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Ground Rules for Living with an Adult Child (plus Free Living Agreement)

By Megan Devine, LCPC

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 and quiet of a child-free home is short lived, if it even happens at all. At Empowering Parents, we hear from so many parents whose children either never left home or returned after a brief experiment with the adult world. And we’ve talked quite a bit about the challenges of living with adult children. Kim and Marney recently wrote about mutual living agreements, and how clarifying rules and expectations can make things much more peaceful in the multi-generational home.

While it may be currently true that your adult child is not able to live independently, you can still hold him or her accountable for following basic ground rules.

But, the truth is that it’s really hard 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, you’re also worried about their future. What kind of life will they have? How will they make it out there? What if they never find a good job?

Related: Free Downloadable Mutual Living Agreement to Use with Adult Children

As normal as these fears are—after all, no matter how old they are, they’re always your child—the tough truth is that adult children need to take responsibility for their own future at some point. They need to find ways to build an independent, successful life outside of your home. And believe it or not, 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, it can feel a little awkward to broach the subject. And you might have some concerns about why such an agreement wouldn’t work for your family.

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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 Empowering Parents’ readers have sent us. See if you recognize yourself in any of these situations.

  • “Anytime I try to enforce something, my child responds with: ‘I’m an adult. You can’t tell me what to do.'” Yes, your child may be an adult, and therefore legally able to make his own decisions, but your home is your home. You have the right to enforce the rules of your home. If you’re not sure where his rights end and yours begin, a good guideline to follow is: “Would I allow a houseguest to treat me this way?”
  • “I can tell my child to find a job, or follow the rules, or get to class all day long, but she doesn’t listen. You’d think she’d move out just to get me off her back, but she doesn’t seem to care how much I pester her.” One reason your child won’t move out or find a job is because the current situation is working 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 her needs being met, but change can be scary; and we tend to avoid scary things. The discomfort of having mom or dad on her all the time is better than the discomfort of moving out into the world. Until staying at home is more uncomfortable than learning to live independently, it’s unlikely your child will 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 that she may be trying to put off facing those scary, big steps towards independence as long as possible.
  • “My child is depressed (or has anxiety issues, etc.). I can’t just put him out on the street; he’s not capable of living alone.” While it may be currently true that your child is not able to live independently, you can still hold him accountable for following basic ground 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 poor behavior just because your child has depression or anxiety. As James Lehman tells us over and over again in The Total Transformation Program, there’s no excuse for abuse. That includes depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue.
  • “My adult child isn’t the problem, but his children are. I can’t enforce my house rules on my grandchildren, and my son won’t do it either.” With more adult children moving back home due to financial or medical reasons, 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 adult child is unwilling to enforce your rules with his children, please sit down and talk this through; it will not get better on its own. Discuss with your child your rules and 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.” See if you can 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 changes in the future.
  • “I’d be happy to enforce rules and consequences, but my spouse would let our adult child live here forever; so there’s no point in having a living agreement.” If you and your partner aren’t on the same page, begin by finding one or two things you both can agree on. Do you both agree that your adult child has to clean up after himself? Do you both agree that no drugs or alcohol be used 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 major 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.
  • “It’s just not easy out there anymore. Most people I know are unemployed or struggling. What chance does my kid have?” Look, we all know the world is a very different place from even just ten years ago when James Lehman first started addressing issues around boundaries and older children. The job market has dramatically changed, and you might really feel for your child, trying to start her life in such a tough environment. But just because it’s tough, it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try. For example, require that she make positive steps towards employment or education, such as submitting applications or scheduling informational interviews. Or require her to do volunteer work if finding a paying job proves difficult. The point is to require positive effort rather than focusing on a final outcome, because without effort, the situation will not change. As James writes, wishing things were different does not change behavior, and it won’t help your child find a job or build a life.

So, if you love the idea of a mutual living agreement, but just 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. Before discussing it, spend some time finding and understanding your concerns and fears. Acknowledge how these worries have perhaps contributed to a feeling of helplessness, of being defeated before you’ve even begun.  Remember that the way to transform helplessness is through action: repeated, focused action towards the life you want for yourself and for your adult child. See if you can find something that seems doable, even something small, and take positive action in that direction.

Related: 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.

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About Megan Devine, LCPC

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, 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.

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