If you have a 20-something son or daughter, there is a very good chance you have already experienced the difficulties that arise when parents and kids move back in together.
You’re not alone.
Even with the recession a good half decade behind us, our country’s young adults are still struggling to find a solid footing after high school or college. As such, many of them (roughly 1 in 3) have to move back home for a while.
According to the The New York Times, this is likely to be a long-term trend. Reporter Adam Davidson looked through the historical data to see how we got here:
“In 1968, for instance, a vast majority of 20-somethings were living independent lives; more than half were married. But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding. By 2007, before the recession even began, fewer than one in four young adults were married, and 34 percent relied on their parents for rent.”
That’s given rise to a Boomerang Generation whose members look a lot like Kevin, our budding inventor and entrepreneur who is full of ambition … but needs a little more time to get there.
Fortunately for Kevin and other such emerging adults, moving back in with their parents affords them that opportunity to grow. While the crowded nest can be frustrating for parents and children alike, the childhood home can become something of an incubator where Boomerang children can
- learn to build stronger relationships,
- get guidance they’ll actually listen to this time,
- and save on living costs now so they can pursue more fulfilling professional lives.
It takes a little extra work to get these emerging adults to be independent, but in the process, our society might be creating one of the most thoughtful, compassionate and ambitious generations we’ve ever seen.
Economic and social realities for members of the Boomerang Generation
Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time in modern America’s history there were more young adults (18 to 34 years old) living with their parents than with spouses or significant others.
Four macro-level social trends explain why.
First, young adults without at least a bachelor’s degree are struggling to stay afloat. The Pew data suggest that these 18- to 34-year-olds are a third more likely to move back home than their peers who have completed a four-year degree.
Next, that college degree can carry with it some financial uncertainty of its own though, namely student debt. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “each additional $10,000 in student loan debt makes someone 4.6% more likely to move in with a parent.”
Third, even without the burden of student debt payments, rents in many cities are too high for someone with an entry-level job to live alone. That is a huge impediment to the independence of many single young adults, who must rely on parental help to pay rent or live with a roommate. Young adults in committed relationships might have it a little easier rent-wise because they can opt to cohabitate with their significant others or get married and settle in somewhere together, provided both can contribute to living costs.
However, another recent trend is that young adults are settling down with a significant other much later in life. There seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg relationship between financial instability and the delaying of serious romantic relationships.
One 33-year-old living with his parents in Houston told The Guardian that his lack of dating is precisely because of his lack of money and own home. “It wouldn’t be financially responsible for me to date when I have to pay off student loans and bills,” he said.
More on the challenges of Boomerang Generation romance in a moment. First, it’s important to understand what it’s like to be a parent of an emerging adult today.
The Boomerang Generation’s parents have their own significant challenges
Two big trends in American society have begun to converge: The delayed independence of young adults and the looming need for elder care as Baby Boomers become seniors.
Unfortunately for the generation stuck between older Boomers and Millennials, the task of navigating those changes falls largely on them.
The stress of being a member of the Sandwich Generation
Today, parents in their 40s and 50s are facing the dual challenge of having to help their kids become independent and providing care for their own aging parents.
Our friends at A Place for Mom have an excellent guide to what it means to be a part of this Sandwich Generation, nearly 38% of whom say “both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support.”
While that sounds stressful, the team at A Place for Mom cite research that found 83% of Sandwich Generation parents report being either “pretty happy” or “very happy” with their lives.
The key is effective stress management. “Learning how to tackle stress is a necessity for sandwich generation caregivers, which is why it is crucial for caregivers to take care of themselves by getting help from a family member, hiring respite care, or having regular breaks from caregiving,” A Place for Mom notes.
Parents struggle when their grown children don’t meet classic expectations of what it means to be an adult
University of Texas professor Karen Fingerman, writing for The British Psychology Society, says parents may experience a certain ambivalence to emerging adult children. For example, parents (“particularly fathers,” she says) might feel this way when a child has not “achieved markers associated with adulthood, such as completion of education, marriage and securing a job.”
The problem, however, appears to be less about an emerging adult’s achievements and more about his or her desire to meet those milestones. After all, when your adult child spends Friday and Saturday nights on the couch, it can be easy to mistake their reluctance to date for general apathy.
Really though, the ambivalence a parent might feel is merely a symptom of something much more foundational. This is an expression of the fact that you care about your children and want to see them do well in life.
The further irony of the situation is that emerging adults today often experience ambivalence towards their parents. They seem to be more acutely aware of their parents’ aging (due in some part to seeing their grandparents become so dependent on family caregiving). That adds one more item to their list of worries when they’re living at home, and to the uncertainty of their situation.
“For grown children, concerns about parental health remain a key issue in the experience of ambivalence, even when parents are relatively healthy,” Fingerman writes. “Young adults may worry about their own ability to care for parents in the future. These concerns may reflect worries about losing the parent or about caring for the parent, or may even serve as part of the recognition that parents are human and have weaknesses.”
As frustrating as intergenerational caregiving and the emerging adulthood life stages can be, their rise has one big silver lining: Ties between parents and their adult children appear to be strengthening across the entire spectrum of society.
How boomeranging builds stronger family relationships
Clark University researcher Jeffrey Jensen Arnett — who coined the term “emerging adult” more than 30 years ago — says that contrary to the stereotype, the majority of parents are happy to have their grown children back at home for a while.
His team’s annual Poll of Parents of Emerging Adults found in 2013 that 67 percent of parents felt emotionally closer to their returned children, and 66 percent reported “having more companionship with them” — and that closeness endures even when those children move out.
The key is for everyone to establish the right boundaries — as adults.
The Communication-Cooperation-Respect method of setting boundaries
Recently, we had the chance to speak with family dynamics consultants Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. and Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. Their work focuses on marital stress, Boomerang kids, acting out teens, aging parents and difficult in-laws. Goldberg and Lichtman have also co-authored a great book called Whose Couch Is It Anyway? Moving Your Millennial.
For Boomerang children and their parents, Goldberg and Lichtman stress the importance of CC&Rs — communication, cooperation and respect. Lichtman says that establishing these should be a priority when (or ideally before) an adult child moves back home.
“Set up a family meeting, including any younger siblings, in which everyone can communicate equally in a safe space and express their opinions,” she says. “Each member expresses his or her goals for living together as the rest of the family respectfully reacts.
“Cooperation and compromise are important in order to come to a consensus about establishing rules and guidelines. These can include general concerns such as how to respect privacy as well as specific ones establishing, for example, who does which chores, what items each member is responsible to fund and when the exit date is. Once these decisions have been made, everyone can sign a contract consenting to abide by the agreement in order to avoid later conflicts.”
Lichtman recommends turning this contract into a living document by scheduling regular family meetings to review and possibly re-evaluate goals. This is also a good time to air grievances. Everyone must have an equal say in assessing progress and fine-tuning strategies.
All the while, make sure the contract is posted visibly for everyone to see. Equality of input and access are how you facilitate buy-in from all family members.
That said, don’t get discouraged when a family member skips a responsibility (“there will likely be some backsliding,” Lichtman says). Instead, focus on effort, and celebrate success.
“Once parents and adult children recognize that there are advantages to communicating with one another respectfully, it encourages further cooperation and progress,” she says. “All of these lead to the growth of problem-solving skills and the development of greater independence in both adult children and their parents during their time of living back under one roof, a win-win for everyone.”
Parents who treat this time as a gift have a much better experience
Goldberg stresses the importance of sympathy when parents and adult children embrace the new boundaries they set for one another. That’s why both parent and child need to be mindful of each other’s challenges.
“Transitions are always complicated, especially when adult children have been living independently,” she says. “If moving back feels like a personal defeat, they may bring home complex emotional baggage — disappointment, frustration, or anxiety. And a positive mindset on the part of parents doesn’t diminish the fact that they will be the ones with more responsibility and less freedom.
“Yet there are many ways to see this as a gift, with extra family closeness and shared memories.”
Goldberg offers four pieces of advice for parents to keep that positive mindset afloat (and interpersonal resentments at bay):
- Speak candidly about feelings and expectations. This also means parents should spend time trying to understand why their adult child wants to move back home, and they should be prepared for less privacy and spontaneity than they may have grown accustomed to.
- Schedule regular meetings to chat as a family, with each family member taking turns as the facilitator of that discussion. Also: “Give feedback only if asked, and then step back.”
- Clarify rules about curfews and having people stay over.
- Encourage them to create short-term goals that will serve as stepping stones toward independence. “Dependency comes with a price — lack of control, potential conflict and unsolicited advice. Having a mutual agreement about when to move out will help avoid resentments along the way.”
Children learn to appreciate their parents as unique individuals
To an adult child who has lived away from home for a while, living with you again may be a welcome reminder of who you are as a person, and of your habits and idiosyncrasies. And some of your old habits might seem a little odd to them now. (The reverse of this is true, too).
Ramona Emerson has a hilarious essay at BuzzFeed that discusses how she and her parents are learning to live with each other’s quirks. “My dad eats pickled herring straight out of a jar in the refrigerator,” she writes. “When I try to explain to him that this is disgusting, he says, ‘It’s just herring.’
“This is his favorite line of reasoning. You object to something, and he responds by saying, ‘It’s just [insert objectionable thing here].’ Obviously, it’s impossible to win against someone who fights this dirty.”
Children have the chance to grow as people, before committing to relationships and starting families of their own
We reached out to Liz Higgins, LMFT Associate, a relationship expert who works with couples in Dallas, to get a clearer idea of what dating is like for an emerging adult at home. Higgins stressed that this is a commonplace situation for young adults to be in today.
“The world is not as simple as go to school, find a great job, afford your own place while establishing savings, and have enough money to date and/or marry,” she says. “It is common and normal to experience frustration and a feeling of inadequacy.”
That said, Higgins says the time an adult child spends at home might not be the best time to get into a committed romantic relationship. Instead, focus on personal growth. “Find ways to maintain social connection with others, but prioritize yourself,” she says.
“If you’re itching to date, there are free ways out there to meet new people. But the truth is, if you aren’t where you’d like to be financially, be sure to place focus on your personal goals. Set some short-term and long-term goals to make a tangible plan for yourself, which will lessen the anxiety and stress that comes with money.”
For parents, that means giving emerging adults plenty of room to grow and being patient about their attitudes toward romantic relationships. In fact, this is one of the most crucial factors in making sure a move back home goes smoothly.
“Many people find it challenging to maintain a healthy and positive relationship with their parents when they are consistently being given feedback or suggestions on how to deal with finances, how they should be spending their money, what they could be doing around the house, and why they haven’t brought the date home,” Higgins says.
Children learn to struggle and succeed financially — but the safety net is always there
Nancy Revie, a columnist in Guelph, Ontario, offers weekly advice to parents with adult children. A Boomer herself, she concedes that a parent’s default reaction is to ensure children aren’t experiencing financial hardship. This is in line with the research of Fingerman at UT Austin, who found parents are more sensitive to a child’s struggles than they are a child’s success.
But sometimes, a parent needs to know when to let go of that impulse.
“With too much financial give on the Boomers part, we can easily unknowingly undermine our Boomerang’s financial and emotional growth,” Revie wrote in her June 18, 2016, Boomers and Boomerangs column.
“Overindulgent financial insulation can result in lost opportunities for the Boomerangs to experience the personal success of financial challenge. Working within a limited budget and sticking to it can result in developing proactive financial sustainability and the quality of learning delayed gratification.
“Our kids are smart and can be resourcefully creative if given the opportunity to succeed. Problem solving, critical thinking, resourcefulness skills can be developed through the sometimes painful financial budgeting process.”
How emerging adults can create a brighter future for themselves today
Goldberg agrees that discomfort — whether financial, emotional or disgust at someone eating pickled herring from a jar — can be an opportunity for growth.
But rather than dwell on the discomfort itself, she tells Boomerang children to use that experience to learn more about themselves and others. This helps build a solid foundation for the future.
Goldberg has three specific pieces of advice to help emerging adults do just that:
- Take family members’ advice to heart, but ultimately rely on your instincts and define success on your own terms.
- Assert agency over your own life. By identifying your inner strengths and external resource, you’ll have a better idea of what your goals are and how you can achieve them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
- Discover what you are passionate about. If one of your parents acts as a caregiver for a grandparent, help them out. Do volunteer work if you cannot find rewarding paid work, and learn how your talents and energy can help others. The combination of courage and compassion you can foster while living at home will serve you well when you move into a career.
“Boomerang kids are living with an unprecedented amount of uncertainty,” she says. “Let them know that the 20s are still the defining decade of adult life and that you have their back. Secure love provides support that opens the door to their self-discovery. Encourage them to reach deep for the resolve to face their situation squarely — in time, they’ll meet the challenges and move on.”