Rules, Boundaries, and Older Children: How to Cope With an Adult Child Living at Home


Angry teenage boy staring through a chain link fence

Do you have an adult child living with you? If you’re in constant conflict with an older child over everything from curfews (should they have one or shouldn’t they?), to getting a job, to alcohol use, James Lehman offers advice on how to set reasonable limits and how to coach your child to responsibility and independence.

Parents feel they have to take care of their kids, whether they are 9 or 19 years old. When they’re five, they’re climbing the monkey bars and you’re worried they’re going to break their arm. At eleven they’re starting to play football or baseball and you’re afraid they might get hurt with a piece of equipment. 

“Think of your adult children as guests. How would you let a guest act?”

But as kids get older, they engage in more risky behavior, and “taking care of them” becomes more challenging. At 16, they’re starting to drive, they’re often getting money on their own, and they’re around people with drugs. On the surface, they may seem much more independent and responsible, but often they are simply better able to put their parents off and hide what’s really going on with them.

Thinking Errors and Victim Mentality

Kids between the ages of 17 and 25 still have a lot of thinking errors. Just like you can have a spelling error, and misspell a word, you can have a thinking error in which you misread life’s problems and come out with the wrong solutions.

And when things come out wrong, these kids often view themselves as victims. You’ll hear them saying things like:

“It’s not my fault.”

“I couldn’t help it.”

“I only stayed out an hour late and you want to punish me?”

Masters of Manipulation

Kids this age become much more adept at manipulating their parents by blaming them for being too rigid and strict:

“I’m getting older now. You should trust me more.”

But the fact is, they’re not that much older. Teenage mentality lasts from early adolescence until 22 or 23 years of age. Most of the research shows kids are still using the same parts of their brain at 22 that they were using at 15. Their brain is still developing in their early 20’s. So they are not that much more prepared for adult situations. 

I hear kids say this all the time to their parents:

“You owe me a place to live. You shouldn’t be too rigid.”

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When parents hear this enough, they start to feel guilty for the rules by which they have chosen to live. They begin to think they’re too strict just for trying to implement the rules they’ve always had since their kids were young. Kids are experts at manipulating their parents with guilt.

Related content: Masters of Manipulation: How Kids Control You with Behavior

Establish the Rules of the House with Older Kids

I think parents should have two levels of rules with their older children who are still living at home: (1) core household rules that reflect your values, structure, and moral authority; and (2) rules specifically for older children in the household.

The Core Household Rules

The first rules of your household should reflect your core values, structure, and moral authority. These are the rules that should always apply.

For example, people don’t abuse people in this household. That doesn’t change at 18 or 19. That rule never changes. Also, no drugs and alcohol, especially if you’re underage. That doesn’t change at 18 or 19. That’s the rule. And no stealing and no lying.

I would keep those rules very clear because you don’t want to start having double standards with older kids, especially if you have other younger kids in the home.

The Adult Child Rules

The second level of rules is the one that enables parents to live with young adults. Certainly, young adults should get more responsibility and independence, but they have to earn it. If you’ve got a job, you get more independence.

Should kids be able to stay out all night because they’re over 18? If they’re living in your house, they have to let you know that they’re okay. That may mean calling in if they decide to sleep over at someone’s house. You have a right as a parent to expect this.

Related content: “I’m 18 — You Can’t Tell Me What to Do!” Is Your Young Adult Child Breaking House Rules?

Discuss the Rules

The most important part of having rules with older children is the discussion that establishes those rules. It should be a sit-down discussion. And you should write everything down that you agree to so that everything is clear.

What can you do? What can’t you do? How will we support you in what you can do? What’s going to happen if you do what you’re not supposed to do? What is forbidden? These things should be clearly spelled out.

Everyone in the home should know what the rules are, and it’s important to lay it all out before the child turns 18.

For example, the rule on drinking:

“If you come home drunk, you will not be allowed to live in our house.” 

It can be you’re out of the house for a few days, a few weeks or forever. Just establish the rule, write it down and explain to the child that he is over 18, and this is how we have to live with this issue.

If your kid threatens you or gets violent in response, I recommend that you call the police.

Related content: When to Call the Police on Your Child

Be Supportive, Not Enabling

There’s a thin line between enabling your kids and being supportive of them. I think when someone is 18, if they finish high school, they should be supporting themselves financially. There should be no job too menial that they can’t take it until they find something better.

Many kids don’t give a darn in high school, aren’t ready for a better job, and they resent the fact that they have to work at McDonald’s, 7-11, or some other starting out position. So they avoid doing it and think they’re better than that. This is a thinking error—a complete cognitive distortion that you shouldn’t accept as a parent.

Parents need to say to older kids:

“You made your choices in high school, and now if you want to better yourself, you’re going to have to go to school at night. If you want to better yourself, you’re going to have to start out in a junior college. If we can’t pay for college full time, you’re going to have to work and go to school part-time.”

The sooner your kid gets this reality check, the better—for you and for your kid.

Think of Adult Children as a Guests—Not as Children

If you feel compromised and taken advantage of by an older child, you need to realize this: the child is an adult now. He may not act it, but he is an adult. And he’s living under your roof. And he has to follow your laws.

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I want you to think of your adult children as guests. Not as children. That’s the most important thing to do. They’re done with high school. They are now guests in your home. How would you let a guest act? When would you draw the line with a guest? When would you feel you have to call the police with a guest?

The Guest Room

When my son went to college, one of the biggest shocks he had was when we started to refer to his room as the guest room. I remember him saying: “But that’s my room.”

We said:

“No, that’s the guest room. You can stay there anytime you want, for as long as you want, as long as you live our way.”

We said it with love and kindness, but we wanted him to see his role in a different way. We wanted him to see himself as an adult.

For parents who are very anxious and have a lot of fears about their kids, this sounds like a difficult thing to say. I know that. But it’s really the best thing to say because you need to let these kids know that they have to start to make it on their own.

In effect, you are saying:

“You’ve had 18 years to learn how to make it on your own. Now’s the time to put it into practice. Whatever you’ve chosen not to learn or chosen not to do over those 18 years, you’re going to have to pay a price for that now.”

The bottom line is, sometimes kids have to start out small. There’s no shame in that, and you have to make that very clear. Even if it doesn’t match up with what you had hoped for your child. Many young adult children often have a false sense of entitlement.

Challenge Fantasy Talk

I met many kids in my practice who refused to go to school and could only read and write at a seventh- or eighth-grade level at best. They told me they were going to be video game programmers, basketball players, or rap singers. It was all a fantasy. That’s how they were putting off their anxiety.

Consider the kid who says:

“I’m not making it in school, but I’m gonna be a rap singer. I wrote a few songs tonight.”

That’s the way he deals with his anxiety about the future. What he’s really saying is:

“I’m so scared about the future, I have to make up this fantasy, and then I’m gonna cling to it.”

Then, if you challenge that fantasy and say,

“Wait a minute. There aree 20 million kids out there. What makes you think you can do it?”

The kid says:

“You don’t believe in me. You don’t have any faith in me.”

He turns it right around on you and tries to make you the problem. His lack of studying is not the problem. You not believing his fantasy becomes the problem.

Clarify the Rules

When you have these different currents coming together in a home where parents are living with an older child, it can get very uncomfortable for everyone, if not hostile. The way to keep that hostility at bay is to have clarity beforehand. Get the expectations and the consequences down on paper—literally. Write them down and expect the child to live by them.

Free Downloadable Mutual Living Agreement to Use with Adult Children

Confront Your Fears

I have known many parents who couldn’t get their adult children out of bed. They think that they’re helping their adult children by giving them a roof over their head and not making them be responsible because they’re afraid for their kids.

But what they’re afraid of can only be cured by that kid getting out of bed and doing something for himself. The parent is afraid the child is not going to amount to anything. That he’s not going to find a good job. That he’s not going to make it in school. Or that he’s going to get into trouble socially.

But the thing that addresses those fears is to get him up at eight o’clock in the morning and get him out there looking for a job. Tell him to leave with his lunch and his phone and go look for a job. And don’t come back.

This may sound harsh. You’re pushing someone out into a world that they have to deal with. But you’re not pushing them out of a plane without a parachute. You’re pushing them out into the street without any money. The solution to that problem is getting a job.

Many times parents use their own fears, anxieties, and sense of guilt and remorse to justify not doing what they would do to a guest. Out of fear, they choose not to expect out of their child what they expect out of themselves every day.

Related Content

This article is part 1 of a 3-part series. See below for the links to the other articles in this series.

Part II: Parents’ Top 25 Concerns Addressed

Part III: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?

Empowering Parents Podcast:
Apple, Spotify


James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (19)
  • Sarahann
    I have read the 3 part article in hopes of gaining some insight and reassurance that somethings my husband expects from our children 20 and 18 are acceptable. I won't lie, as their mother I did for them alot and often. Our son decided not to continue schoolMore after highschool and works fulltime and overtime often. He pays his share of rent and his other bills like his car and insurance which he pays to me since he is on my auto policy. He struggles with saving money but plans on moving out when he turns 21. Since we struggle financially his rent actually helps with the household finances so we are not able to put it aside for him regrettably, but he is fine with it. He takes out trash and helps with laundry, occasionally paying for his own since we have to use a laundrymat and he says he needs to get used to it. Our daughter completely different. She decided to do college fulltime and work partime but dropped out after the first semester, it was too hard and she didn't know what she want to go for and no longer has a job, though has applied to one job that can only offer part time and isn't looking to apply anywhere else unless this one falls through. Her car broke down and she has no money saved to fix it. This will become an excuse to not work or we will have to provide her with rides without gas money to places she can walk to but will say it's too dangerous though kids alot younger than her do it. Her free time was spent at her boyfriends or her aunts and doordashing after she was terminated from her steady pt job for calling out for every reason under the sun, babysitting, dealing with rude customers, anxiety, always being sick, and lying by saying there was a death of family or friend. I told her prior to her leaving her steady job if she couldn't pay for her auto insurance I would be canceling it because I can't afford it on my own and she was the one who wanted a car and agreed to pay her own insurance. Now with her car being broke down I feel bad like I have to help her get it fixed though i can't afford it honestly, so she can get a job or continue to make money with doordashing and I pay for insurance so she has means to get to work or make money. Her father has no problem telling her no or to figure it out, or to leave if she can't pay her bills. This causes arguments between him and myself. She has a way about her and comes off as entitled and unaware of how she is acting. She uses her anxiety and depression as a shield to give validity to why she can't do things and constantly tells me she isn't strong enough. She acts tough around others though and it frustrates me because I worked fulltime, went to school fulltime, and was always there for both of the kids. I sacrificed other things like hanging out with my sisters and their families and my friends to do what I had to do. I don't know how to respond to her when she says these things, when I should step in, or how to support her? I feel like I failed as a parent by always being there to do everything for her. With a world of information at her fingertips she can't seem to use it for anything other than texting or facetiming her boyfriend. Any advice? I did enjoy the articles and they did help me feel more at ease but others in my life strongly disagree and feel that you should always help your kids 100%. They say I chose to be a parent they didn't choose to be born they are your responsibility for life.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Thank for reaching out. Your distress is shared by many. The transition from minor to adult can be a tough one for both parents and adult children. Something to keep in mind is that once your child becomes an adult, you are no longer responsible for supporting them. This is true whether they are able to support themselves or not. We recommend developing a living agreement that clearly outlines what the expectations are if they want to continue living at home after the age of 18. You can find that here:

      We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community and wish you and your family all the best moving forward. Take care.

  • Tj
    The information is good however This advice on what to say is not great imo. I totally agree that you have to take a more tough Love approach, but that can be done while still acknowledging the adult child’s feelings. Telling them “Wait a minute. There aree 20 million kidsMore out there. What makes you think you can do it?” Is not a healthy way to get the message across. Why wouldn’t the parent acknowledge that the child has this dream, and that a lot of work comes to reaching this dream rather than overnight success. Part of that work includes working anywhere to earn money to keep themselves afloat while pursuing this “fantastical” dream. Don’t just assume it’s trash. Treat the dream as a reality. Because if they want to chase this dream or if it’s an anxiety soother, the reality is they still have to put in TONS of work. In fact They have to work even harder than if they want a basic 9-5 because it’s so rare to achieve. Pointing this out and enforcing it either pushes the child to work harder for this goal if it’s real, or if it really is just to make them feel better and they now are being pushed to work hard for it, they’ll begin to feel less stressed at the idea of a regular job that doesn’t require so much work. I think this gets the same message across without suggesting you have no faith in them.
  • Bladley

    After a divorce my 2 kids and I were forced to sell our home and rent.

    My children were 21 and 25 at the time and are now 23 and 26. During COVID with part time jobs and I was full time, I paid the majority of all living expenses. The 2 kids paid $400 per month each only which was very difficult every month to get them to pay.

    During this time I gave them plenty of space probably too much with very few rules.

    I had met my new before this move to the rental and 14 months ago I moved in to a new home with her. As I wanted my 2 kids to get a great start, we offered up a downstairs section of the new house but we quickly realised this wouldn’t work as their was push back on rules and a living expenses payment each of $400 as per the rental.

    So I agreed to keep the rental going for 12 months paying the same majority of the living expenses so they could save money over this time.

    I made it clear this would stop after 12 months and they would take it over.

    During this 12 months both made purchases that they didn’t need to and saved little.

    Now out of the rental and not paying their living expenses, they have said some terrible things and our relationship has broken down.

    This is very difficult for me as a dad as I have done everything I can to be a supportive dad.

    I always try to catch up and I get nothing back.

    My daughter has a huge victim mentality and both have an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

    I have tried to reach out but it is difficult.

    I’m not sure where to go from here as I feel I have done the best I can for them and when I discussed this with my son last, the responses were just inconsistent with fact and they could only see their side.

    There is this brick wall of stubbornness and selfishness that I just can’t break through.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Bladley
      Looking forward to some help on this one as it’s really breaking my heart.
      • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

        I can understand your distress. We've heard from many parents of adult children who have shared similar stories of heart break on the break down of their relationships. I encourage you to see what types of local supports may be available to help you and your family. If you are in the US or Canada, the 211 National Helpline would be able to give you information on services and support in your area. The 211 National Helpline is a referral service available 24 hours a day, nationwide. They can give you information on the types of support services available in your area such as counselors, therapists, support groups/kinship services as well as various other resources. You can reach the Helpline by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto ( in Canada.)

        We appreciate you reaching out and wish you all the best moving forward.

  • Jamie patrick
    Hi Denise,may i ask when you stated that "18 year olds who have finished high school should provide themselves financially" do you mean by not paying for their college and rent or do you mean as in material goods such as clothes and electronics. I still send my 18 yearMore old daughter a food packet every week and im still thinking if she should buy her own groceries or not. I want her to focus in school so she can do a second year. Thx xxx
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Hi, Hania. Thank you for reaching out. I'm sure your daughter appreciates the care packages you send her. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide if that's something you wish to continue when she becomes an adult. There's really no right or wrong answer here. Take care.
  • Bella

    I bought an extra house for my college age twin daughters and 2 vehicles, because our small town does not have a university. I pay for everything. They were given 5 simple rules to follow: 1. Get good grades 2. Get a PT job to help out with expenses 3. Keep the house clean 4. Take out the garbage 5. Go to church on Sunday

    One of the twins follows through with most except she is very messy. Her sister isn't as messy but doesn't follow through with anything and refuses to clean the kitchen or bathroom because she says it's not her mess and her sister who works 36 hours apparently is the one who makes everything messy. I don't know what to do. Help

  • Frustrating Adult Child

    We have a 20yo son, he is our 2nd child. He lives at home and is very disrespectful towards us and our house. We charge our adult children minimal board of $50 per week, we constantly have to nag him to pay it, we are lucky enough not to need the money, but still think it is good for them to know that there is a never free place to live and as adults should be contributing atleast a little bit towards the running of the house.

    He keeps his room in a disgusting state, never washes his clothes, so dirty clothes all over his room, dirty dishes and leftovers, takeaway rubbish everywhere, the room stinks. Our house is only 3 years old, so we end up cleaning it ourselves, not for him, but to try and keep the carpet etc from being ruined.

    When he does talk to us, at best we get a grunt, he never tells us if he is home for dinner.

    I personally think it is time he moved out and lived in the real world to grow up some, my husband is concerned by telling him to move out, we may ruin any chance of having a good relationship with him in the future.

    I feel like we are being used by him, cheap place to stay, good food, little responsibility and as little interaction with us as he can, but is not prepared to treat us with any decency and I really don't want to be used in that way.

    We have tried a household/family agreement etc, with no luck, he says all the right things at the right times, but does not follow through and because he interacts so little with us, when we do see him, we are always nagging him to clean up, pay board etc etc, so he says thats why he doesnt talk to us. So frustrating.

    I would love some advice on what we should do moving forward??

    • Twyla
      We had the same situation with our adult daughter. Her room was messy.She didn't want to contribute to the household. She started staying up all night and sleeping during the day,so we couldn't get anything done. In the end, we kicked her out. What is so wonderful about having children????
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      We hear from many parents of adult children with similar issues, so you are not alone in your frustration. We would recommend developing a living agreement with your adult children that outlines what expectations you have for them while they are living in your home. You can find information on developing a living agreement and an example template for one in this article:

      We appreciate you reaching out and wish you all the bets moving forward. Take care.

  • A mom
    What do you do when one parent feels this way and one doesn't. When you constantly hear, I'm 18 now and can do what I want. When you watch bad choices being made. What then?
  • Sand
    What do you do if you have a grown son and his girlfriend living with you they don’t pay rent are pay anything??And you asked me to pick you something up from the store and they tell you they have to use the money to do it
  • Meleimers
    Our 19-year-old son has just gotten himself a 16-year-old girlfriend. We havent met her or her family yet. He lives at home and keeps disobeying and lying. We are concerned that this kind of selfish irresponsibility will be a liability with a minor girlfriend. He isMore working but can't afford to move out, and,really, I would rather keep him a bit longer as we adopted him at 13 so he is a little less mature than he could be. Any suggestions on how to navigate the situation? He has had the girlfriend 2 weeks and has been lying almost daily about his work schedule to cover up their time together.
  • Dawn

    My 26 year old son is schizophrenic. Was going thru problems with him since 6 months after elementary started. At 16 he was admitted to children's hospital for evaluation. At that time no diagnosis specifically was given. But medication seemed to work. He never wanted to take the meds. I have helped him to get into programs to help him help himself. He always wants to live with me and drive me crazy and do what he want to do. I put him out, take him back in when he is doing what he is suppose to do. But he keeps making the same wrong decisions. And he has a daughter that is 5 that I take care of. The mother has mental issues as well but has not been diagnosed. She is currently living in a homeless shelter with her other daughter, not my grand daughter. I have had to call the police on my son a few times. I now have a restraining order on him because he likes to break into my house and my car. He steals money and anything of value like a crack head. He stole money from his daughters piggy bank.

    I have continually try to help him. He is a black Youngman and the law is not on his side. And the rules are different for black people. Things have not been bad for him because I have been so involved.

    Now I have to do the very thing I don't want to do. Let him be. Let life consequences happen. And that terrifies me because he is a black Youngman. And I understand the judgment for him is going to be on the bottom end of it all.

    So, I pray a lot and request guidance interruption from my ancestors.

    I can't do anymore

  • Treat them like adults

    My son is 19 and over the last two years has been smoking a lot of weed and taking pills. He has resented me for holding him accountable and grounding him. All hell broke loose his senior year. He started dating a terrible girl who controls him, stopped doing any school work and got fired from 3 jobs and quit another in a span of 10 months.

    He was horribly disrespectful to my wife and myself, swearing at, punching closet doors, etc. Last February, I said, "you keep telling me you're 18 and are an adult, you're out." After a month, he swore he would change and things were kind of peaceful? until graduation. He barely passed and was going to go to community college.

    This fall, he flunked all 4 of his classes, trashed the car we gave him to commute in. We found marijuana and bongs in the car in December, and took everything away.

    He has anger management issues and tried to beat up his 16 year old brother on Christmas Eve. He was arrested for domestic assault and had to go to court. The judge advocate said to keep your nose clean, don't smoke pot and see a therapist and we won't charge you.

    Well, since then, I caught him vaping in the house (which is against the rules) and he swore at me. He's been out for 4 weeks and needs to go to court tomorrow. He blew off the therapist and blames us for "throwing him out." I've reluctantly shut his phone off and he's completely on his own. My wife texted him to remind him about the date. I called him and he answered and said if you don't reply back to Mom, why should I pay for a phone bill? It's only $20 a month, but it's the principle. He hung up on me after telling me "You threw me out."

    Making him be an adult is the best thing we can do. We know it's the right thing. My problem is I want things to change, but know we're in for the long haul. I don't feel guilt. I just ask myself, "why is he like this?"

    Estrangement is awful, but sometimes necessary. I would tell everyone, be strong and THROW THEM OUT, if you have to.

  • Always a mom

    I have 3 kids. My middle son not only exhibited ADD, but also ODD. A very, very, smart kid, who would not apply himself. He made it into a 4 year university, but didn't finish in 4 years. That was the amount of schooling that we offered to pay for. We paid for tuition, room and board for those 4 years, but he had to have a job for spending money. So when the 4 years were up, he was left to his own decisions (and money) as to what to do next. As a result, after college, he faced the reality of supporting himself. After a few years of working entry level jobs, he's considering going back to trade school. He will have to find the money to do it, but at least, at 25, he's realized the benefit of an education. We continue to give him encouragement and advice, but he's on his own now.

    All I can say is that setting limits, and standing by them, does work. But it's painful. Will he be as financially successful as his siblings? I don't know. In the end, the school of hard knocks may be a better teacher than all his university courses. We'll see. But he's happier, and has a better sense of self worth succeeding at the job he got for himself than all the advantages that we tried to push on him to fit our version of success. And our relationship with him is better than it has been for years.

    Good luck to all of you!

  • Annie60
    While I agree with everything above, what do you do with an 18 year old who has never had respect for his parents and won’t leave his room except to attend two classes at community college. He quit his job after 1 1/2 months. His sleep has gotten so offMore that he sleeps during the day after staying up watching videos all night. His has tried all the over the counter sleep aids which haven’t helped since he can’t turn off his thoughts. No matter what we suggest to help, getting outside his room, going outside, finding another job, he can’t or won’t put any effort to change. He was treated for depression but stopped therapy and taking meds because they didn’t help. He is looking for a life changing event as he thinks this will radically change his life. He wants our permission to drink or smoke pot as he thinks that will help. We tell him frequently that this is not going to help but he keeps pressing. We will never allow this as long as it’s illegal. He doesn’t have any friends has been isolated most of his young life so my heart breaks at the same time a wall goes up because of his disrespect. He is scheduled to start at a 4yr college in a few months and I am fearful that he will fall apart or get into trouble. He only wants to go because it will get him out of our house as he doesn’t care about academics. How do we get him back on track when he doesn’t seem to want to do anything?
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