Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home

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Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II: In Response to Questions about Older Children Living at Home

There has been overwhelming response and interest in last month’s article on adult children. It was viewed over 10,000 times, was our second most emailed article ever, and has received the most reader comments of any article we’ve ever published. I must say I’m not surprised about this, since in my private practice I dealt with many parents who had terrible problems with children who were over 18 and still living at home. I believe this phenomenon has become a national problem. As the cost of living goes up, adult children who are not really prepared for the workforce have to make some sacrifices. Unfortunately today, kids don’t like making sacrifices and parents don’t want to enforce sacrifices.

"Be specific. 'I want you to put in three applications a day. I want you making three follow up phone calls a day. And if you verbally abuse me, you’re out of the house for 24 hours.' Remember: Nothing changes if nothing changes."

A few notes before we begin. In this forum, I will not address individual cases or parents. The reason is that this forum is not counseling or therapy and should never be misconstrued as such. Rather, this is a place where I can offer you my personal opinion from 30 years of professional experience. What I will do here (and what I believe will be helpful for the most readers) is respond to the important themes that recurred within many of your responses. This will be a long article, because I see so many issues that call for discussion. If you posted a question after Part One of “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children” last month, or if you are struggling with an adult child, I hope you’ll take the time to read my response to readers here, and that it will help you and your family.

For Readers Whose Adult Children are Verbally Abusing them and Destroying Property
The theme that stood out most is the tremendous amount of verbal abuse that adult children are laying on their parents. Along with verbal abuse and cursing, I saw many of you writing about destruction of property and your adult child’s refusal to communicate and respond. This may sound harsh, but I think it’s amazing how people will make excuses for that type of behavior. It’s understandable that parents make excuses for younger kids who are abusive, hoping they’ll grow out of it. But I think once these kids are adolescents and adults, their behavior patterns are very set, and you need to know that adult children won’t take the time and trouble to learn new behavior patterns unless they’re forced to.

Adult children who use verbal abuse, aggression and destruction of property to deal with their parents are still using intimidation and force to solve complex problems. When you’re 18, 19, or 20 and all the things your parents told you are coming true—that you’re not prepared for the work force, that you should have studied harder, that you need to push yourself—it is easy to get resentful and blame and intimidate your parents. Because that’s easier than getting a job and working your way up. That’s easier than learning how to live with a roommate because you can’t afford your own apartment and a car at the same time. One thing we know about human beings is that they will, by their nature, take the easy way out. In this case, the easy way out is being oppressive to your parents so that you don’t feel any stress.

Related: Fighting with your adult child?

I think that parents also have to take some of the responsibility for this behavior. In the last twenty years, so many parents did everything they could to ensure that their kids didn’t feel discomfort because letting your kids feel discomfort was considered a bad thing. I know because I’ve dealt with so many of these parents. They fought with the schools. They protected their kids from consequences. In many cases they let things slide that they knew were wrong. They made excuses for the kids. And what they ended up with is a kid who is not prepared to deal with the injustice, stress and discomfort of life. Making a transition from adolescence to adulthood is very stressful, uncomfortable and difficult. It involves solving some very complex problems about how you’re going to live, where you’re going to live, who you’re going to live with, and what you’re going to do with your life. Although many kids solve those problems in a non-destructive way, there is a sub-group of kids who still make it their parent’s problem and society’s problem and everybody else’s problem. If you’re dealing with one of these adult children, it will take all the strength and commitment you can muster to force this child to become independent.

I noticed in one of the responses that the parents thought I was telling them to throw their kids out. I am not saying that at all. But I am saying that your kids won’t change until you do something drastic. Making them leave the home is one of those things that may have to be done.

As a parent, I understand the difficulty, fear and anxiety of sending your child out into the world. But also as a parent, I know that the best personality characteristic that you can give a child is independence. The best knowledge you can give them is how to solve life’s problems. If they’re still at home cursing at you, abusing you, not getting a job, sleeping until noon and playing video games all day, they are not independent and they are not solving life’s problems. There’s no gray area there. Parents have to be very strong in demanding that their kids start to face their situation in life before it gets worse.

Let’s be clear: from an adult child’s point of view, this is a great life. Somebody’s paying the rent, there’s food in the refrigerator, they get to party with their friends, they don’t have to be anywhere at any time. They get to avoid all stress, and if their parents give them a hard time, they bully them. Nice life. If parents are willing to live that way, you don’t have to read any more of my articles. You’ve found the solution that works for you. But if you’re determined not to live that way, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have a lot of choices. You need to make a drastic change.

Here is my recommendation on what that drastic change looks like. Number one, you set some simple structure and some rules for your child. Rules like: You need to get up at a certain time. You need to go out and look for jobs. You can’t sit around and play video games all day. Be specific. “I want you to put in three applications a day. I want you making three follow-up phone calls a day. And if you verbally abuse me, you’re out of the house for 24 hours.” You don’t care where they go. Let them go to their aunt’s house or their friend’s house. Let them figure out where they’ll stay. They’re out of the house for 24 hours.

I want to make a distinction here. What I just suggested is a consequence. It’s not preparation for life. If they’re verbally abusive a second time or destroy property, they’re out of the house for three days or a week. You don’t care where they go. They’ll tell you they’re partying at their friend’s house. Let them party. All you know is that they can’t stay in your house. This is a consequence for disrespecting your home and your values. This is not a preparation for independence. (See the discussion below and in part two of my article on “Rules, Boundaries and Older Children”, which will be featured in Empowering Parents in a few weeks, for suggestions on how to prepare kids for independence.) This is used strictly to get some control in your house. If you have adult children who are verbally abusing you and breaking things, your house is out of control. I don’t know how you can live there.

Use the police. Put his bags out on the sidewalk, call the cops and say, “He doesn’t live here anymore.” Don’t play games or you’re not going to own your own home.

I’ve worked with plenty of parents who had to do this. They were all afraid to do it. I understood that. They got into their situation because they were mortally afraid their kid would face discomfort. But when all other efforts failed, they had to call the cops to get the kid to change.

Let me be straight with you and offer you some empowerment. You’ve raised this kid. You’ve invested everything in him and now you have to tiptoe around the house? That is unacceptable. To the parents who are willing to live this way, I tip my hat to you. But I personally could not live with that, and I’m not willing to.

Kids learn best when parents use parenting roles such as teaching, problem-solving, limit setting. On the other hand, parents who are martyrs and excuse-makers wind up with children who won’t and don’t know how to respond to the demands of young adult life. And nothing changes if nothing changes. For your sake and the sake of your child, demand change now.

For Readers who are Struggling with Getting their Adult Child to be Independent and Move Out
Once you’ve established that they can’t abuse and intimidate you and train you to give into them, then you have to help them prepare themselves for adulthood, even though they’re young adults. First, you have to force them to find work, no matter how menial they think that work is. The way that you force them to do that is you establish a time when they get up in the morning. Then they read the want ads, they go out, they put in job applications. On weeknights, they can’t stay out past a certain time. They have to live as if they have a job. If they’re not willing to do that, you fall back on the consequence structure that I outlined for you earlier. Number two, once they get that job, they have to pay room and board—not to add to the money of the household, but so you can put it away and have enough money for them to talk about moving out. They have to sit down once they have a job and work with you on doing a budget. The kid should have so much money for recreation, so much money for room and board, so much money for his savings, even if it’s only ten dollars a week. If he can’t open up a savings account yet, he gives the money to the parents to hold. He doesn’t put it in his drawer. And he has to live on that budget. You should not rescue him. You’re already providing a safe place to live. These mundane, basic skills make the difference between the kids who learn how to survive out there and the kids who can’t seem to make it.

Related: Having trouble getting through to your child?

Again, if this seems harsh to you, think about it this way. If this kid gets a job and spends all his money and can live at home, why would he ever move out? If you have a job at $12 an hour and you’re living at home for free, that’s like having a job for $25 an hour. Kids are going to want to live that way if you don’t make them uncomfortable. If you don’t demand change.

I want parents to think of the future. Not what are you doing for your child today. But what are you doing for your child tomorrow? If you’re supporting him today and making excuses for him today and buying his excuses, what you’re doing to your child of tomorrow is continuing his crippled attitude toward life. I can’t do it because…then fill in the blank. Because they don’t pay enough. Because they don’t like me. Because I don’t like doing that kind of work. Because I won’t work in fast food. Just fill in the blank. By not demanding change, what you’re doing to your child of tomorrow is not forcing him to prepare to learn how to live independently. He has to solve the problem of learning how to support himself. Make no mistake about it: If you tell a kid he has to work and he doesn’t, and you tolerate that and just continue to fight about it, you’re saying to him, in a non- verbal way, that he’s a cripple and you know it. You’re saying to him he’s not as good as the other kids, and you know it. You’re saying you’re willing to put up with this because you know that there’s something wrong with him. That’s the message he’s getting. So, he thinks there’s something wrong with him because he doesn’t know how to deal with discomfort and stress.

So, to push him, make demands of him, hold him accountable and give him consequences, are all really ways of saying, “You can do it and I expect you to. In fact, I demand you to.” It’s never too late to deal with children in a teaching, limit-setting and coaching way. If you don’t know how to do that specifically, we offer a program that can help you here on the Empowering Parents web site. Parents can start anytime, as long as they’re willing to deal with the discomfort of demanding that their kids change and holding them responsible. It may feel like the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But it could save your kid’s life.

As a parent, I’ve had my ups and downs with my son. He’s self-supporting now, but that situation has been on and off for many years. He’s 31 years old, and he’s a real nice guy. I love him. But if he lost his job and he moved back home, he’d have to pay rent, come up with a budget and get a job. And I’d help him in any way I could. But if he verbally abused me or his mother, he’d have to go. It’s just that simple. I’ve worked all my life. I’m not going to take abuse now. So when I urge you to push your kid, understand that it’s exactly the way I pushed mine. If you don’t want to do it, that’s your choice. But, once I offer you a solution, if you come back and say you can’t do it, I don’t have another solution. Forget all the razzle-dazzle and the hype talk of the 80’s and 90’s. If you don’t work hard, you fall behind. If you don’t learn how to solve problems, you get stuck. If you don’t know how to deal with discomfort and stress, you’re going to have a hard time making it until you learn how to deal with these things. That’s the reality for adult children.

What to Do If Your Adult Child Is Stealing from You
Many parents wrote in and told of their struggles with an adult child who steals from them, be it credit card theft, stealing money from the house or forging checks. Stealing is absolutely intolerable. Whether it’s stealing from parents or siblings, it’s a crime. Know this: the laws don’t change inside the walls of your house. If I steal $20 from you on the street, that’s stealing. And if somebody steals $20 from you in your home, that’s stealing. And if it’s an adult, it’s a crime. It’s called larceny.

If your adult child steals from you, first of all, you should tell him, “Go upstairs, pack a bag and come back downstairs in five minutes.” When he comes back downstairs with a bag, say, “Here are your choices. You’re out of here for a week, and if you don’t stop stealing, you’re not coming back.” And I would call the police. I would pack a bag, put it on the curb, call the police and say, “He doesn’t live here anymore. He stole from us.” I’ve worked with many parents whose kids broke back into the house and they pressed charges for burglary. You have to be really clear with the police and tell them that he doesn’t live there anymore and you have to put his stuff out on the sidewalk. It’s going to cause a scene. You’re going to be embarrassed. But you can live in a little prison where you’re being abused and where there’s a predator stealing from you, or you can break out of that prison. It will take some noise, but you can break out of that and not be a victim.

Parents need support and help, and I understand what they’re going through because I came from this kind of family and I’ve worked with these families for three decades. But you also need to understand, you didn’t work like a dog all your life just to be in prison now. Ask yourself: is this what we worked for all our lives? We dealt with discomfort. We dealt with stress. We dealt with unhappiness. We had to come up with humility. Is this what we worked for now? That our adult son is going to live with us, steal from us, abuse us and make our lives miserable? If the answer is yes, I say go to it. I’m not here to contradict that. But if your answer is no, then you need to make some changes, and you need to make them now. It begins with getting him out of bed tomorrow morning and calling in the authorities if he gets abusive.

Parents are supposed to have a certain amount of power in our society just by virtue of being a parent. Sadly, in many cases, that is not the story. If you’re living with an abusive adult child who is committing crimes against you and your home, he obviously does not respect your power as a parent. So, you need civil power. You need the civil authorities. Don’t hesitate to use them. Everybody else is going to use them. Why shouldn’t you? Let me tell you one more thing that’s going to sound cold. If your kid does ten days in jail, good. Because he’s not going to curse at people and intimidate them in there. If success is having a job and being productive, then failure is sitting in a county jail. Ten days in jail can teach your child that it’s time for him to reach for something in between.

Let him share some of your pain and discomfort and see how he likes it. Because this is important: if you’re willing to do something about it, he will become willing to do something about it. He will not become willing to do something about it as long as you remain unwilling.

Fear of Responsibility: Adult Children Who Hide out Playing Video Games and Sleeping
In adolescence, kids want to be independent and free. They can’t wait to get out of their parent’s house and tell them what a pain in the neck they are. But the fact is that many kids, before they graduate from high school, do some acting out and show some anxiety or depression because they’re terrified of what’s on the other side of that. They’ve been safe in grade school, middle school, high school and in their families all their lives. Many kids are able to deal with these problems and they prepare to grow into the next stage of life. But there are those kids who, for whatever reason, are not prepared to grow into the next stage, and it shows in their behavior. The kids who are not prepared to take responsibility in their lives become angry, resentful and do irresponsible things. They’re terrified of change, and they’ll do anything to avoid it, including partying all night, sleeping until 2 pm and doing nothing but playing video games when they are awake. But these are the kids who have to be pushed the most.

I’ve dealt with many adult children in my office who had this fear, and I empathize with them. I do tell them that it’s a part of the process and that they have to face it. How do you face a fear of making it in the adult world? You get a job. And you do that job. You take a job for three months and you say, “I won’t quit. I’ll deal with all the craziness and I won’t quit. And at the end of three months, I’ll have some experience and then I’ll decide what I want to do next. And what I want to do next may be stay at McDonald’s or go someplace else. I won’t leave my job until I have a new one.” Eight months out of high school that kid is going to have some skills, experience and independence. He’s at work dealing with adult stress and mommy’s not holding his hand. That will prepare him for the next stage of growth. Maybe a more responsible job or going back to school. A lot of the work that I did in my office was coaching and teaching these kids on what they had to do. I literally had kids fill out three job applications a day then call me in my office to say that they had done it. And they would, because I gave them the clear message that accountability matters. While I empathized with them, I didn’t accept their excuses as to “why” they were stuck in life. Because “why” didn’t matter. Everyone has to be independent, no matter how afraid they are and what challenges they have in their lives.

I worked with mildly mentally retarded adults in my practice who lived in group homes with staff. They had to learn how to have a job if they wanted money because the state paid for their group home but did not give them any spending money. They had to learn how to have a supervised job if they wanted money. They had to learn how to talk nicely to people if they wanted to go out and do things and have privileges. They had to clean their rooms and make their beds every single day. They took turns cooking at night with staff support. They did these things because they had to acquire independence. So don’t tell me kids can’t do it. Not only can a kid do it, he has to do it.

Yes, these kids are afraid. They have a false sense of entitlement that they should have all of life’s niceties without having to work for them. They don’t know how to be independent. They haven’t learned how to solve social problems. But if they don’t start learning to solve them today, it’s not going to happen. So parents have to draw the line because the adult child will not draw the line. They’re having too much fun and they’re too afraid. If the parents can’t draw the line and the kid pushes it, then the police have to draw the line. It’s that simple.

Adult Children with Children: When You Have to Parent Both
I’ve worked with quite a few families who were living with 17, 18, 19 and 20 year olds who had their own children. The adult child can’t make it or the marriage falls apart and they move back in with their parents. This is a really tough situation, and I don’t want to minimize the emotional pressure everyone is under. These are innocent grandchildren. The role of parents and grandparents is very different. A parent sets limits, goals, and gets the kid to meet objectives and be productive. A grandparent is benign and indulging. They also set limits, but not in a full-time, around-the-clock manner. It’s a very difficult situation and I just want to make some observations that may be helpful.

Grandparents should do what they can to help out with child care. But only with the goal that the adult child pays room and board and that the money is put away until the adult child can move out. The adult child has to have a job and needs to look into daycare or public daycare. Parents everywhere go back to work when their kids are six months old. So you have to demand that your adult child do something to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in, and not just jump into the hole with them. Too many grandparents jump into the hole that their adult child has dug and stay there. And that doesn’t make any sense. You have to help or get out of the hole. The first way to get out of the hole is to stop digging.

Related: Having trouble getting on the same page with your spouse?

So, your adult daughter who has a toddler can’t run around all night. She has to live a work schedule. If she wants to go out at night, she has to get her own babysitter. Grandparents should not be babysitters for adult children living in their home. Let them pay for that. Have them live on a budget and let them pay for that. The adult child is not going to like that, but that’s where you draw the line. We’re not here to parent. We’ll help out while you work if we can. But you’re going to have to pay for that. If the adult child becomes explosive, call the police.

And there’s one more very hard thing that grandparents have to do. If the adult child is not taking responsibility for their own child and putting that child at risk, you have to call the state. Call the Department of Children and Family Services or whatever it’s called in your state. If the state comes in and does an investigation and finds the mother is not fit, they’ll first turn to the grandparents to see if they’ll take custody, or a family member. They will offer the mother supportive training and help. They don’t remove kids that easily. They don’t want your adult child’s child. Grandparents are terrified that the state will take their grandchildren. They don’t want your grandchild unless the mother’s strung out on drugs or committing crimes. They want the child with the mother. Because that’s where the child should be by nature and that’s the least expensive way to deal with the situation. The state does not want to take on the cost of raising your child’s child. Don’t fear that.

I’ve worked in states where state agencies have taken kids and they’ve needed to take those kids because they were in danger. But as soon as they take the child, they come up with a plan on how the parent can get the child back, whether it’s substance abuse treatment, career counseling or parent training. Just as you need to turn to a greater authority if your adult child is abusing you, you need to turn to a greater authority if your adult child is not caring for his or her own child. Understand this: you’re doing it for the welfare of your grandchild.

You may read my suggestions here and call it “tough love.” But that’s not what this is. There’s nothing tough about love. This is responsible love. It’s saying to your adult child, “I love you, and I’m going to be responsible. You can love me, but you have to be responsible.” Responsible love means demanding that your adult child learn how to solve his problems. Responsible love means demanding change. Now.

(Part 2 of a 3 part series. Please also see "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children" and "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children: Is it Ever too Late to set up a Living Agreement?" .

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About James Lehman, MSW

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

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