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Failure to Launch, Part 1: Why So Many Adult Kids Still Live with Their Parents

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Failure to Launch, Part 1: Why So Many Adult Kids Still Live with Their Parents

Are you one of the millions of frustrated, exhausted parents whose adult child is still living at home with you? Like many in this situation, you might be feeling resentful that your adult son seems to think he’s entitled to meals, laundry and gas money when he does nothing but sleep and party. Or you get frustrated and angry when your 20+ daughter doesn’t pitch in around the house—or even take time to thank you for what you’re doing for her. When your kids were little, you probably expected and accepted the fact that they’d move out one day. So why does your child seem incapable of moving out on their own, and how do you handle it when they don’t? Before we can figure out what to do about adult kids who can’t launch, we have to look at why it’s happening to an entire generation of kids in the first place.

Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker–Cordner are experts in the areas of parenting, child behavior problems, O.D.D. and substance abuse, and they have worked with families for decades to help them resolve difficult issues, including how to help adult kids launch successfully. They are also the co–creators of Life Over the Influence, a new program to help families with loved ones who are struggling with substance abuse issues. This article is the first in a planned series by Kim and Marney in Empowering Parents on Adult Children Living at Home. They begin by explaining some of the main reasons why this situation has become such an epidemic.

Over time, our kids have stopped learning to solve problems and entertain themselves because adults are quick to jump in and fix things for them. It’s done out of love and with the best of intentions, but over time we’ve gone from caring for our children, to caretaking.

So many Empowering Parents readers have written in asking questions about the challenges they face with their adult child who is still living at home. We’ve heard from parents whose kids are verbally abusive, disrespectful, and demanding—and who seem to have a permanent attitude of entitlement. You wonder, “Wasn’t this supposed to end at the age eighteen? Why is he still acting like a surly teenager?” Often parents who’ve counted the days to a child’s 18th birthday, looking forward to their own “emancipation,” find themselves wondering just when that countdown will actually end. Twenty? Twenty–five? Thirty?

Before we can look at how to help an adult child move on toward independence, it’s important to understand how we got here as a society in the first place. If your child is not yet an adult, this article can still help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can lead to having an adult child who has no intention of leaving your home.

Related: Is your adult child running your life? How to set limits and help them solve problems on their own.

Once Upon a Time, Long Ago….

In 1974, a quaint little show called Little House on the Prairie began its run on network television. It followed the life of a family and a young girl named Laura, who grew up on the frontier in the 1800’s. Each week, Laura encountered a new situation that offered opportunities for her to learn about life, develop values and morals, and take responsibility. She had conflicts with the local bully, Nellie; she fell in love with a boy who didn’t love her back at first; her family struggled and a piece of chalk and new shoes for school were things to be celebrated. Laura also had respect for her parents. And, most importantly, the children each had a purpose and a role in the family. She helped her mother care for the younger children; her older sister did sewing jobs to contribute to the family; everyone pitched in to help with the farm and animals. There was no law at the time to say children must attend school until a certain age; in fact it was considered a privilege. Laura did her homework nightly because she wanted to learn and because it was expected. Her parents allowed her to experience struggles and she learned she could overcome adversity. Her mother didn’t run to Nellie’s mother every time there was an argument. “Work it out,” was the message Laura received.

Welcome to the 80’s…Big Hair, Pop Music and a More Comfortable Life

Fast forward to 1987: a movie called Parenthood hits the big screen. It was a film about the joys, anxieties, and ups and downs of parenthood. It was also a movie that subtly showed how society had begun to change its views regarding the roles of parents and children. One of the characters, Larry, is an adult child who has returned to his parents’ home. A man in his thirties with thousands of dollars in gambling debt, returns to his parents’ home with a small child to raise. Larry literally cannot believe it when his father (played by Jason Robards) suggests he get a "regular job," with no potential for a quick payoff and riches.. “I’m better than that,” he says. The end of the film shows Larry’s father, a man in his sixties about to retire after a lifetime of hard work, getting a job so he can pay off his son’s debts, while Larry leaves on another get–rich–quick scheme. The father also takes on the role of raising his grandchild, as Larry has no ability or inclination to care for his child himself.

Related: Is your adult child living with you and abusing substances?

The lesson was that Larry was never allowed or encouraged to take responsibility or learn from his mistakes. Jason Robards describes his view of parenthood to his oldest son in telling the story of how he thought the child had polio as an infant: “I hated having to care, having to go through the pain, the hurt, the suffering...and it’s not like that all ends when you’re eighteen or twenty–one or forty–one or sixty–one. It never ends. It’s like your Aunt Edna’s ass. It goes on forever and it’s just as frightening.” This theme wasn’t just part of a movie; it was a reflection of how times were starting to change in our society. Larry was 33 years old and his father still believed it was his job to fix his son’s mistakes.

Failure to Launch : Not Just a Movie

Moving on to 2006: the romantic comedy Failure to Launch depicts the life of a man in his thirties who is the modern version of Peter Pan—he’s never really grown up. He has no idea how to commit to a real relationship and is perfectly comfortable living with his parents. His parents, on the other hand, are very uncomfortable and hire a beautiful woman who makes her living doing guess what? Building a man’s self–confidence and creating a “crisis” that he can successfully resolve, thus gaining the skills he needs to make it on his own. Her job is to help grown men accomplish what they never did in adolescence or early adulthood: learn to live independently. Again, our society’s view of family life is depicted through the media and shows us finally reaping what we’ve been sowing: the long–term results of doing too much for our children, rather than letting them “do for themselves.” While the movie is funny, and of course has a happy ending (he eventually moves out), in real–life there’s nothing funny about your adult child living in your home because they’re unable to “make it” on their own.

Related: How to parent your child effectively—and give him the tools to launch.

Life Lessons Lost

Think back to when you were a child. If you’re over the age of thirty–five, you probably played outside until the street lights came on. All the adults in the neighborhood had authority to reprimand you, and you truly cared if you heard the words, “I’m going to have to tell your parents about your behavior.” You played ball, King of the Mountain, Hide and Seek, Cops and Robbers, marbles and made snow forts. Kids used their imaginations to invent any kind of game they could think of. Whether you lived in the city or the country, you “found something to do.” Groups of kids built tree houses and in doing so, negotiated who would get what materials from which garage, who would be the leader and what tasks everyone would have. You didn’t know it, but those negotiation skills helped you understand how to manage in the workplace years down the road.

In the “old days,” you experienced conflict with other kids and when you complained to your parents, you heard something like “Well, work it out.” And that’s exactly what you did—you learned how to resolve conflict. You also learned that life isn’t always fair and it isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes you were angry, bored or afraid. Often you were disappointed and frustrated. You learned to cope and you learned that you would survive these emotions, as painful as they might have been at the time.

And you also learned about natural consequences. If you did your homework, it was because it was expected and it was your responsibility. If you didn’t, you likely failed, because that’s a consequence to not completing your work. Some kids passed to the next grade; some kids didn’t. You had chores and, no, you didn’t necessarily get an allowance. You couldn’t wait to grow up so you could make your own rules and have your own place. Living with your parent’s rules made you uncomfortable enough that you wanted to leave someday and surviving adolescence left your parent happy to see you go! Every day of your childhood and adolescence took you a step closer to having the skills you needed to do just that. Childhood and adolescence were a time of gradually gaining independence so you could one day live as a productive, independent adult.

Generation X and Beyond

Since the eighties, we’ve seen a boom in technology. Cell phones, texting, iPods, laptops, computer gaming, Facebook and Twitter. It’s a whole new world, one that doesn’t require much imagination. There’s no need to invent games now; just turn on an Xbox. Instant gratification has taken on a whole new meaning: there’s no reason to be uncomfortable in today’s world, if you have the means.

As we’ve become more comfortable with technology, our society has also shifted to the extreme of simply not wanting to be uncomfortable at all. And we’ve passed that on to our children. Many of us want our children to have lives that are “better than what we had,” even if we had it pretty good. We hate to see our kids suffer. If you ask any parent’s wish for their child it’s almost always “for my child to be happy.” We spend much of our time trying to make that happen for our kids in childhood. We involve them in activities (dance, gymnastics, sports, clubs); we get involved in their academics (PTA, choosing particular teachers, observing a classroom through a two–way mirror to make sure the teacher is using an approach that’s acceptable, making sure homework is done at night); we get involved in their social relationships (calling the school if a child is having conflict with a peer, determining who our children can and can’t be friends with).

These things can be good, in moderation. But as a society, we’ve gone to the extreme. If our child gets a teacher he doesn’t like, what’s the first instinct? Call and get his room changed. If our child is bored, first instinct? Get her signed up for an activity or try to find something to entertain her. Over time, our kids have stopped learning to solve problems and entertain themselves because adults are quick to jump in and fix things for them. It’s done out of love and with the best of intentions, but over time we’ve gone from caring for our children, to caretaking. “Caretaking” is anything we do for our children that they can do for themselves. It means fixing or solving a problem for your child rather than teaching or showing him how to do so himself. This might mean doing your child’s homework for him so he won’t fail or so he’ll graduate. It could be that you’re cleaning your child’s room because it’s easier and it will be “done right.” While caring for our children is a good, positive thing, understand that when it crosses into caretaking, it stunts your child’s growth. Skills he normally would have learned as a young child or adolescent get delayed into his twenties or thirties—or maybe never.

The Only College My Kid Applied to is Basement University

In 2011, a generation of young adults struggles to find their way, emotionally and financially. They’ve entered adulthood ill–equipped to cope with things such as persistence in the face of being turned down for a job; the day–to–day responsibilities and potential conflicts of a marriage; doing without cable TV or cigarettes until basic needs have been met. Many young adults in this generation tends to have high expectations for employers, little tolerance for the needs of others when they conflict with their own and often believes they deserve material items even if they can’t afford them.

Sadly, during childhood and adolescence, the primary coping skill many kids have learned is to simply go to their parents when there’s a problem. When they enter adulthood and mom or dad isn’t there to fix things, they don’t know what to do. They come back to the one coping skill they’ve learned: go to the parent to solve the problem for them. Many remain at home, sitting on parents’ couches or sleeping in, rather than moving out. Their parents step in and pay rent and utilities, buy their food or pay their insurance. This can go on into their twenties, thirties and even longer. In fact, we know a 99–year–old woman whose son continued to live with her until he was 67 years old. At the age of 96, she was out mowing her lawn while her son sat on the couch, taking no responsibility whatsoever. He was her baby and he remained so forever. Add substance abuse to the mix, and the caretaking mode we go into shifts into high gear. We feel driven to save our child, no matter what age, from the risks of drinking or using drugs.

Related: Is your adult child drinking or using drugs?

Good Intentions Don’t Always Get Good Results

Many questions from EP readers have mentioned the struggles of dealing with adult children who continue to exhibit oppositional defiant characteristics, have substance abuse or display a basic resistance to growing up. These parents are not alone. It’s helpful to realize that this is a reflection of how our society has gone to the extreme of caretaking for others, not just our children but even for our spouses or other loved ones.

It’s important to remember that caretaking behavior is borne out of love. We want our loved ones, especially our children, to be happy and healthy. But over time an unhealthy caretaking cycle can develop: the child experiences stress/struggles; they go to the parent; the parent intervenes, fixing or resolving the situation; the child learns to look outside himself for coping skills, in the form of the parent. And so the cycle goes on into adulthood. The key to breaking this cycle is to help your child with internal coping skills, foster a sense of self–confidence and let them experience for themselves that they can be uncomfortable and still survive.

In our next article in this series, we’ll look at how to overcome the challenges to helping “launch” your adult child into the real world—without having to hire an actress to help you!

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About Kimberly Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW

Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues.

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