More and more adult kids are coming back home—or never leaving in the first place. If you are in this situation, you are not alone. A recent study says that one-third of young people, or 24 million of those aged 18 to 34, reside with their parents.
Whether your child is contributing his fair share or driving you up the wall with irresponsibility and attitude, you’re bound to have conflict from time to time.
In this two-part series by Debbie Pincus, find out how you can manage your adult children at home effectively and how you’ll know when it’s time for them to leave.
Older children end up at home with their parents for many different reasons. Sometimes they want to get their nest built financially, so they come home to save money and secure their future. Other kids are coming home—or have never left in the first place—because they really can’t make it out there on their own. For one reason or another, they haven’t developed the maturity to launch successfully.
If your child is controlling your house, then you are allowing yourself to be controlled.
If your adult child lives at home with you and has made no move to save up for a place of his own, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is he planning to stay here forever?”
The truth is, sometimes older kids do get comfortable back home. It takes a lot of pressure off their shoulders because Mom and Dad are there to cook and clean and pay the bills.
So when is it appropriate to ask your child to leave? Should you wait until they get a job or get married? Is there a plan, or are you just moving forward blindly, hoping they’ll get up on their feet and find their way eventually?
Some adult children are slower to mature than others. Developmentally, they’re just not ready to take care of themselves, so they end up at home. When this happens, many times it’s because the parents have been over-functioning for their kids.
What is over-functioning? Over–functioning means you’re taking responsibility for things he can do for himself, like doing his laundry and cleaning up his messes after he’s had friends over.
There’s an important difference between helping and over–functioning. Helping your older child means doing something for him he can’t do himself, such as driving him somewhere when he has a broken leg. Just know that when you over–function you’re allowing the negative behaviors to continue. The good news is that it’s in your control to change this situation.
Related content: Adult Child Living at Home Driving You Crazy?
What I recommend is to have a plan of action with your child. The message can be, “You’re not here for good. We’re going to help you, but the plan is for you to get on your feet.” Having a plan is important because it will ensure that your child’s stay back home doesn’t drag on forever. (I’ll talk more about how to make a concrete plan in Part 2 of this article series.)
What happens when there isn’t a plan? Frustration and resentment build when you hear your child says things like, “I’m looking for a job, but I can’t find anything,” but you’ve seen him sleeping late every day and staying out partying at night. This resentment only adds to the stress of living together.
Ever hear yourself repeatedly make excuses like, “He’s a good kid, he’s just a little lost right now;” or “He’s going through a hard time—if I don’t help him who will?” The truth is, when your kid can’t launch, you are enabling him.
I know that many parents out there have kids who never launch. Perhaps they’ve been living with their parents ever since high school, and now as adults, they control the house. Let me be clear: if your child is controlling your house, then you are allowing yourself to be controlled. And if your kids have never left, it’s because you have allowed them to stay.
I’ve worked with many clients over the years with adult kids living at home. Typically, the more parents feel controlled by their children, the more parents will try to control their children. A power struggle ensues, which is what you don’t want.
When you’re feeling controlled, you have a few choices. You can get “reactive to your child’s reactivity,” and watch things escalate, or you can try to be objective and thoughtful about how you want to handle the situation. Saying things like, “You’ve been here for three years! When are you going to get a job?” is reactive and will result in a battle of will and control. Instead, speak in more direct terms: “What’s your plan for getting a job? Please think about it and let’s talk after dinner tomorrow night.”
Launching can be a very difficult process for kids with ADD, ADHD or other issues. Some kids need help cooking and taking care of an apartment and doing housework. Nevertheless, the goal is for your child to be as autonomous as possible. And you have to be especially careful not to over-function if your child has a disability.
Many parents of kids with disabilities will over-function as a way to manage their own anxieties. And kids with disabilities may be tempted to use their disability as an excuse not to leave home.
I understand how hard it is to know where to draw these lines as a parent. I think the key is to stop focusing on what’s wrong with your child. Focus on what’s right with your child and many parents find that their kids are very capable despite their disabilities.
When your adult child is living in the house with you, you feel imposed upon. And he feels like he’s being treated like a kid. Even under the best circumstances, there can be lots of annoyances when you live together as adults.
Therefore, don’t get caught up in who is right and who is wrong. Instead, take responsibility for your behavior and how you manage your anger and irritation.
It’s normal to lose it from time to time and have a fight. But your children, no matter how old, can be very sensitive to your anger. So try to stay calm when you’re frustrated and, if necessary, walk away and finish the conversation later when you’ve had a chance to calm down.
The way to deal with anger is to use clear “statements of self.” Make yourself clear and put it out there. You’re not attacking your child, rather you’re telling your child directly why their behavior is a problem. You can say to your child:
“When you use the car without asking, I don’t like it.”
“When you make a mess and expect me to clean up after you, I feel like you don’t appreciate being here. That doesn’t work for me.”
When your child is young, you can think of yourself as a manager. You are involved in his day-to-day life in a very “hands-on” kind of way.
But as your child grows and becomes an adult, you’re more of a consultant. That means you talk to him about what’s going on like a consultant for a business might. Or like an adult acquaintance. Indeed, he is an adult even if he doesn’t yet act the part. So you can be helpful and check in, but you’re not looking to give unsolicited advice. You may say something like the following:
“How are things going? Can I be helpful to you?”
This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold your child accountable. On the contrary, you should define boundaries very clearly and let him know that you intend to stick to them. But you’re also giving him some degree of respect and autonomy. You may say to your child:
“This is what I expect of you living here. This is what belongs to me. Here are the things you are free to use.”
If your adult child lives at home with you and you’re feeling overwhelmed or out of control, I think you have to ask yourself this question: “What am I ultimately responsible for?”
Know that you are not responsible for your child’s choices in life. And if you think you are responsible for his choices then you create a dynamic where your child doesn’t learn to function for himself. So, stop trying to figure out how you can get your child to do something and instead ask yourself “What can I do for myself?”
When you try to control somebody else, no matter what their age, it is simply going to backfire and hurt your relationship. Remember, the only person you can control is yourself.
In Part 2 of “Adult Child Living at Home?” Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC will discuss concrete ways for you to talk with your child about responsibility and their future. She’ll also give you ideas on how to ease them out of your house and onto their own two feet.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.