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.

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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.”

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.

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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: Is It Time 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.

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?


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.

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