If you, like many parents, have an adult child living at home with you, you’re not alone. There’s an epidemic of young adults in our society who are struggling to get off the ground. In many families, this works out fine—the adult child is responsible and contributes to the household while they set themselves up to live independently.
But if your adult child has moved home—or never left—and expects you to take care of their needs, you’ve probably started to feel resentful and frustrated.
“An adult child can actually make a career out of earning income from his parents by working the emotional system.”
In part 2 of this series on adult children, Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner explain why some kids choose to stay home instead of launching into the world. According to Kim and Marney:
“We didn’t write this series on young adult kids in order to judge parents. Just because your child may not have launched successfully yet, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. And it doesn’t mean they’ll be at home forever. There’s hope.”
Kim and Marney are experts in parenting, child behavior problems, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), and substance abuse. They have worked with families for decades to help them resolve the most difficult child behavior problems. They are also the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline™ and Life Over the Influence™, two of the parenting programs available from EmpoweringParents.com.
In part 1 of this series, we looked at how society has changed its views and approaches to parenting. Over the past few generations, our culture has increasingly encouraged parents to do things for their children that their kids should be doing for themselves. In other words, society has moved from caring for our children to caretaking. As a result, many parents find themselves solving problems for their children long into adulthood.
How did this happen? In today’s world, children are usually born out of emotional wants or needs. Many couples want to share the bond of having a child and the joy they picture of becoming a family. Moreover, married couples with strong spiritual or religious beliefs may see having a child as part of God’s plan or as sharing a spiritual experience.
Sometimes, teens or young adults believe that having a child is a rite of passage into adulthood. In addition, there’s often the belief that a child will love us unconditionally. And for those who’ve never had that kind of love, a child is a perfect opportunity to experience it. Sure, there are still accidental pregnancies. But more often than not, the choice to become a parent is primarily based on emotion.
If you think about it, there’s nothing logical about having children. Yes, they can bring great joy, but they can also bring great pain and frustration. Children are messy, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise, and often require parents to make great sacrifices. So if the decision to have children isn’t logical, it must be emotional. And since we have children out of emotion, we tend to parent out of emotion as well.
As parents, we want our children to be happy, confident, and secure. We hate to see them suffer, and we will do anything we can to take that pain away. Indeed, we would rather go through something painful ourselves than watch our children experience it.
Many of us remember our own childhood pain as we watch our children struggle to find their way in this world. We empathize with our son when he comes home crying because no one would play with him at recess. We know his pain when other kids make fun of him or call him names, and his teacher just doesn’t seem to like him. We feel anger when our daughter is the victim of rumors spread by the “mean girls” in her middle school. And when she sobs for weeks because her boyfriend broke up with her, it’s heartbreaking for us too.
As their child grows, parents start to develop certain emotional buttons. When pressed, these buttons tend to move us into caretaking mode. These vulnerabilities aren’t right or wrong. They’re just emotions that we tend to feel strongly regarding our child.
For example, if you find yourself worrying about your child quite a bit, you likely have a strong emotional fear button. You enter caretaking mode from fear of anything negative happening to your child. You fear that your child will fail in school. You fear your child will abuse substances or engage in other dangerous activities. Perhaps you fear your child will be hurt by others, either emotionally or physically. And, you might even fear your child will hurt someone else. To allay this fear, we tend to take too much care of our children.
Other common emotional buttons kids tend to push are related to hope (as in hoping our child will handle things better next time), exhaustion (as in becoming so exhausted that you give up), guilt (as in blaming yourself for your child’s problems), sympathy (as in feeling sorry for your child), and intimidation (as feeling physically threatened by your child).
Over time, children learn what our emotional buttons are and how to work them in certain situations. Most of us have more than one emotional button that our children learn to push. Indeed, there are lots of these buttons, and if we don’t become aware of which ones affect us, our children will continue to push them well into adulthood.
Many adult children who have difficulty launching have learned to rely on one or both parents as their source of financial support. The adult child still needs money for haircuts, clothes, a car, insurance, medical services, a roof over their head, and food to eat. They’ll also want cigarettes, make-up, movies, games, phones, and internet service.
Where does the money come from if they don’t have a job? It comes from us, The First National Parent Bank and Trust. Or, what we like to call the Parent ATM.
Getting parents to provide money for these things becomes that adult child’s full-time job. An adult child can make a career out of earning income from his parents by pushing their emotional buttons.
You can think of these emotional buttons as the PIN to the Parent ATM. Push the right buttons, and the cash starts flowing. These kids will visit the Parent ATM frequently, using whatever emotional PIN is able to spit money out of the cash slot.
Slug is 32 years old. He’s never held a job for more than a few months. He’s broken multiple leases, which his parents had to pay for as co-signers. Slug has been living at home for the past few years because he can’t find a job. Part of the problem is that he won’t leave the house to put in any job applications. He looks online sometimes but never follows through by calling a potential employer.
He sleeps until the early afternoon, lays on the couch, eats his parents’ food, and smokes cigarettes and marijuana all day. Slug gets his Parent ATM to spit out money by using the Hope PIN. He says he needs gas money to get to a job interview that never materializes into employment. He always has an opportunity that’s about to pan out—a get-rich-quick scheme that never seems to work. Yet he continues to preach hope to his parents: he’ll be independent if they keep helping him a little longer.
When the Hope PIN stops working, Slug starts pushing all the buttons on the Parent ATM, eventually finding success with the Exhaustion PIN. He simply refuses to do anything until his parents are tired and frustrated enough to give Slug what he wants rather than argue anymore.
Clueless is a 24-year-old adult child living with his parents. He’s also a connoisseur of colleges. He has been to four different universities in the past six years but is still only a sophomore because he never completes his courses.
Clueless doesn’t know what he wants to do in life except for smoking marijuana, playing video games, and texting his friends. So far, his parents have shelled out thousands of dollars supporting his lifestyle.
When they try to shut down the Parent ATM, Clueless uses the Fear PIN. He threatens to sell drugs for a living or go live off the land if his parents stop supporting him. Or maybe he’ll crash his car into a tree to end his life. When his parents offer to take him to a therapist, he declines because he doesn’t have a problem—the world does. Why should he have to work at a job every day if he doesn’t love it?
Sometimes, he finds his Fear PIN isn’t working, so he uses the Hero PIN, which makes his parents feel like his savior. He tells his parents how much he appreciates all the support they give, how much he wants to be like them, and how badly he feels that he’s let them down. He convinces his parents that their continued help will soon enable him to succeed. The problem is, Clueless isn’t a bird who desires to soar above the clouds. In fact, he has no intention of ever leaving the nest.
Carefree is a 20-year-old adult child who lives with her mother, along with her three-year-old baby. Carefree still acts like a teenager. She leaves her baby at home with her mother while she goes out with friends. Sometimes she parties and stays out all night. She has a part-time job but never seems to have enough money to pay for bills. She does, however, have money for clothes, cigarettes, and alcohol.
Her mother pays for all her haircuts, daycare, the car she drives, and the insurance. When Carefree’s mother tries to set boundaries or get her to take responsibility for her own life, Carefree uses the Guilt PIN. She reminds her mother how hard and lonely she had it growing up in a single-parent home, and how she never got to be a teenager because she had to care for her younger siblings.
When the Guilt PIN doesn’t work, she uses the Fear PIN. Carefree suggests that she should just give her baby up for adoption since she can’t take care of her. Or, better yet, she suggests letting her ex-boyfriend—the father—have custody. Carefree’s mother, who adores the baby, gives in for fear of what could happen to her grandchild.
Meet Clinger. Clinger never did well in school, never had many friends, and, in general, just doesn’t know how to cope and make it in life. He’s not particularly difficult to live with. He’s just extremely dependent at the age of 22.
Clinger’s parents respond to the Sympathy PIN because they believe Clinger doesn’t have the intellect or ability to live independently. His parents are terrified of what would happen to Clinger in the real world, which also engages their Fear PIN.
Clinger, unlike the others we’ve described, is so dependent that he doesn’t even really know how to work the Parent ATM. Instead, his parents, out of symathy, work it for him.
Meet TNT. TNT is in his twenties and has never moved out of his parents’ home. As an oppositional and defiant teenager, TNT attacks his parents every day with the Intimidation PIN. He yells, breaks things, raises his fist, and is verbally abusive. His parents have had to call the police a few times, but because he never actually crossed the line into violence, no charges were ever filed.
Even though TNT is an adult, he uses anger and intimidation to get his parents to do what he wants. His parents walk on eggshells around him in their own home and worry that TNT will one day become violent with them. As a result, they’re afraid to stop supporting him financially or ask him to leave.
You are not alone. Almost all of us go into parenting with good intentions. We don’t mean to become caretakers for our children, and neither did the parents above. It may surprise some parents, but the adult children described above really do exist, and more and more join their ranks each day. What do these adult children all have in common? They are more comfortable relying on their parents than taking responsibility for themselves.
These parents aren’t terrible, and they’re not alone. They love their children. Unfortunately, caretaking behavior sneaks up on us over time. Emotional buttons can become so strong that some parents are held hostage by feelings of fear, exhaustion, or guilt. Many parents feel conflicting emotions. They feel anger and frustration at an adult child’s entitlement, but they fear what will happen if that child is cut off financially. It can leave anyone in this situation feeling paralyzed.
Parents need to recognize which emotional buttons their adult child is pushing and then make changes to begin a healthy separation from that child. It’s a process, and it can take some time. Our next article covers the steps parents can take to get past these emotions, set boundaries with their adult child, and make them uncomfortable enough in your home to become more independent. Remember, they can still launch—they just haven’t launched yet.
In our next article on Adult Children Living at Home, we’ll give you practical, concrete tips on how to help your child launch.
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.