Crowded Nests

by | Jun. 07, 2010


It's a sign of the times; more and more children are living at home with their parents. In the past year alone, 13 percent of parents with grown children say at least one of their children has moved back home, according to the Pew Research Center. College expenses, job loss, divorce, and sometimes immaturity leave Mom and Dad with full homes much longer than they expected.

While some children never leave after high school, some move back after being on their own, making them part of a group social experts call "boomerangers." Parents who experience this trend may wonder if something is wrong with their child coming home.

Despite the diatribe that has arisen from this recent trend, adult children living at home is not always bad. In fact, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, parenting expert and author of Don't Bite Your Tongue, says that if the move is to save money, "Good for the kid! In this particular economy, there are often no choices."

Dr. Laura Walker, associate professor at Brigham Young University, agrees. "I don't think there's any detriment to children staying in the home if it's the right situation."

Linda Thomson, who has hosted four of her five children during their adult lives, understood her children's various needs to move home and grew to love the experience. "Some of the kids that came home were struggling - financially and some of them emotionally. They had their ups and downs. Those were challenging in one way but also just wonderful," she says. "It was actually quite a neat experience to have."

Before parents condemn the situation of adult children returning home, Nemzoff encourages parents to first look inward and carefully evaluate the situation. "Are we upset because they're supposed to leave, or are we upset because they are, in fact, stuck?"

Now, whether or not living at home is detrimental to the development of your child is one thing; making sure the situation is not detrimental to your relationship is another. This is why parents need to take several steps before the adult child begins his or her stay.

Start When Young Parents need to first encourage habits of independence when children are young, says Walker. "It should be dealt with long before they reach twenty-six."

Talk with children about their goals, encourage them to be independent (emotionally and financially), and avoid "helicopter" parenting - choosing kids' classes, finding them jobs - when children get to the end of their high school years. Let them have autonomy in their decisions.

"Now, autonomy doesn't mean permissiveness," clarifies Walker. "It's supporting them through their decisions, but still encouraging them to make some decisions by themselves, so that they're not so afraid to do that when they actually need to."

What if you're past that point? Whether your child is moving home to save money during college or whether your child has just lost a job, you'll want to explicitly define the expectations of living together.

Establish Rules The first thing you'll want to do is take a good look at your expectations for your grown child's behavior. "What are the rules of the house, down to the minutiae?" posits Nemzoff. When they find laundry in the machine, do they need to fold it? If your child has children, just how often can you be expected to baby sit? How long your child is welcome for?

To pinpoint the details, first determine what your needs are. Then try to take into account your child's needs; a child returning home for a few months after college is quite different from a child returning after divorce or job loss. You shouldn't protect your child from responsibility if he or she is in a hard spot, but there will be certain compromising factors depending on the situation. Thomson considered this with her children. "I had the theory that they were going to learn and stretch and not be perfect, and while they were home, that was a good place for them to mend and be loved."

Next, tell your child what you expect. "And discuss it! I think that it's no longer so much 'command and control,'" says Nemzoff. "There are a million solutions. And it involves discussion. You're both adults, and you both know your needs."

"Children are always going to feel better about rules when they have a part in making them," says Walker.

While you negotiate with your child, remember he or she will be living in your house, and you have every right to dictate non-negotiable behavior. This includes behavior that goes against your morals.

"Often the younger generation is in a period of questioning the rules they grew up with," points out Nemzoff. So acknowledge the social realities of culture and let your child know what will not be tolerated in the home - no drinking, no drugs, and no sex before marriage. "You just have to be clear about what you are comfortable with," says Nemzoff. "And then if your child doesn't want to live there, that's your child's choice."

Revisit the Rules Set up a regular time to discuss and revisit the rules. Listen to your child's concerns and offer your own thoughts. Be patient and negotiate when you hit a snag. "I think respecting that the child may have good reasons that are different from yours [is important]," says Nemzoff. "Adults do differ."

It may sound like you're playing politician while hammering out the details of a treaty. In a way, you are. In parenting adults, Nemzoff emphasizes, you shouldn't bite your tongue and hold back your thoughts, but you must decide when expressing yourself is appropriate and when it's unnecessary - and you must remain mindful of your child as an adult who also has strong needs.

Create Ownership Thomson remembers she didn't require many rules for her adult children. "There wasn't a lot of tension over rules. Just more courtesy, rather," she says. Still, she found that giving them a sense of ownership over certain things - and having her own ownership - was crucial to happiness.

One of these things was space. Thomson found that she could happily withdraw to her room every night to have some alone time from the families that lived with her. "I like my space. I had a huge bedroom with my own TV and my own bath. I sent myself to my bedroom a lot," she says with a laugh. "With family there, I would just give them the run of the house. I didn't try to be all things."

While it gave her time to recuperate, she also withdrew for the good of her children and their families. As she had learned from her own parents while living with them, it was good to give a young family time to "be a family."

Next, she gave them ownership over responsibilities in the house. Each night a different family member, including in-laws, would cook the meal. "I think that night meal meant a lot to them. They felt some ownership over the kitchen, and I certainly wasn't the slave."

Lastly, she let each family unit function on its own. "I learned then that I didn't have a right to discipline the children. They didn't like it," Thomson says. "I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut, and if I didn't like it, I could quietly go into the other room." Such things as family prayer, which Thomson at first felt a responsibility to dictate, she realized needed to be built within the family. "I had to let them build their own traditions."

When They Won't Leave Some parents find themselves three years down the road with no end in sight. They have looked at the situation and decided that, yes, they are upset because their child is stuck. This is when it's time to take the offense and start encouraging the child to move out.

Remember the cardinal rule when dealing with this situation: look at yourself first. Are you doing anything to encourage the child in his or her freeloading behavior? Walker says that parents who attend to most of the child's instrumental needs, such as doing laundry and cooking for the child, may be implicitly encouraging the child to stay.

"I think some parents get into that situation without realizing what they're doing," she says. "There could be parents who just don't ever put their foot down and end up with twenty-eight-year-old kids living in their basement. Then you're just enabling their bad behavior. . . . You're really just harming their identity development."

If your child is at home and you feel the time has come for him or her to leave, say it. Give your child a realistic deadline of when to move, whether that be two weeks or two months. Soften the situation by explaining your motivation for kicking them out - the desires you have for your son or daughter to negotiate life.

"Another thing [parents] can do to facilitate it is to not cut off all ties when the child leaves the home - to communicate to them that you're going to be supportive," says Walker. Tell your child you'll still be there to help, emotionally and (if you're willing) financially.

Follow up with the situation, and make sure to follow through. Be aware that it may not go over well, but don't let that prevent you from taking the step. "There may have to be some rough moments," says Nemzoff. "The goal of relationships is to have, for both parties, more joy than misery. . . . Not every moment is a happy moment."

A Worthwhile Experience Whatever the situation, the experience of living with adult children can be a positive one. Children can save and grow under in the company of their parents, and parents can be reminded that, even in adult years, they are needed.

Knowing they are needed is an important lesson for parents to learn. Adulthood for children no longer means parents step back and look on as a third party. Nowadays, parents are actively involved in their adult children's lives. "Parents need to know they still really matter," says Walker. Whether at home or away, children still need closeness with parents. And parents need it, too.

This is one reason Thomson looks back on the time her adult children lived at home with such fondness. "It was good and it was necessary. Being single and divorced I wondered if I was going to hate it when everybody came, but I didn't. I loved it just as much as when they were there before. . . . We made it work. We made it loving."

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