You put in the work: you raised your child, got them through school, and prepared them as best you could for living on their own as an adult. You were looking forward to having the house to yourselves again—finally, a little peace and quiet.
For many parents, the peace of a child-free home is short-lived, if it even happens at all. At Empowering Parents, we hear from many parents whose children either never left home or returned after a brief experiment with the adult world.
And we’ve written quite a bit about the challenges of living with adult children, including an Empowering Parents article about mutual living agreements and how clarifying rules and expectations can make things much more peaceful in the multi-generational home.
But, the truth is that it’s tough to transition from parenting a child to parenting an adult. The parameters have shifted from homework and curfew to new issues, running the gamut from how to handle overnight guests to finding a job. Not only are the logistics tricky, but you’re also worried about their future. What kind of life will they have? How will they make it on their own? What if they never find a good job?
As normal as these fears are—after all, no matter how old they are, they’re always your child—the truth is that adult children need to take responsibility for their future at some point. They need to find ways to build an independent, successful life outside of your home. A mutual living agreement can help make that happen.
But you know what? Most parents don’t have a mutual living agreement with their adult children, even though they think it’s a great idea. Let’s face it, the subject is awkward to bring up. And to be sure, you might have some concerns about why such an agreement wouldn’t work for your family.
So, let’s look at some of the most common concerns parents have when considering a mutual living agreement. We’ve taken these examples from the many comments the readers of Empowering Parents have sent us. See if you recognize yourself in any of these situations.
Yes, your child may be an adult and therefore legally able to make their own decisions. But your home is your home, and you have the right to enforce the rules of your home. If you’re not sure where their rights end and yours begin, an excellent guideline to follow is: “Would I allow a house guest to treat me this way?” In other words, it may be helpful to start thinking of your adult child as a house guest rather than family.
One reason your child won’t move out or find a job is that the current situation works for her: she has room and board, internet access, maybe a car.
And even though she complains about living with you, she still takes no action. Why? Because not only are all her needs being met, but the alternative—struggling to make it on her own—is uncomfortable and scary.
Indeed, being hassled by mom and dad is easier than the discomfort of moving out into the real world. That’s why your child stays and doesn’t take any concrete actions towards changing the situation. I’m not saying you should purposely make the situation uncomfortable for your child, just that it helps to understand why they’re avoiding taking those scary steps towards independence.
While it may be true that your child currently cannot live independently, you can still hold him accountable for following basic house rules. You can even help him learn skills to manage or improve his emotional or mental state by requiring therapy or other skill-building activities as part of your living agreement.
And you don’t have to put up with abusive behavior just because your child has depression or anxiety. As James Lehman tells us in The Total Transformation Program, “there’s no excuse for abuse.” That includes depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue.
With more and more adult children moving back home, parents are faced not just with their own children, but their grandchildren too.
Even if you love having your grandchildren around, enforcing house rules can feel quite complicated. You don’t want to undermine your child’s parental authority, but your child has very different ways of enforcing—or not enforcing—the house rules.
Remember, you have the right to a calm and peaceful household. If your child is unwilling to enforce your rules with her children, talk with her about it. Discuss your expectations for the grandchildren’s behavior while living at your house.
It helps to acknowledge that you have different views so that it doesn’t become an argument about who is right. To that end, try to find a couple of behaviors that you agree on, such as no name-calling or cleaning up the common areas of the house. Get in the habit of working together on these one or two issues. That can be the start of more agreements and positive changes in the future.
If you and your partner aren’t on the same page, begin by finding one or two things you can agree on. Do you both agree your adult child should clean up after himself? That he shouldn’t use drugs or alcohol in your home?
If your partner is unwilling to tell your child that they must permanently move out, can you agree ahead of time on what the consequences will be if your child breaks a house rule?
By starting on common ground, even a tiny scrap of common ground, you and your partner can begin to present a united front to your adult child.
Look, we all know life is hard, and it’s painful watching our kids struggle. But just because it’s tough, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.
For example, require that they take positive steps towards employment or education, such as submitting applications or scheduling informational interviews. Or require them to do volunteer work if finding a paying job proves difficult.
The point is to require consistent actions rather than focusing on a final outcome because the situation will not change without action. Wishing things were different does not change anything, but actions do. Actions change behavior and lead to lasting, positive change.
So, if you love the idea of a mutual living agreement but aren’t sure if it will make a difference, we at Empowering Parents encourage you to take one small step at a time.
Start by opening the Living Agreement for Adult Children. Take some time to read through it. Examine your concerns and fears. Acknowledge any feelings of helplessness, of being defeated before you’ve even begun—these are normal feelings.
Then, remember that the way to transform helplessness is through action: repeated, focused effort towards the life you want for yourself and your adult child. See if you can find something that seems doable, even something small, and take positive action in that direction.
Related content: Failure to Launch: Six Steps to Help Your Adult Child Move Out
While it’s true that you won’t be able to solve all of your family’s challenges with this one document, don’t give up on your dream of a more peaceful, orderly home. Don’t give up on encouraging your adult child to have a meaningful, productive life. You can do this, and we’re here to help.
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.