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How to deal with adult children living at home

It’s normal for parents to expect their children to leave home when they become young adults. Now more parents need to know how to deal with young adults living at home.

Real life has a way of wiping out our expectations.

Is there even such a thing as a “normal” parent-adult child relationship?

We’ve noticed the number of young adults living at home with their parents has been increasing. In 2015, the Census Bureau reported more than 1 in 3 of adults aged 18-34 were living in a parent’s home. That’s up from about 1 in 4 in 2005.

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed that number much higher. By July of 2020, a staggering 52% of adult children aged 18-29 made their parents’ house their own home (says Pew Research).

It’s a fact: We’re in a time when most young adults under 30 are living with their parents.

Why do so many young adults still live with their parents?

The outlook for independence is a lot different than it was a generation or two ago. There are fewer options for young adults to become self-supporting.

Health and safety guidelines mean millions of young adults are going to school from home and working from home. Others are looking for work from home.

Our therapists are working with more families to help with the challenges of living with adult children.

How do you deal with a grown child living at home?

Many parents with adult children at home are asking themselves these practical questions:

  • How can you be a good parent to adult children?
  • How do you make room for other people who are in your child’s life?
  • How to you set boundaries around their activities so that you feel safe as an older adult?
  • How do you be respectful of each other?

Many parents find themselves dealing with tough questions and tough situations they never thought they’d be facing.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many young adults returned home after living away for work or school. They’re also going through a big loss.

They used to have a lot more independence and freedom. Now they’ve had to give up much of the ground they gained toward living on their own. It’s hard for them too.

Very likely, their plan was to get a job and move out.  They wanted the same thing you wanted for them. But now, that’s a lot more difficult.

Dealing with emotions and setting boundaries

Much of the work of being a good parent to adult children is about recognizing the feelings involved, and redefining boundaries.

It takes time and work to process your own emotions. Knowing your feelings helps you understand yourself, so you can speak gently for what is and isn’t okay by you.

Let’s look at dating. Privacy used to be ‘normal.’ No parent really wants to be around when their kids are on a date. But apps like Tinder mean young people may spend a lot of their time at home viewing, texting and talking with dates on their phones.

Parents usually wouldn’t be involved in seeing or hearing so much about their adult child’s social life. But now parents are seeing more of it.

Some parents can’t help themselves from making comments – positive and negative.

However, your adult child needs boundaries and room to make decisions that are theirs to make.

Having an adult child at home means recognizing most behavior is theirs to control. If they go out on a Tinder date with a stranger it’s supposed to be socially distant.  But what if it isn’t?

If it ends up that your child and their date sit together, kiss or have sex, a healthy boundary could be that there’s no judgment in that. You recognize your child an adult. Adults recognize they can’t control the friends and social behavior of other adults.

But you can set boundaries for when they come home.  You have a right to protect your health and safety. A good boundary may be to insist your child stays in quarantine in the house for a certain time after going out.  That has to be very explicit before they venture out with their friends or new dates.

Communication is key 

You and your grown child need to have a conversation around what you agree to do ahead of time if you all want to get along well under one roof.

It’s important to recognize when parents assume their adult child is thinking the same way they are thinking.

Parents and young adults often have very different ways of thinking, even if they’re family.

Parents have to be very clear on expectations for adult children, just like they would be with each other.

Initiating these conversations in a matter-of-fact way also gives your child the opportunity to voice their expectations for you.

While these conversations may not come naturally, it models healthy negotiation needs in a relationship.

Adjust expectations

Another huge challenge in parenting adult children living at home is adjusting your expectations as the older adult.

Every parent has expectations for their children, no matter how old those children are.

It’s normal for parents to have specific ideas about what kind of person they want their children to be.

You may have strong feelings and wants around:

  • What career to pursue
  • How to do your job
  • How to spend your time
  • How to socialize
  • How not to get coronavirus

With everyone under one roof, reality is going to clash with the fantasy about what parents want their kid to be like.

Parents are getting a front seat into their child’s process of making life decisions.  That’s hard to tolerate on top of everything else.

You may have to watch your child make decisions you wish they wouldn’t make. This is extremely difficult.

To have a relationship feel right and good to you both, parents need to recognize what issues are their own, and what issues are their child’s.

You and your child are separate people

Parents need to separate out their own feelings, own them and deal with them. They also have to allow their child the freedom to make certain decisions, even if they look like mistakes.

One statement we agree with is:

            “I have to love the child I have, not the child I wish I had.”

As a parent you never want to see your child suffer, so you may have feelings about if they just listened to your advice they would suffer less.

But that’s not how emotional growth or the transition to adulthood happens.

It’s unrealistic to think that parents can save their children from mistakes. Parents often have especially intense feelings when their child seems to be making the same mistakes the parents made when they were young adults.

As human beings, we’re not wired that way. We’re wired to learn from experience, especially as teens and young adults.

Focusing on the quality of the relationship

While parents can’t control adult children, they can influence them. That opportunity depends on the quality of the relationship.

Parents with young adults living at home now have a chance to reflect and spend time on their relationship.

What was your relationship like before the coronavirus pandemic? If the relationship was tense or distant in the teenage years, it’s unrealistic to think it’s going to magically change in adulthood.

If you want it to change, you’re going to have to put effort into changing the dynamics on your side of the relationship.

In family therapy, we address the dynamics in place. By dynamics we mean the emotional cycles, communication patterns, and default interactions that are part of past and present experience.

Your relationship with your children also depends on the quality of the relationship with your own parents.  You might have an expectation of closeness if they you were close with your own parents.

Or there might be an expectation of closeness if you were not particularly close with your own parents. You may have worked hard to do things differently. You might have great hopes for a warm open connection with your children. 

What might that look like?

There may be no such thing as a “normal” transition to adulthood

We’re learning that becoming a full-fledged adult is complicated.

What constitutes a “fully functional adult” is not a one-size-fits-all formula.

What does a healthy parent-adult child relationship look like in the context of your household?

Families come to therapy because they want to have a better relationship, and they need some outside guidance to form new boundaries. This happens partly because our society does not offer much wisdom for the transition to parenting adult children.

It takes effort to change unwanted behavior patterns that have become embedded or seem to have taken over your relationship. We don’t see many people talking openly about how to relate well as parents and adult children.

Working with a family therapist helps you make the adjustments you just want to make. It need not take long. Some families just need a handful of sessions to get them on a satisfying path.

No one wants to delay a young adult’s independence. Yet the delay may hold an opportunity. It might be a time for parents and their adult children to decide how they want their relationship to look in this phase of life.

The result may be a relationship you both value and want, now and even after the children leave the nest.

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