Do you have an adult child living at home who’s driving you crazy in one way or another? Do they seem unable to do chores around the house, contribute financially, or be respectful? In recent years, because of the economy and lack of jobs, the old expectation that kids will move on and out of the house has almost disappeared. With an estimated 25 percent of adult kids of the Boomerang Generation living at home right now, millions of us are dealing with “extended parenting”—which involves a whole new set of concerns and pressures.
“Staying in a pattern of doing too much for you child can leave him in a state of permanent adolescence, ready to ‘let Mom or Dad do it’ while he goes about his business.”
Having adult kids live under your roof can be a major source of stress in any family. Whether you’re concerned about your child gaining employment, paying their share of the rent or contributing to household chores, a whole new set of dynamics occurs when adult children live with their parents.
If you have an adult child living at home with you and it’s causing stress and resentment, keep reading, because I’m going to tell you about ways you can help create a healthier, more respectful situation for both of you.
Whatever the reason for your kids being back home, life together can be difficult. One of the biggest challenges is to create new patterns together that will reflect everyone’s greater independence.
The first thing to realize is that expectations have changed for both of you because you have both moved into a new stage of life. It can be so natural to revert back to the old patterns and roles that operated when your kids were younger or before they left home. These patterns, unfortunately, will be roadblocks to helping your kids get on their feet and out the door—and won’t help in maintaining strong, healthy relationships while they are home.
One of the most common patterns parents and children fall back into is the “over-/under-functioning pattern.” This happens when you fall into the trap of doing too much for your kids, which results in your children doing too little. It’s easy to default back into this pattern because often it might have been going on for years. Every parent wants to be helpful to their children – that’s natural. However, when you do for them what they can do for themselves, you are over-functioning. It can contribute to your adult child under-functioning, “learning to be helpless,” which impedes their ability to move out and make their own way. And it can happen naturally—you clean up, do the laundry, and pay the bills, just like you always did. Only now, your child is an adult, and could (and should) be doing these things himself—right? Staying in this pattern can leave your child in a state of permanent adolescence, ready to “let Mom to Dad do it” while he goes about his business. And probably your adult child means no harm by any of this—he’s just behaving the way he always did, because nothing has changed.
Over functioning for your child can be difficult to give up because it can be an automatic response, and also might give you that warm feeling of being “helpful” to your child. But when your adult child acts helpless or resists managing her own functioning—and as a result you feel like maybe you “should” be doing more for her—keep in mind the true meaning of the word “helpful.”
- Is doing for your child what they can do themselves really helpful?
- When you think you’re being helpful, are you really showing your kids how “real life” works?
- What is your motivation for helping your kids – is it in your or in their best interests?
- Are you giving in to your kids’ demands out of guilt or fatigue, or because you want them to like you or not bug you—or because you want to keep the peace?
Once in a while, doing things for those reasons is fine, but when it becomes part of your pattern with your adult child it ceases to be fine. However well-meaning, it’s never in your child’s best interest if you’re taking away their self-sufficiency or pride of accomplishment by doing too much for them.
How to Deal with Your Adult Child’s Disrespectful Behavior
Understand that there is often an “underlying annoyance” for not only you, but also your adult child in this situation. She might be not want to be in a dependent situation. They might have expected things to go differently, too, and thought that they would have had a job and been on their own by now. They might also come with the idea that you would behave the way you always have—by taking care of them—rather than expect them to pitch in more. All of these things will add to the tension. Your adult child might take it out on the safest people she knows—her parents. But just because your child feels that way does not mean it’s okay for her to act entitled and be disrespectful.
Knowing what your child might be going through might help you to stay calm and communicate with her without overreacting or getting into a power struggle. In a peaceful moment, you can say, “Hey, Katie. I’d like to talk. I get that this living situation might not exactly what you were expecting at this point in your life. Still, I’d appreciate it if you could express your annoyance in a polite way and help out around the house as long as you’re living here. When you come at me with an accusing tone or take me for granted, I don’t like it. If you’re going to live here, then you need to help out and learn to speak to me in a respectful way.”
If your child is being rude, disrespectful and acting entitled, you do have a choice in how to handle the behavior. Remember, you are responsible for the kind of relationship you develop with your adult child. If you don’t want to be treated disrespectfully, respectfully tell him that. Let him know what you need and what you will and will not stand for. As well, ask yourself if there is anything in your interaction with him that might be contributing to his disrespect and entitlement. Are you snappy or critical with him because you feel you’ve been taken advantage of, but you have not yet addressed that with him? Could he be acting entitled because you keep letting him off the hook and not holding him accountable? Are you constantly "helping" him, leaving him feeling suffocated? Take a close look at yourself and then authentically interact with your child. Most importantly, try to find positive ways of interacting.
Below are 5 ways you can avoid over-functioning and stop this pattern from occurring (or continuing) if you and your adult child are living under the same roof, including steps you can take to help your children launch and thrive.
1. Set clear timelines and expectations with your adult child. Do you want your child to move out by a certain age or when she gets employed? Will you be expecting her to contribute money while living with you, and if so, how much? What about household chores? One parent I know was arguing with her adult daughter over chores constantly while her daughter was job-hunting. She decided to charge her adult daughter rent, and uses the money for groceries and to pay for a cleaning service for the house, and it’s working out beautifully. However you do it, it’s important to make your needs known from the get go, so your child will be prevented from overstepping boundaries. They should also let you know what they need from you, which will prevent you from overstepping their boundaries. By knowing what you expect from each other, your child can also better plan what they’ll need to do to get on their own two feet. Try to feel no guilt in asking these things from your offspring even when they look and sound like they can’t manage. Don’t buy into that thinking or play into the guilt, because you will only contribute to holding your child back if you do. Just stay calm and remind them of the reasonable boundaries you have set and stick to them.
2. Don’t blame or shame. If your child is having trouble leaving, be careful not to blame yourself or them. Here’s the truth: placing blame only increases stress and keeps the anxiety cycle going. Look for contributions and make necessary changes, if needed, but do not blame or shame your child or yourself. The economic situation has hit this generation hard and kids have to deal with fewer job opportunities—and many are paying off huge college loans. On the positive side of things, many kids are staying or returning home because they enjoy and get along with their parents, unlike generations before them. This can be a chance for you and your child to relish some extended time together. If boundaries are respected, this can be a great chance for you to enjoy a fulfilling and satisfying connection with each other as adults.
To help your child eventually move on, guide him in solving the problem of getting out within a reasonable time frame, rather than placing blame on yourself or on him for his inability to go it alone right now. The best advice is to stick to boundaries and look honestly at your own motivations if you are over-functioning so everyone can move forward, rather than getting stuck in a cycle of blame and guilt.
3. Be a consultant, not a manager. Guide your child in making her life plan and help support her goals. Remember that guiding and supporting are different from “getting in your child’s box.” You may not agree with your child’s personal or professional choices, but you don’t necessarily get a vote in her decisions anymore. You are now a consultant to your child, not a manager of her. Allow her to live her own life without your fingerprints or judgments. By doing this she will not regress back to a childlike role or fall into a pattern of learned helplessness—and you will not regress back to the hands-on role you played when she was much younger.
4. Let go. I once knew a family whose adult sons lived at home. It was in part due to a cultural norm (they were originally from a culture where adult children stayed with their parents, bringing new spouses into the house when they married). However, the parents in this family did everything for their sons, from laundry, to cooking to buying their cars and paying for their insurance. The end result was that they had four grown “boys” under one roof who could not (or would not) keep jobs, do chores, pay their own bills, or commit to relationships. Well into their forties, they never quite matured enough to be independent in their lives. These well-meaning parents had over-functioned and done too much for their kids—out of love and a feeling of wanting to be helpful—all along, in part because they dreaded the moment when their sons would leave…and you know what? They never did.
We sometimes believe that kids who have trouble leaving home have some deep-seated problems. But often, if we take a closer look, it might actually be the parent having trouble letting go. This is a tough one to grapple with, but it’s very important to ask yourself honestly if you are ready for your child to leave—and if you might in some way be holding them back.
Try to pay attention to subtle messages your child might pick up from you which suggest to them that you’re not ready for them to leave (even if you feel like you’re tearing your hair out and want them out). Is it possible that your child feels you need to be needed by them? Have they have come to believe that they can’t manage their own life without you? Make sure you look honestly at yourself and see if a pattern of dependency has developed between yourself and your child. If so, you can start changing the pattern today. Rather than focusing your energies on your child all the time, get the focus back to developing yourself and managing your own needs. Ask yourself what you might be avoiding whenever you over-focus on your child. When you get back into your own box, it encourages your child to do more for himself—and to think about letting go and moving out.
Keep in mind that if this pattern has been going on for a long time, it’s not fair to suddenly just pull the rug out from under your child and throw them out of the nest. Instead, help them make a plan with realistic goals and a way to stick to them. This might include paying you rent money that you save and give to them for a down payment on an apartment, or the promise that they will apply for a certain number of jobs per week if they haven’t been doing so.
Remember, you can support and guide your child lovingly, but you don’t have to do it for them.
5. The real job of parenting. Your real job as a parent is to prepare your kids to be on their own in the world. Your goal is to help them toward self-sufficiency. As hard as it can be to let your child go and make his or her own mistakes, it’s the best way to be a loving and responsible parent. To love your child is to assist in letting them make their own way.
If you feel guilty to expect more from your kids or guilty standing up to their resistance to do more for themselves, don’t. If you’re continually helping them and taking care of their needs, you’re not preparing them to fly out of the nest and into the world. The good news is that if you have a tendency to overdo things for your child and buy into their helplessness, you can change, starting today. Begin by questioning your own reluctance to stand strong for yourself and start allowing your child to do things for him- or herself.
Respect the necessary transition you are both going through – taking all of the steps described will help your kids to spread their wings so that they can eventually fly and thrive.
About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.