself, tuning them out, having shouting matches or getting physically abusive yourself, then you are contributing to the problem. It's not only about what your child is doing to you--it's also about how you're reacting that may be adding to what's going on. But if things have devolved into a dangerous or intolerable situation, you might decide to say, "No more. You're out the door and you've got to figure it out."
9. When it's time for your adult child to leave the nest: I think there are many reasons why you might decide it's time for your child to leave. You might feel that it's just not working or that you can't take it anymore. Maybe your health or finances are too stressed by the situation, or perhaps you just want to be with your spouse and have that time in your life. I think it's up to you; there's no right answer. But the bottom line is this: When you feel that you've done your part responsibly, or that your child is not living up to his part of the bargain and is taking advantage of you, it may be time for him to move out.
Sit down and talk with your son or daughter if you feel things are not working out. You can say, "If you are going to stay here, I expect certain respectful behavior; otherwise you're not welcome here. There are certain respectful ways that you live in a house with others and if that's not possible for you, then maybe it's time for you to leave."
Before you ask them to leave, I think it's very important to think about how you as the parent might be contributing to the escalation of frustration or arguments. If your child says something that makes you angry, how do you handle that anger? Do you handle it in a way that makes things worse, or better? Remember, you're the parent. No matter how immature your child is being, you need to stay grounded; don't go to that place. Instead, stay connected to the principles that you want to live by as a parent. And that may be to simply come back later in a mature way and say, "Look, you're having some problems here and this is what your dad and I think."
A final word: If your adult child is living with you or planning to move home, it might not necessarily be a bad thing. For some families, it can be a time where the relationship grows and deepens between parent and child, because you're getting some extra time with your kids. You might be able to work out some of the difficulties that have plagued your relationships for years. So it's not always a bad thing for adult kids to live at home. I believe the key is for everybody to understand expectations and try to work together in a cooperative, collaborative way. Be cognizant of what's realistic on both ends. Remember, you're not there to indulge your adult children and over-function for them. Rather, you're helping them move towards independence and maturity. And even if there are difficulties, there is still an opportunity for the relationship to grow.
For more than 25 years, Debbie Pincus MS LMHC has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie also facilitates parenting groups and is the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.