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


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


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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