This article is the first in a 3-part series by Kim Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW on the growing problem of adult children living at home.
Are you one of the millions of frustrated, exhausted parents whose unmotivated adult child still lives 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 might get frustrated and angry when your 20-year-old daughter doesn’t help around the house or even take the time to thank you for what you’re doing for her.
When your kids were little, you probably expected them to live on their own one day. So why does your child seem incapable of moving out? And how do you handle it when they don’t?
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 entitled. The parents often ask, “Wasn’t this supposed to end at age 18? 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 freedom, find themselves wondering just when that countdown will end. Twenty? Twenty–five? Thirty?
Adult kids living at home is called the “failure to launch” problem, and it’s an epidemic these days. Before we can look at how to help an adult child move on toward independence, it’s important to understand how our society got here in the first place.
In 1974, a quaint little show called Little House on the Prairie began its run on network television in the United States. It followed the life of a family and a young girl named Laura, who grew up on the American frontier in the 1800s. The show was immensely popular.
Each week, Laura encountered a new situation that offered opportunities for her to learn about life, develop values and morals, and take responsibility.
Often, she had conflicts with the local bully, a mean girl named Nellie. Laura experienced heartache—she fell in love with a boy who didn’t love her back. And, Laura’s family struggled just to survive. A pair of new shoes and a piece of chalk for school were luxuries to be celebrated.
Laura always respected her parents. And, most importantly, each child had an important purpose and a role in the family. Laura helped her mother care for the younger children. Laura’s older sister was the seamstress. And everyone pitched in to help with the farm and animals.
At this time, no law required children to attend school, and school was considered a luxury and a privilege. Laura did her homework nightly because she wanted to learn, and because it was expected.
Throughout the show, Laura’s parents allowed her to experience struggles. As a result, Laura learned how to overcome adversity on her own. Laura learned how to handle mean girls without getting her parents involved. “Work it out,” was the message Laura received consistently from her parents.
Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s. Many of today’s parents grew up during this time. A movie called Parenthood was popular. 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. He returns with thousands of dollars in gambling debt and a small child to raise. Larry is offended when his father suggests he get a regular job, with no potential for a quick payoff and riches. “I’m better than that,” Larry says.
The end of the film shows Larry’s father, a man in his sixties, putting off retirement so that he can pay off his son’s debts and raise his new grandchild that Larry has neglected and left with him. Meanwhile, Larry embarks on another fruitless get–rich–quick scheme.
In the movie, Larry was never forced to take responsibility for his mistakes. As a result, he never learned from his mistakes either. Larry’s father, in one scene, describes his view of parenthood to another of his sons: “It’s not like it all ends when your child is eighteen or twenty–one or forty–one or sixty–one. It never ends.”
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.
The parenting movie of the 2000s was a romantic comedy called Failure to Launch. The film depicts the life of a man in his thirties who is the modern version of Peter Pan—he never grows up. He has no idea how to commit to a real relationship and is perfectly comfortable living with his parents. His parents are not at all pleased with the arrangement, though.
To help their son, the parents hire a beautiful woman who makes her living doing guess what? Building a man’s self–confidence by 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, which is 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 has a happy ending, in real–life, there’s nothing funny about your adult child living in your home because they’re unable or unwilling to live on their own.
Think back to when you were a child. If you grew up a generation ago, you probably played outside until the street lights came on. All the adults in the neighborhood had the 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.”
In those days, if you experienced conflict with other kids and complained to your parents, you heard something like, “Well, work it out.” And that’s what you did—you learned how to resolve conflict.
You also learned that life isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always comfortable. You learned to deal with anger and anxiety. Often, you were disappointed and frustrated. And sometimes you were bored. Nevertheless, you learned to cope and survive these emotions, as painful as they were.
And you also learned about natural consequences. If you didn’t do your homework, you likely failed, because that’s a consequence of not completing your work. Some kids passed to the next grade. Some kids didn’t.
You had chores, and 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.
Every day of your childhood and adolescence took you a step closer to having the skills you needed to do just that—leave home. Childhood and adolescence were a time of gradually gaining independence so you could one day live as a productive, independent adult.
Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a boom in technology: smartphones, computers, gaming, and social media. It’s a whole new world, one that doesn’t require much imagination. There’s no need to invent games now, just turn on the Xbox. Instant gratification has taken on a whole new meaning. There’s no reason to be uncomfortable in today’s world. And there’s no reason to be bored.
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 better lives than we had, even if we had it pretty good. We hate to see our kids suffer.
If you ask any parent, their wish for their child is almost always for them to be happy. Unfortunately, we spend too much of our time trying to make that happen for our kids. We involve them in activities. We get involved in their academics. If our child gets a teacher he doesn’t like, what’s our first instinct? Call the school and get his room changed.
We even get involved in their peer relationships. Indeed, many parents today will not hesitate to call the school if a child has a conflict with a peer. Sometimes this is warranted, especially in a bullying situation. But many times, it’s parents stepping in to solve a problem better left to their child.
These things can be helpful in moderation. And an involved parent is generally a good thing. But as a society, we’ve gone to the extreme. And the increasing number of adult children living at home is the consequence.
Over time, our kids stopped learning to solve problems for themselves. They stopped learning how to entertain themselves. And they look to adults to fix things for them. Parents may help their kids 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. Caretaking means doing your child’s homework for him so he won’t fail. It might mean cleaning your child’s room because it’s easier, and it will be done right if we do it.
While caring for our children is a good, positive thing, understand that when it becomes caretaking, it stunts your child’s growth. Skills he could have learned as a young child or adolescent get delayed into his twenties or thirties. Or maybe never.
Today, young adults struggle to find their way—both emotionally and financially. They’ve entered adulthood ill-equipped to cope with disappointment. If they get turned down for a job, they give up. They haven’t learned persistence, and they haven’t learned to deal with adversity. They can’t manage the day–to–day responsibilities and inevitable conflicts of a marriage.
Many young adults in today’s generation tend to have unreasonable expectations for employers. They wonder what their employer is going to do for them rather than the other way around. And they have little tolerance for the needs of others when those needs conflict with their own. They believe they’re entitled to material things even if they can’t afford them.
Sadly, during childhood and adolescence, the primary coping skill many kids have learned is to go to their parents when there’s a problem. But 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—ask mom and dad for help. Or worse, insist that mom and dad are obligated to help them.
Many of these kids remain at home, on the couch, playing video games. Their parents step in and pay rent and utilities, buy their food, and pay their insurance. This caretaking can go on into their twenties, thirties, and even longer.
Add substance abuse to the mix, and the caretaking mode we go into shifts into high gear. No matter what age our child may be, we feel driven to save them from the risks of drinking or using drugs.
We knew 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. He was her baby, and he remained so forever.
Many of the questions we get from parents mention the struggles of dealing with adult children who exhibit oppositional defiant characteristics, abuse substances, 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.
Although caretaking behavior is borne out of love, an unhealthy caretaking cycle can develop. The child experiences stress, and 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. Help your child foster a sense of self–confidence. And let your child experience discomfort for himself so that he learns he can be uncomfortable and still survive.
In our next article in this series, we’ll look at how to overcome the challenges of helping launch your adult child into the real world—without having to hire an actress to help you!
Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner 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 (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). 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 also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.