Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?

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Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?

This is the third and final installment in a three part series of articles by James Lehman, MSW.

For those parents who haven’t set up a structured agreement when their child turns 18, it’s never too late to set one up. Even if your child is 23, living under your roof and staying out until the wee hours, it’s never too late to sit down with that kid and say, “We’re going to have to have a talk about our rules here and what parts fit you and what parts don’t fit you.” If a kid is 23 years old and he’s not working, he can’t be up until two o’clock in the morning with friends in the house, keeping other people awake. You may feel obligated to provide that child with a roof over his head. But you have the right to let him know that “This is not your home for that anymore. We’re going to bed, we’re tired, we worked all day. If you’re going to live here, you have to live within our rules.” If he tries to put you down for it, you need to put your foot down. If that means taking the car keys, then that’s what it means.

"Young adult children who donít feel competent will resist taking responsibility for anything, and theyíll keep doing it as long as you let them."

When parents lay out these rules with kids after the age of 18, they should expect the kid to be resentful, resistant and to blame them. The older child will try to make them feel like the parents are jerks because he still has a lot of thinking errors, is hiding from responsibility and postponing the anxiety of accepting it. Parents should simply disregard the child’s thinking errors, and not give in and tell the child that everything is okay.

Likewise, parents shouldn’t get into making a lot of excuses for themselves. They should say, “This is our expectation. We’re sorry we didn’t do it before now, but we’re here today and this is what we’re going to have to do. And we can’t go any further until this agreement gets made.” The expectations should include what time the kid gets up in the morning if he’s not working. Older kids who are avoiding responsibility will stay up all night and sleep until noon. When you ask them why they sleep until noon, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not working.” As the parent, you have to make it clear: “That’s why you’re not working. Because you sleep until noon. Get up at seven o’clock like everybody else and find a job.” It’s never too late to be this direct with your child.

Related: Having trouble getting through to your child?

Remember: do not take the kid’s accusations and blaming as fact. Expect to hear plenty of accusations and excuses. You’re going to be compared to his friend’s parents. You’re going to be told you’re hateful and uncaring. But don’t forget, this kid is fighting taking responsibility, and he will fight it fiercely. Young adult children who don’t feel competent will resist taking responsibility for anything, and they’ll keep doing it as long as you let them. Parents should be prepared to deal with this, not through yelling and screaming. Not through making excuses for themselves. Just by calmly saying, “This is the time we’re meeting. We need to talk.” If you have to, take the kid’s car keys until he is ready to talk.   

The agreement you develop with the child should allow for adult privileges. Specifically, if the kid is working and being responsible, then your agreement with him should be very flexible. On his day off, he can sleep all day for all you care. But he can’t stay out all night without calling you because you’re going to worry, and it’s his responsibility to let you know he’s safe. If he doesn’t want to do that, then he should move into a more independent living situation. You don’t get complete freedom and the support of living at home at the same time.

How to Handle Rent, Household Chores and Rules about Alcohol

Paying rent is a very good habit for an older child to get into. I think there are two ways to look at the issue of when and if your child should pay rent in order to continue living at home. If the family needs the money and the kid is working, he needs to contribute. It’s just that simple.

If you don’t need the money, charge him room-and-board anyway, and then put the money aside and save it up until you’ve saved enough for a security deposit on an apartment and the first month’s rent. Then when he’s ready to move out, you’ve already got his money. Hold onto that money. That way, he pays for himself, and he gets into the habit of paying rent and being responsible while money is being accumulated, so that both he and the family are prepared for his next step.

When you come up with the agreement on living arrangements, I think it has to be really clear that the child is here to contribute, not just take. So, parents need to be clear about specific chores the older child will be responsible for. Parents can offer their ideas, and the young adult child can come up with his own ideas. Maybe he offers to take the younger kids to school in the morning, and you ask him to be responsible for bringing in wood and taking out the trash and recyclables each week. Write it down and be clear about consequences if he doesn’t follow through, because everyone who lives in the house has to help out.

Related: Learn how to restore peace in your home today.

The understanding should be very clear about alcohol and drugs, and it’s simple because the law makes it simple. In most states, it’s illegal to drink under the age of 21. You don’t have to say, “I know it’s illegal, but…” and wink your eye. The best thing that you can do for your young adult child is follow the letter of the law and say “No drinking under 21. If we catch you drinking and driving, we’re taking the car keys. If you fight us, we’re calling the cops.” He’s going to say you’re rigid and unreasonable. But it’s better that your kid lose his license for 90 days than die or kill somebody else.

When Is It Time to Ask Your Child to Leave Home?

The decision on when to ask an older child to leave the home has more to do with a family’s morals and values. First of all, if he violates a cardinal rule, he should leave. If he’s insulting you, abusive with a family member or breaking things, he should leave. He should go stay with a friend. The kids who are going to be most likely to be asked to leave are the kids who are going to tell you they have nowhere to go. Because the abusive behavior won’t be an unexpected anomaly in their life. It’s not like their whole life is great, but they hit their brother. The abusive older child will most likely show a pattern of this behavior and demonstrate a host of thinking errors. So when you ask him to leave, he won’t know where he can go, because he is unable to solve that problem.

Secondly, if things are going well with the living arrangement, the child should be told to think about leaving once he has the means. Once the first and last month’s rent and a deposit are set aside and he has a car and he’s driving, he should be told to start looking for a place with a roommate. I’ve worked with many college graduates at agencies who were not able to own a car or have their own apartment at the same time. They had to make a choice because they didn’t make that much money. They had to accept either having their own car and living with a roommate and learning how to live with other people, or not having a car and living close to their job and just having their own apartment. But they can’t have it both ways, and parents should not take responsibility for that.

Independence is a decision you can make as a family. If a young adult child is doing well, living at home and meeting the family’s expectations, then there’s no problem. But someday he will want to be independent. The way you get there is to sit down and have the child set some goals. Where do you plan to live? When do you plan to move out? How much does the child need to pay for rent or room and board while living at home? Measure progress toward the goal by the objectives. If the child has a goal to move out and he’s not meeting any of the objectives, it’s a joke.

The greatest gift you can give your child is knowing how to be independent and take responsibility. If a child fears independence and responsibility, you can solve that problem by having a written agreement that shows the child how to live by your rules, and have ongoing discussions about the goal of independence and how to meet it.

(Part 3 of a 3 part series. Please also see "Rules, Boundaries and Older Children" and "In Response to Parents of Older Children".

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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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