Rules, Boundaries and Older Children: Is It Ever Too Late to Set up a Living Agreement?

By

Mom and teenage son arguing

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series of articles by James Lehman, MSW, on the difficult topic of adult children living at home. In this segment, James addresses the issue of setting up a living agreement with your child.

For those parents who haven’t set up a structured agreement when their child turns 18, it’s never too late to set one up.

Even if your child is 23, living under your roof and staying out until the wee hours, it’s never too late to sit down with that kid and say:

“We’re going to have to have a talk about our rules here and what parts fit you and what parts don’t fit you.”

If a kid is 23 years old and he’s not working, he should not be up until two o’clock in the morning with friends in the house, keeping other people awake. Although you may feel obligated to provide that child with a roof over his head, you still have the right to say:

“This is not your home for that anymore. We’re going to bed, we’re tired, we worked all day. If you’re going to live here, you have to live within our rules.”

If he tries to put you down for it, you need to put your foot down. If that means taking the car keys, taking the phone, then that’s what it means.

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

Expect Resistance When Setting Rules for Your Adult Child

When parents lay out these rules with kids after the age of 18, they should expect the kid to be resentful, resistant, and to blame them. The adult child will try to make the parents feel guilty, like jerks.

He does this because he still has a lot of immaturity and thinking errors. In other words, he is hiding from responsibility and is postponing the anxiety of accepting the responsibilities of an adult. And he will push back when you, rightfully, begin to hold him accountable.

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Explain Yourself Once and Move On

No matter how hurtful the child’s words may be, parents should not fall into the trap of feeling guilty for finally establishing the rules. Likewise, parents shouldn’t spend a lot of energy explaining themselves. Just explain yourself once and move on. You can say:

“This is our expectation. We’re sorry we didn’t do it before now, but we’re here today and this is what we’re going to have to do. And we can’t go any further until this agreement gets made.”

The expectations should include what time the kid gets up in the morning if he’s not working. Older kids who are avoiding responsibility will stay up all night and sleep until noon. When you ask them why they sleep until noon, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not working.”

As the parent, you have to make it clear:

“That’s why you’re not working. Because you sleep until noon. Get up at seven o’clock like everybody else and go find a job.”

It’s never too late to be this direct with your child.

Don’t Take Your Child’s Accusations as Fact

Do not take your child’s accusations and blaming as fact. In fact, you should expect to hear plenty of accusations and excuses. You’re going to be compared to his friend’s parents and you’re going to be told you’re hateful and uncaring. But don’t forget, this kid is fighting taking responsibility, and he will fight it fiercely.

Young adult children who don’t feel competent will resist taking responsibility for anything. And furthermore, they’ll keep doing it as long as you let them. Parents should be prepared to deal with this, but not through yelling and screaming, and not through making excuses for themselves. Instead, deal with it by calmly saying:

“This is the time we’re meeting. We need to talk to go over the agreement.”

If you have to, take the kid’s car keys until he is ready to talk.

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Allow Your Child to Have Adult Privileges

The agreement you develop with the child should allow for adult privileges. Specifically, if the kid is working and being responsible, then your agreement with him should be very flexible. On his day off, he can sleep all day for all you care. But he can’t stay out all night without calling you because you’re going to worry, and it’s his responsibility to let you know he’s safe. If he doesn’t want to do that, then he should move into a more independent living situation. You don’t get complete freedom and the support of living at home at the same time.

How to Handle Rent for an Adult Child Living at Home

Paying rent is a very good habit for an older child to get into. I think there are two ways to look at the issue of when and if your child should pay rent in order to continue living at home. If the family needs the money and the kid is working, he needs to contribute. It’s just that simple.

If you don’t need the money, charge him room-and-board anyway, and then put the money aside and save it up until you’ve saved enough for a security deposit on an apartment and the first month’s rent. Then when he’s ready to move out, you’ve already got his money. Hold onto that money. That way, he pays for himself, and he gets into the habit of paying rent and being responsible while money is being accumulated so that both he and the family are prepared for his next step.

Specify Household Chores for Your Adult Child

When you come up with the agreement on living arrangements, I think it has to be really clear that the child is here to contribute, not just take. So, parents need to be clear about specific chores the older child will be responsible for. Parents can offer their ideas, and the young adult child can come up with his own ideas. Maybe he offers to take the younger kids to school in the morning, and you ask him to be responsible for bringing in wood and taking out the trash and recyclables each week. Write it down and be clear about consequences if he doesn’t follow through because everyone who lives in the house has to help out.

Be Clear About Your Rules on Alcohol and Drugs

The living agreement should be very clear about alcohol and drugs, and it’s simple because the law makes it simple. In most states, it’s illegal to drink under the age of 21. You don’t have to say, “I know it’s illegal, but…” and wink your eye.

The best thing that you can do for your young adult child is to follow the letter of the law and say:

“No drinking under 21. If we catch you drinking and driving, we’re taking the car keys. If you fight us, we’re calling the cops.”

He’s going to say you’re rigid and unreasonable. But it’s better for your kid to lose his license for 90 days than die or kill somebody else.

As for illegal drugs, those should be prohibited from the house as well. Let me be clear: this is your house and you can make whatever rules you like around alcohol, smoking, and drugs.

Abusive Children Need to Leave the Home

If your adult child is insulting you, abusive with a family member, or breaking things, he should leave. He should go to stay with a friend. It doesn’t matter, he just can’t stay in your house if he is abusive.

Be aware that the kids who are going to be most likely to be asked to leave are the kids who are going to tell you they have nowhere to go. This is because the abusive behavior probably permeates their lives. It’s not his whole life is great, but he just happens to be abusive towards you. The abusive child will most likely show a pattern of this behavior and demonstrate a host of thinking errors. So when you ask him to leave, he won’t know where he can go, because he is unable to solve that problem. But, he will have to figure it out.

When Is It Time to Ask Your Child to Leave Home?

The decision on when to ask an older child to leave the home has more to do with a family’s morals and values. If things are going well with the living arrangement, the child should be told to think about leaving once he has the means. Once the first and last month’s rent and a deposit are set aside and he has a car and he’s driving, he should be told to start looking for a place with a roommate.

Independence is a decision you can make as a family. If a young adult child is doing well, living at home, and meeting the family’s expectations, then there’s no problem. But someday he will want to be independent.

The way you get there is to sit down and have the child set some goals. Where do you plan to live? When do you plan to move out? How much does the child need to pay for rent or room and board while living at home? Measure progress toward the goal by the objectives. If the child has a goal to move out and he’s not meeting any of the objectives, then he’s not being serious.

The greatest gift you can give your child is knowing how to be independent and take responsibility. If a child fears independence and responsibility, you can solve that problem by having a written agreement that shows the child how to live by your rules, and have ongoing discussions about the goal of independence and how to meet it.

Related Content

Download: Free Mutual Living Agreement

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

Part I: How to Cope With an Adult Child Living at Home

Part II: Parents’ Top 25 Concerns Addressed

About

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)
  • Announcing list of chores for 18-yr-old son

    My son just graduated from high school. He worked 2 weekends as a bus boy then quit. Keeps saying he will get a new job but has not. It seems like he will start working next week. We'll see.

    Today, I am announcing a new list of weekly chores for him. I hung up the list of the side of the refrigerator in the kitchen. I know that he will either ignore the list -- or he will pretend to do a few things, but really his pretending will be a 99.9% lie. He will pick up a bag of chips and say that he spent SO MUCH time cleaning his room when really he threw away 1 item of garbage.

    So anyway -- I have posted the list of chores that will be ignored. Here's my plan. If he ignores the weekly chores, I will not cook any food for him during the week. I will not buy him any of his favorite food. This is mainly snack items. Then, one month from now, he will move out of my house. Period.

    Please wish me luck on enforcing my plan. I hope to remain calm and pleasant. I think that when an 18-year-old is living on his own, he learns valuable life skills. He can come to dinner on Sunday nights. Peace all!

  • Danielle Julianne
    I followed the advice in this and I'm terrified. My son is 19, lives in his car with a drug addict girl who is trying to get pregnant and I can't help be afraid I'm making it worse standing my ground. I can't allow destruction and abuse from my babyMore boy. It's killing me and I keep wondering what I did wrong. I am terrified about who he's with or if he's eating and safe. This is torture. I feel like he hates me and I have always given him everything. I'm physically disabled and he's seen me I'll and I wonder if that's why. I tried to smile through and pretend everything was fine but there was so much I couldn't do. Walk through the zoo, amusement park or any long distances but he's had me every day of his life for anything at anytime.
  • Brian B

    “That’s why you’re not working. Because you sleep until noon. Get up at seven o’clock like everybody else and go find a job.”

    This quote struck me because of how absolutely true this is. Not only does letting your child sleep in late make him comfortable so he won't take steps to be independent but it also kills his job search.

    Obviously, most companies do their communication and recruitment during normal business hours. If a company can't reach your child because he's sleeping, it may just move on to the next candidate, no voicemail or anything. Additionally, when it's noon or 1 PM, a lot of the business day is already gone making it difficult to talk to anyone in your child's dream company (such as trying to schedule informational interviews).

  • Newly Empowered
    Our daughter has some bad habits that we let her get away with, but she has been responsible, going to work and school full-time until recently when she started drugs. Shes in her late 20’s and had become a bully in our home. I typed up some House Rules andMore gave them to her, after reading these articles, letting her know the possible consequences. I listed all the things that I wanted out of my home, every detail that i wanted changed. Why do I need to allow alcohol in my home, just for her? My husband is a recovering alcoholic. We don’t drink, so no alcohol. She is trying to see what she can get away with, but it is so much more peaceful so far. We have worked hard for what little we have. There is great satisfaction in that and I don't want to continue to rob her of her own self-support. Thanks for helping us get our lives back and get back on the right track. We are very hopeful this will have a positive outcome.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      HI, twalther. Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story. We hope for a positive outcome for you and your family as well. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going.
  • Darcie
    I need some articles about adult children living with their fiance but still needs money from parents
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It can be frustrating and confusing when your adult child is demonstrating independence in some areas, yet is still dependent on you in others. Many parents feel conflicted about giving their adult child money: on the one hand, it’s hard to watch your child struggle;More on the other, if you continue to provide financial support, it’s unlikely that your child will be motivated to take on this responsibility for themselves. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner outline in their article, Failure to Launch, Part 3: Six Steps to Help Your Adult Child Move Out, part of changing this pattern will involve becoming clear about your boundaries, and what you are willing to enforce. Keep in mind, any level of financial support you decide to provide at this point is considered a privilege for your adult child, and a choice for you. I recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Annette
    Very helpful advice
  • Jennifer
    My daughter is moving home from college and she is truly a great kid-graduated in 4 years AND has a job. She will be paying room and board, so I would like to put together a "contract" of some sort outlining her responsibilities and chores as well as whenMore payment is due. I am not putting this together because I don't think she would do it, but rather to level the playing field and to put expectations in place. Is there a template out there somewhere?
  • Misty
    I appreciate the articles I've read and look forward to purchasing the books. Your work and effort greatly appreciated. PS enjoy the candor
  • Genoveva Paniagua
    I am a grandmother with a 22 yr old and soon a 19 yr old. A complete upheaval to my lifestyle but willing to give them my best. Respect and dialogue are essential.
  • Sleepless in Ottawa

    My20 year old son is a quiet and gentle soul.

    He keeps pretty much to himself.As

    astudent, he always did things last

    minute and has always done the "bare minimum" to get by. His

    preference is playing online video games rather than work.  He managed to get himself a

    Commissionaires job which is a Canadian Government building security guard position which much to my dismay allows him to chose his hours of work which are very few.

    We are in the "beginning" phase of changing his environment as we plan to move to the country next spring to prepare for our upcoming retirement.He gets this and says he will move out with his buddies.My concern is that I think he lives in a "virtual world" and that he'll never make the rent and pay his bills. His buddies won't be impressed for too long and he may end up in the street.My husband believes changing his environment will jolt him into reality however I believe he is not equipped to handle the reality of paying bills let alone rent as his internet payment recently bounced and is now disconnected. His cell phone maybe next due to his lack of hours.All this to say he is welcome to join us in the country but he will be isolated.  I don't want to pre-empt the inevitable but I lay awake thinking about this and not getting much sleep.

  • Cynthia62
    I have a 35 year old daughter who has never really been on her own. I paid a deposit and three months rent several times to try and help her get established. Each time, she quit/lost her job or failed to find one and moved home again. ItMore is not always pleasant having her in my home. (I'm a single disabled mother). She doesn't respect me or do anything I ask her most of the time. She will use the toilet and not flush it. She borrows my belongings and loses them, damages them or breaks them. I made a rule "no eating in my bedroom". She fell asleep on top of my comforter eating a chocolate covered ice cream bar. It smeared on my comforter and left a stain. This makes me very angry, but she is not at all concerned about it. I asked her to help with the dishes and household chores. She says can't because she is filling out applications or is too tired. I sold her my car for the payoff amount on the loan a year ago. The payoff was $2500. The book value of the car was $8000. It is now worth very little. She has had 6 or 7 fender benders in the last year. The car was in perfect condition, it now looks like it has been rolled down a hill. She has become more and more judgmental. She doesn't like the programs I watch and constantly makes rude and derogatory commentary while I attempt to watch my favorite programs. She does the dishes 1 time to every ten times I do them. That is usually after an argument about it and then admonishes me for not thanking her for doing them. I certainly never get thanked for doing what needs to be done. She has been back this time 10 weeks. She has worked one. She is unemployed again. We had agreed on Jan 31, 2017 as her move out day. That's a little over two months from now and she has no job and no money. I am stuck paying $500 a month in student loans I stupidly co-signed for. She doesn't even worry about trying to pay part of it anymore. I have stopped helping her with her bills and I dropped her off my cell phone plan. She hasn't paid her part in a year. I am going broke. Her situation is ruining any plans I had for a pleasant retirement. Do I just put her things out in January, job or no? I want to enjoy what few years I have left. Is that selfish?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Cynthia62 I hear how much you have struggled with your daughter’s behavior over the years, and I’m glad that you’re here, reaching out for support.  Something important to keep in mind is that your daughter is an adult, and so anything you decide to provide to her is considered aMore choice for you and a privilege for her.  This includes having a place to live.  If you have already set a move-0ut date, I encourage you to follow through on that.  I also encourage you to make sure that you have some support for yourself at this time, as that will help you in enforcing the limits and boundaries you have set with your daughter.  If you need help building your support system, you might consider contacting the http://www.211.org at 1-800-273-6222.  211 is a referral service which connects people to resources available in their community, such as counselors and support groups.  They might also be able to assist your daughter with housing and employment if that is something she might be interested in.  I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • Instantstepmom
    I am a stepmom to a 19 year old who moved in with us 9 months ago - congratulations!  its a boy lol Since the age of 10, he was "raised" by his mother who let him get away with everything and do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted.More At 17, he was pretty much living alone in his mother's house while she spent most of her time at her boyfriend's house (14 or so boyfriends in a 9 year period - all introduced to the son after 1 or 2 dates).  So, now we are faced with trying to give him his freedom but also maintain some house rules in a "normal" household.  The biggest issue is curfew.  His father and I both wake up at 5 and 6 am to go to our jobs. I don't work Fridays, so Sunday through Wednesday night the curfew is 11 pm.  Thursday through Saturday - there is no curfew, he just needs to let us know when he is coming home.  When I laid this out to him, he said it was "more than fair".   I'm a light sleeper while my husband could sleep through anything...so our son's coming in past 11 on those 4 nights impacts my sleep, not his. The house also has an alarm which I pay for, that doesn't get set unless I set it.  I'm tired of paying money for a system that doesn't get used, tired of waking up at every little noise because I know the alarm is not set, tired of bags under my eyes from lack of sleep (and making mistakes at work).   Yet, somehow, I am made to feel that I'm being unreasonable - both by my husband and the son.  They both get on average 10 hours sleep, while I average 5-6.   I've asked my husband to tell our son when he leaves at night (oh...and he goes out EVERY night) "the alarm is getting set at 11:00!", instead he tells him "try to get home by 11".     11 becomes 11:15....which becomes 11:30....12...you get the idea.    He does go to college full time and works part time, however he does not have any chores except to keep his room clean (doesn't happen), has everything including his car, car insurance and cell phone paid for by his mother and the rest paid for by us, doesn't pay rent or even contribute to the house...and still owes us $150 which he "borrowed" from us in August to go on vacation (paid for in full by the child support his father was still paying at the time).   We didn't get a vacation this year.   It seems like the 19 gets all the benefits and none of the responsibility...yet, I'm the bad guy.  What am I supposed to do?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Instantstepmom Many young adults desire all of the benefits and freedom of adulthood and none of the responsibility, so you are not alone in feeling this way.  It’s common to feel frustrated with a young adult’s behavior while living at home, and these feelings can be even more intense whenMore you are a stepparent, and you are not on the same page as the biological parent.  At this point, I encourage you to talk privately with your husband during a calm time about your concerns, and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-blended-family-wont-blend-help-part-i-how-you-and-your-spouse-can-get-on-the-same-page/ on reasonable expectations and rules for your stepson while he is living with you.  As mentioned in the article above, you might also consider https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ground-rules-for-living-with-an-adult-child-plus-free-living-agreement/ which outlines these expectations once you have had this discussion with your husband.  I recognize how challenging this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Beth Boettcher 

    I’m so sorry to hear about everything that you are going

    through with your daughter, and your mother.I can understand your concern not only for your mother’s house, but also

    the well-being and safety of your mother and your grandchildren.If you are considering writing up a rental

    agreement with your daughter, or if you want to evict her from your mother’s

    house, you might want to consult with a lawyer to talk over your legal options

    in your situation.If you are not

    currently working with anyone, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.211 is a

    service which connects people with resources and services in their community,

    such as legal assistance, services for the elderly, and housing

    assistance.I recognize how difficult

    this must be for you, and I wish you and your family all the best moving

    forward.Take care.

  • Coffee Lady
    great advise thank you… sometimes we parents forget that our job is to make our children independent…. we long to keep them little.
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