The phenomenon of adult children living at home and dependent on their parents has become a national problem. Indeed, more and more kids are living at home with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. And, most concerning, more and more of those kids are idle and going nowhere fast.
Unfortunately, today’s kids don’t like making sacrifices and parents don’t like making their kids make sacrifices. And the sad irony of this situation is that the misery of being an unmotivated adult child is far worse than the misery of getting a job and learning to live independently. In the end, we need to teach our kids that accepting life’s responsibilities is much easier than trying to avoid them.
What I will do here (and what I believe will be helpful for most readers) is to discuss several of the important issues that come up when dealing with an adult child.
The parents we work with at Empowering Parents often report a tremendous amount of verbal abuse, cursing, and property destruction by their adult children. Indeed, these kids are often angry and resentful.
Related content: Is Your Defiant Child Damaging or Destroying Your Home?
This may sound harsh, but I think it’s amazing how people will make excuses for older kids who exhibit that type of behavior. It’s perhaps understandable that parents make excuses for younger kids who are abusive, hoping they’ll grow out of it. But a 20 year-old who destroys your property? There’s just no excuse for that.
I really think once kids are adolescents and adults, their behavior patterns are very set. As a result, you need to know that adult children won’t take the time and trouble to learn new behavior patterns unless they’re forced to.
Adult children who use verbal abuse, aggression, and destruction of property to deal with their parents are basically using intimidation and force to solve complex problems. When you’re 18, 19, or 20 and all the things your parents told you are coming true—that you’re not prepared for the work force, that you should have studied harder, that you need to push yourself—it is easy to get resentful and blame and intimidate your parents.
Your child will blame and intimidate you because that’s easier at that moment than getting a job and working. That’s easier than learning how to live with a roommate because you can’t afford your own apartment and a car at the same time.
One thing we know about human beings is that they will, by their nature, take the easy way out. In this case, the easy way out is being oppressive to your parents so that you don’t feel any stress.
But don’t get me wrong, I think that parents also have to take some of the responsibility for this behavior. In particular, I think that too many parents do everything they can to ensure that their kids don’t feel discomfort because they believe that discomfort is a bad thing.
I know this because I’ve dealt with so many of these parents. They fight with the schools over their child’s grades and conduct. They protect their kids from consequences. In many cases, they let things slide that they know are wrong. They make excuses for their kids. And what they end up with is a kid who is not prepared to deal with the injustice, stress, and discomfort of life.
Making a transition from adolescence to adulthood is very stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It involves solving some very complex problems about how you’re going to live, where you’re going to live, who you’re going to live with, and what you’re going to do with your life.
Although many kids solve those problems in a non-destructive way, there is a sub-group of kids who still make it their parent’s problem and society’s problem and everybody else’s problem. If you’re dealing with one of these adult children, it will take all the strength and commitment you can muster to force this child to become independent.
I’m not saying that you have to throw your kids out of the house—I’m not saying that at all. But I am saying that your kids won’t change until you do something drastic. And making them leave the home is one of those things that may have to be done.
As a parent, I understand the difficulty, fear, and anxiety of sending your child out into the world. But, also as a parent, I know that the best personality characteristic that you can give a child is independence. And the best knowledge you can give them is how to solve life’s problems.
But if they’re still at home cursing at you, abusing you, not getting a job, sleeping until noon, and playing video games all day, then they are not independent and they are not solving their problems.
There’s no gray area here. Therefore, parents have to be very strong in demanding that their kids start to face their situation in life before it gets worse.
Let’s be clear: from an adult child’s point of view, this seems like a great life. Just think about it, somebody’s paying the rent, there’s food in the refrigerator, they get to party with their friends, and they don’t have to be anywhere at any time. They get to avoid all stress, and if their parents give them a hard time, they bully them. Nice life.
If parents are willing to live that way, you don’t have to read any more of my articles. You’ve found the solution that works for you. But if you’re determined not to live that way, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have a lot of choices. You need to make a drastic change.
Here is my recommendation on what that drastic change looks like. Number one, you set some simple structure and some rules for your child. Rules like:
Be very specific. Tell your child:
“I want you to put in three applications a day.”
“I want you making three follow-up phone calls a day.”
“And if you verbally abuse me, the consequence is that you’re out of my house for 24 hours.”
And if they are kicked out of the house for 24 hours, you don’t care where they go. Let them go to their aunt’s house or their friend’s house. Let them figure out where they’ll stay. Just enforce the consequence that they’re out of your house for 24 hours.
To be clear, kicking your child out of the house for 24 hours is a consequence. It’s not preparation for life. If they’re verbally abusive a second time or destroy property, they’re out of the house for three days or a week. You don’t care where they go. All that matters is that you apply a real consequence, and do so consistently.
They’ll tell you they’re partying at their friend’s house. Let them party. All you know is that they can’t stay in your house.
This is the consequence for disrespecting your home and your values. This is not a preparation for independence. This is used strictly to get some control in your house.
If you have adult children who are verbally abusing you and breaking things, your house is not in your control. And if your house is not in your control, it might as well not be your house.
Use the police if you need to. Put his bags out on the sidewalk, call the cops, and say:
“He doesn’t live here anymore.”
Don’t play games or you’re not going to own your own home. I’ve worked with plenty of parents who had to do this. They were all afraid to do it. I understood that. They got into their situation because they were mortally afraid their kid would face discomfort—or worse, because they were afraid their kid would hurt them. But when all other efforts failed, they had to call the cops to get the kid to change.
Related content: Is It Time to Call the Police on Your Child?
Kids learn best when parents use effective parenting roles such as teaching, problem solving, and limit setting. In contrast, parents who are martyrs and excuse-makers wind up with children who won’t or don’t know how to respond to the demands of adult life. And nothing changes if nothing changes. For your sake and the sake of your child, demand change now.
Let me be straight with you and offer you some empowerment. You’ve raised this kid. You’ve invested everything in him, and now you have to tiptoe around the house? That is unacceptable. To the parents who are willing to live this way, I tip my hat to you. But I personally could not live like that, and I’m not willing to.
Once you’ve established that they can’t abuse, intimidate, and control you with their behaviors, then you have to help them prepare themselves for adulthood, even though they’re already young adults.
First, you have to force them to find work, no matter how menial they think that work is. The way that you force them is to establish a time when they get up in the morning. Then they go out and they put in job applications.
On weeknights, they can’t stay out past a certain time. They have to live as if they have a job. If they’re not willing to do that, you fall back on the consequence structure that I outlined for you earlier.
Once they get a job, they have to pay room and board—not to add to the money of the household, but so you can put it away and have enough money for them to talk about moving out.
They have to sit down once they have a job and work with you on doing a budget. For example, the kid should have so much money for recreation, so much money for room and board, so much money for his savings, even if it’s only ten dollars a week.
And he gives the money to the parents to hold. He doesn’t put it in his drawer. Ultimately he has to live on that budget that gets him to financial independence.
You should not rescue him. You’re already providing a safe place to live. These mundane and basic skills make the difference between the kids who learn how to be independent and those who don’t.
If this seems too harsh to you, think about it this way. If this kid gets a job and spends all his money and can live at home, why would he ever move out?
If you have a job at $12 an hour and you’re living at home for free, that’s like having a job for $25 an hour. Kids will continue to live that way unless you make them uncomfortable. You have to demand change and they must be uncomfortable if change doesn’t happen.
I want parents to stop thinking about what they need to do for their child of today. Instead, think about what they need to do for their child of tomorrow. If you’re supporting him today and making excuses for him today and buying his excuses, then what you’re doing to your child of tomorrow is enabling his helplessness.
When it comes to getting a job, your child will say “I can’t do it because…”
The excuses are endless and not the real problem. If you accept the excuses, you hurt your child of tomorrow. Instead, demand change. Force him to prepare to learn how to be independent. Force him to learn how to support himself.
Make no mistake about it: if you tell a kid he has to work and he doesn’t, and you tolerate and accept that, you’re saying to him, in a non-verbal way, that he’s a loser and you know it.
You’re saying to him he’s not as good as the other kids, and you know it. You’re saying you’re willing to put up with this because you know that there’s something wrong with him. That’s the message he’s getting. So, he thinks there’s something wrong with him because he doesn’t know how to deal with discomfort and stress.
Instead, when you push him, when you make demands of him, when you hold him accountable, and when you give him consequences, you are really saying, “You can do it and I expect you to. In fact, I demand you to.”
It’s never too late to deal with children in a teaching, limit-setting, and coaching way. Parents can start anytime, as long as they’re willing to deal with the discomfort of demanding that their child changes. And as long as they have the courage to hold their child accountable. It may feel like the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But it could save your child’s life.
I’ve had to push my son and I know how hard it can be. But it had to be done. In particular, your child needs to know that if he doesn’t work hard, he will fall behind. Equally important, he has to learn how to solve problems and deal with discomfort and stress. And if he can’t do those things, he’s going to have a hard time making it. In the end, that’s the reality for adult children.
Many parents have told me of their struggles with an adult child who steals from them, be it credit card theft, stealing money from the house, or forging checks. Stealing is absolutely intolerable. Whether it’s stealing from parents or siblings, it’s a crime.
Know this: the laws don’t change inside the walls of your house. If I steal $100 from you on the street, that’s stealing. And if somebody steals $100 from you in your home, that’s stealing. And if it’s an adult, it’s a crime. It’s called larceny.
If your adult child steals from you, first of all, you should tell him:
“Go upstairs, pack a bag, and come back downstairs in five minutes.”
When he comes back downstairs, say:
“Here’s the deal. You’re out of here for a week, and if you don’t stop stealing, you’re not coming back.”
Don’t be afraid to call the police. In fact, you can pack their bag, put it on the curb, call the police, and say:
“He doesn’t live here anymore. He stole from us.”
I’ve worked with many parents whose kids broke back into the house and they pressed charges for burglary. You have to be really clear with the police and tell them that he doesn’t live there anymore and you have to put his stuff out on the sidewalk.
It’s going to cause a scene. You’re going to be embarrassed. But your choice is that you can live in a little prison where you’re being abused and where there’s a predator stealing from you, or you can break out of that prison. It will take some noise, but you can break out.
Parents need support and help, and I understand what they’re going through because I came from this kind of family and I’ve worked with these families for three decades. But you also need to understand, you didn’t work like a dog all your life just to be a prisoner in your own home.
Ask yourself: is this what we worked for all our lives? We dealt with discomfort. We dealt with stress. We dealt with unhappiness. And above all, we humbled ourselves and took whatever job we could to get started. After all that work, is this what we want? Do we want our adult son living with us, stealing from us, abusing us, and making our lives miserable?
If the answer is yes, that’s up to you. I’m not here to contradict that. But if your answer is no, then you need to make some changes, and you need to make them now. It begins with getting him out of bed tomorrow morning and calling the authorities if he gets abusive.
Parents are supposed to have a certain amount of power in our society just by virtue of being a parent. Sadly, in many cases, that is not the case. If you’re living with an abusive adult child who is committing crimes against you and your home, he obviously does not respect your power as a parent. So, you need the help of the authorities. Don’t hesitate to use them.
Let him share some of your pain and discomfort and see how he likes it. This is important: if you’re willing to do something about it, he will become willing to do something about it. But if you’re not willing, he won’t be either.
In adolescence, kids want to be independent and free. They can’t wait to get out of their parent’s house and tell them what a pain in the neck they are.
But the fact is that many kids act out and show some anxiety or depression because they’re terrified of the future. They’ve been safe in grade school, middle school, high school, and in their families all their lives. But life on their own does not seem safe and forces them to solve problems on their own.
Many kids are able to deal with these problems and they successfully grow into the next stage of life. But there are those kids who, for whatever reason, resist growing, and it shows in their behavior.
The kids who resist growing become angry, resentful, and irresponsible. They’re terrified of change, and they’ll do anything to avoid it, including partying all night, sleeping until 2 pm, and doing nothing but playing video games when they are awake.
These are the kids who have to be pushed the most.
I’ve dealt with many adult children in my office who had this fear, and I empathize with them. I tell them that fear is a part of life and that they have to face it.
How do you face a fear of making it in the adult world? You get a job. And you do that job. You take a job for three months and you say to yourself:
“I won’t quit. I’ll deal with all the craziness and I won’t quit. And at the end of three months, I’ll have some experience and then I’ll decide what I want to do next. And what I want to do next may be to stay at McDonald’s or to go someplace else. But, I won’t leave my job until I have a new one.”
Eight months out of high school that kid is going to have some skills, experience, and independence. Each day at work is a day dealing with adult stress without mommy holding his hand. That will prepare him for the next stage of growth, which may be a more responsible job or going back to school. That is the real value of a job.
A lot of the work that I did in my office was coaching and teaching these kids on what they had to do. I literally had kids fill out three job applications a day then call me in my office to say that they had done it. And they would, because I gave them the clear message that accountability matters.
While I empathized with struggling adult kids, I didn’t accept their excuses as to “why” they were stuck in life. Because “why” didn’t matter. Everyone has to be independent, no matter how afraid they are and what challenges they have in their lives.
I worked with adults with developmental disabilities in my practice who lived in group homes with staff. They had to learn how to have a job if they wanted money because the state paid for their group home but did not give them any spending money. They had to learn how to have a supervised job if they wanted money. They had to learn how to talk nicely to people if they wanted to go out and do things and have privileges. They had to clean their rooms and make their beds every single day. They took turns cooking at night with staff support. They did these things because they had to acquire independence, despite having significant disabilities.
So don’t tell me kids can’t do it. Not only can a kid do it, he has to do it.
Yes, these kids are afraid. They have a false sense of entitlement. They don’t know how to be independent. And they haven’t learned how to solve problems. But if they don’t start learning to solve them today, it’s not going to happen.
So parents have to draw the line because the adult child won’t draw the line. He’s having too much fun and he’s too afraid. If the parents can’t draw the line and the child’s out of control, then eventually the police have to draw the line. It’s that simple.
I’ve worked with quite a few grandparents who were living with 17, 18, 19 and 20 year-olds kids who had their own children. The adult child can’t make it or the marriage falls apart and they move back in with their parents. This is a really tough situation, and I don’t want to minimize the emotional pressure everyone is under. After all, these are innocent grandchildren.
The role of parents and grandparents is very different. A parent sets limits, goals, and gets the kid to meet objectives and be productive. In contrast, a grandparent is benign and indulging. Grandparents also set limits, but not in a full-time, around-the-clock manner. Overall, it’s a very difficult situation and I just want to make some observations that may be helpful.
Grandparents should do what they can to help out with child care. But only with the goal that their adult child pays room and board and that the money is put away until the adult child can move out.
The adult child has to have a job and needs to find daycare. Parents everywhere go back to work when their kids are six months old. So you have to demand that your adult child do something to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in, and not just jump into the hole with them. Too many grandparents jump into the hole that their adult child has dug and stay there. And that doesn’t make any sense.
Your adult child who has a toddler can’t run around and party all night. She has to maintain a responsible work schedule. If she wants to go out at night, she has to get her own babysitter. Grandparents should not be babysitters for adult children living in their home. Let her pay for that. Have her live on a budget and let her pay.
She is not going to like it, but you have to draw the line. Grandparents are not here to raise the grandchildren. We may help out while you work, but you’re going to have to pay for it.
And there’s one more very hard thing that grandparents have to do. If the adult child is not taking responsibility for their own child and putting that child at risk, you have to call the state. Call the Department of Children and Family Services or whatever it’s called in your state.
If the state comes in and does an investigation and finds the mother is not fit, they’ll first turn to the grandparents or another family member to see if they’ll take custody. They will offer the mother supportive training and help. They don’t remove kids that easily.
Grandparents are terrified that the state will take their grandchildren. They don’t want your grandchild unless the mother’s strung out on drugs or committing crimes. They want the child with the mother because that’s where the child should be by nature and that’s the least expensive way to deal with the situation. The state does not want to take on the cost of raising your grandchild.
I’ve worked in states where state agencies have taken kids and they’ve needed to take those kids because they were in danger. But as soon as they take the child, they come up with a plan on how the parent can get the child back, whether it’s substance abuse treatment, career counseling, or parent training.
Just as you need to turn to the authorities if your adult child is abusing you, you need to turn to the authorities if your adult child is not caring for his or her own child. Understand this: you’re doing it for the welfare of your grandchild.
You may read my suggestions here and call it “tough love.” But that’s not what this is. There’s nothing tough about love. This is responsible love. It’s saying to your adult child:
“I love you, and I’m going to be responsible. You can love me, but you have to be responsible too.”
Responsible love means demanding that your adult child learn how to solve his problems. Responsible love means demanding change. Now.
This article is part 2 of a 3-part series. See below for the links to the other articles in this series.
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.