Adult Child Living at Home Driving You Crazy?

By Dr. Joan Simeo Munson

young adult on parent's couch eating and drinking

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? If so, you are not alone.

In recent years, the old expectation that kids will move on and out of the house has almost disappeared. The United States Census Bureau reported recently that one-third of young adults now live with their parents. What are those kids still doing at home? According to the Census Bureau, not much at all for many of them. In fact, 1 in 4 is neither working nor going to school. In other words, they’re idle, going nowhere fast, and likely driving their parents crazy.

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.

“Staying in a pattern of doing too much for your child can leave him in a state of permanent adolescence, ready to ‘let Mom or Dad do it’ while he goes about his business.”

If you have an adult child living at home with you and it’s causing stress and resentment, keep reading. I’m going to tell you about ways you can help create a healthier, more respectful situation for both of you.

Get Rid of the Old Patterns

Whatever the reason for your kids being home, living together can be difficult. One of the biggest challenges is to create new patterns of behavior between you and your child that reflect the fact that your child is now an adult.

The first thing to realize is that the expectations of your role as a parent and your child’s role as a child, have changed. Even though your child is an adult now, it is so natural to revert back to the old patterns and roles that operated when your kids were younger. These old patterns, unfortunately, will be roadblocks to helping your kids get on their feet and out the door. These old patterns will also hurt your efforts to maintain a strong and healthy relationship while they are home.

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Over-Functioning Parents Lead to Under-Functioning Kids

One of the most common patterns parents and children fall back into is the over-functioning parent and the under-functioning child. This happens when you do too much for your kids, which results in your children doing too little. It’s easy to fall back into this pattern because 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. And when you over-function, your child under-functions. In other words, your child learns 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 has because nothing has changed.

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Over functioning for your child can be difficult to stop because it is often an automatic response. Also, it might give you that warm feeling of being helpful to your child. In reality, though, you hurt your child when you do things for them that they need to be learning to do themselves. Keep in mind the true meaning of the word helpful:

  • Is doing for your child what they can do themselves truly 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 for them? Or is it for you?
  • 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 a continual pattern with your adult child it ceases to be fine. However well-meaning, it’s never in your child’s best interest to take 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 your adult child living at home not only bothers you, but it likely bothers him as well. He might not want to be in a dependent situation. He might have expected to have a job and be on his own by now. Or, and this is common, he may be seeing his peers succeeding while he isn’t.

Your adult child might also have the idea that you would behave the way you always have—by taking care of him—rather than expecting him to pitch in more. All of these things will add to the tension of the situation. Typically, your adult child will take out her frustrations on the safest people she knows—her parents. But just because your child is frustrated does not mean it’s okay for her to act entitled and be disrespectful.

Knowing what your child is going through helps you to stay calm and to 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 be 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.”

When 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. Don’t want to be treated disrespectfully? Respectfully tell him so. Let him know what you will and will not stand for.

Also, ask yourself if there is anything in your interaction with him that might be contributing to his disrespect and entitlement. Are you too snappy or too critical? Could he be acting entitled because you continually give in to him? Do you hold him accountable for his actions? Are you constantly “helping” him, leaving him feeling suffocated? Take a close look at yourself and how you interact with your child. Try to find positive ways to interact.

4 Steps to Restore the Peace With Your Adult Child at Home

Below are 4 steps you can take today to restore peace and sanity to the household while your adult child is living under the same roof as you. These steps will also help your children launch and thrive.

1. Set Clear Timelines and Expectations with Your Adult Child

It’s important to set expectations from the get-go, so your child will be prevented from overstepping boundaries. Your child 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 how to get on his own two feet. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • 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 is the expectation about household chores?

One parent I know argued constantly with her adult daughter over chores. She decided to charge her adult daughter rent and then use the rent money for groceries and for a cleaning service for the house. It’s working out beautifully.

Don’t let feelings of guilt prevent you from asking these things from your kids even when they look and act like they can’t manage. Doing things for them will only contribute to holding them back. Just stay calm and remind them of the reasonable boundaries you have set. And stick to those boundaries. As your child begins to function on his own, he will feel better and your feelings of guilt will subside.

2. Don’t Blame or Shame

If your child is having trouble leaving, be careful not to blame yourself or them. Placing blame only increases the stress and keeps the anxiety cycle going. Focus on solving the problem, not on placing blame.

Also, keep in mind that many kids are staying or returning home because they enjoy and get along with their parents and are living productive lives, either in school or working. This can be a chance for you and your child to relish some extended time together—if boundaries are respected.

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 actions. Are you over-functioning for your child? Have you set clear expectations? Focus on the practical 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. But don’t manage and direct her. 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 her manager. Allow her to live her own life without your meddling 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 doing 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 adults. 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. But mostly, it turns out, they dreaded the moment when their sons would leave. And, as a result, they never did leave.

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 parents having trouble letting go. This is a tough issue for parents to confront. But, it’s very important to ask yourself honestly if you are ready for your child to leave. And also to ask yourself honestly if you are in some way purposely holding him back.

Pay attention to subtle messages you’re sending to your child when you do things for him. Even if you say that you want him out, do you really? Is it possible that your child feels you need to be needed by him? Or that you don’t believe he can live on his own without you?

Look honestly at yourself to see if a pattern of dependency has developed between you and your child. If so, you can start changing the pattern today. Rather than focusing all your energy on your child, get the focus back to yourself and your own needs. Ask yourself what you might be avoiding whenever you over-focus on your child. When you take the focus off your child, it encourages your child to do more for himself. And it encourages him 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 kick your child out of the house. Instead, help them make a plan with realistic goals. One option is to make them pay rent. You can even save their rent and give it to them later for a down payment on an apartment. Have them 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 while at the same time letting go and encouraging their independence.

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 to stand up to their resistance to do more for themselves, learn to get over it. If you’re continually helping them and taking care of their needs, you’re not preparing them for the real 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 and be persistent. Taking the steps described here 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.

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