Who’s there? An adult child! With a suitcase and a load of student debt! How parents and “boomerang kids” make it work.
At 22, just out of college and living with her parents while job hunting, Liz Kussman was discovering one surprise about moving home: “I would come in at 2 a.m., and the house would be totally dark. I’d enter as quietly as I could,” she says. “And then all of a sudden my dad would pop out of the shadows. ‘Where were you?’ He literally couldn’t sleep until I was home.” Like Kussman, boomerang kids all over the country are learning what it’s like to be accustomed to their freedoms but have to adjust to new rules. More 20-somethings are living at home than are married or cohabiting, per a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis. Blame the $30,000 student loan for the classics degree, the astronomical cost of renting in certain cities, or the long preparation (grad school, internships) now required to start a career in an ever-more competitive world. Also—props to Mom and Dad here—young adults seem to feel closer to their parents than previous generations did and consider them good company. “It’s so common, there is no longer much of a stigma,” says Katherine Newman, PhD, a sociologist at University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of The Accordion Family. There’s even an official name for this life stage: emerging adulthood. “It’s what we call the period between 18 and 29,” says Elizabeth Fishel, co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years. “It’s a state of flux and possibility,” especially as the traditional markers of adulthood—marriage, house buying, babies—are happening later.
When it works, it’s a chance for kids and their parents to enjoy each other in a new context. “You are setting the stage for the relationship you will have the rest of your life,” says Jane Adams, PhD, a “post-parenting” coach and the author of I’m Still Your Mother: How to Get Along with Your Grown-Up Children for the Rest of Your Life. Follow these steps to make the most of this (fingers crossed) fleeting time.
Have a Frank Talk Before Anyone Rents a U-Haul.
Many families simply drift into these arrangements, as they’re often born of necessity. “Everyone assumes that the two generations have lived together before and can pick back up. That’s setting up the family for conflict,” says Christina Newberry, author of The Hands-On Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home—and a former, two-time boomerang kid. There are usually conflicting expectations. Young adults anticipate they will enjoy all the freedoms of their newly independent life while having someone else do their laundry. Parents envision family dinners in which kids gratefully receive Life Wisdom. Newberry suggests a contract. (If that sounds too much like legalese, call it a “living agreement.” Her website, adultchildrenlivingathome.com, has a template you can buy.) How will chores be divided? Who pays for the souped-up Wi-Fi? “If things get rocky later, you can pull it out,” says Newberry.
Parents, keep in mind: Make it clear that you don’t intend to provide concierge service. One analysis based on the American Time Use Survey found that parents of at-home 18- to 31-year-old children spent about eight extra hours a week on housework. “There’s no need to turn yourself into a pretzel. If you don’t want to go back to cooking dinner every night, you don’t have to. Just say so,” says Linda Perlman Gordon, a psychotherapist in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and the author of Mom, Can I Move Back in With You?
Kids, keep in mind: Take the lead. “Come in with the understanding that the goal of moving home is to eventually move back out,” says Newberry. “Have goals: You’ll be living there so you can take an unpaid internship that will build experience to make you more employable. That will help your parents see you, and therefore treat you, as an adult.”
Be Roommates (Sorta).
“It’s almost instinctual to go right back into the old parent-child roles. You need to override that,” says Gordon. Think of this as you would any roommate arrangement. Most important? Mutual consideration. Would you expect a roommate to change the empty toilet-paper roll for you? Barge into your bedroom uninvited? No. Boundaries are also key. “I stopped telling them about every detail of my social life or where I was going after work. I realized that when I shared things like that, I was inviting their opinions,” says Kussman.
Parents, keep in mind: Every fiber of your being may be screaming to get your daughter’s life in order. But your parenting should now be based on what best helps launch your child to full independence. Ask yourself what you would be doing for your child if she lived in the next state. Providing emotional support? Yes. Filling her gas tank? No.
Kids, keep in mind: It may sound a little formal, but it can help to think of yourself as a guest at a friend’s parents’ house. You’d hang up wet towels, offer to help clear the dinner table, and keep it down past midnight. “Being intentionally respectful and considerate reminds them you are a grown-up,” and will probably curb some nagging, says Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. Occasionally volunteer some intel—how an interview went, what your brunch plans are—which can satisfy the parental instinct to dig.
Don’t Freak Out If You Start to Feel Trapped.
Even when the arrangement makes perfect sense, “kids don’t feel fully grown-up when they get a text from Dad asking if Mom should turn on the oven for dinner yet,” says Kussman. Feeling stuck or embarrassed to still be living at home can cause a downward spiral. “They start to lose confidence and are less willing to put themselves out there,” says Jenn DeWall, a millennial career coach in Denver. Meanwhile, even super-supportive parents may miss their empty nest at times.
Parents, keep in mind: Everyone survived without you before. Take advantage of the built-in cat sitter and carve out time alone or take a trip, says Fishel. If you notice your child stalling out, it can pique your anxiety—like you are failing the parenting final exam. That’s when temptation is greatest to help fill out job applications or make every breakfast a pep talk. Instead, follow your child’s lead. “Put yourself out there as a resource: ‘If you like, I can look at your résumé.’ But don’t try to jump in and fix things,” says Fishel. If your child does welcome advice, know this: “Young adults who receive financial, practical, and emotional support from their parents reported clearer life goals and more satisfaction than those who didn’t get the help,” says Karen Fingerman, PhD, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. In other words, butting in a bit isn’t something to feel particularly guilty about.
Kids, keep in mind: Treat home as a hotel, in the sense that it is mostly a place to sleep and (occasionally) eat while you live your adult life elsewhere—hanging out with encouraging friends or grabbing coffee with a fellow alumna in your field. You may need to get off Facebook for a while, which can take the wind out of your sails. “I would look at my former roommates with their awesome jobs, and it was totally depressing,” says DeWall of her stint back home. “Take at least one small step—networking, updating your website—every day.” Refreshing your childhood bedroom to look more like a hotel suite (calming neutrals, no prom pictures) may also help you feel like an adult passing through on the way to someplace important.
Enjoy the Perks.
Despite these stumbling blocks, a Pew Research Center survey found that both parents and children typically rated themselves content with the arrangement. And having a grown child at home didn’t hurt the parents’ own relationship satisfaction, either. “I’ve seen parents and adult children take spin classes or start watching Game of Thrones together. New rituals deepen your bond,” says Gordon. That was true when Fishel’s son Nate moved home for nine months. “We loved his company! He is a witty, perceptive guy. Plus, I could call down the stairs anytime I had a tech glitch,” she says.
Parents, keep in mind: You get to show off your handsome baby at the neighborhood potluck! Eat dinner with him every night! Right? Not necessarily. Extend invitations, but don’t force togetherness. “You want your child to choose to opt in. Say, ‘We typically have dinner at 6, and anytime you want to join us, great. Just let me know,’” says Fishel. Save your full-court press for big events.
Kids, keep in mind: Make time to hang out, not just drink the free almond milk. You won’t regret it. “My brother is also home, starting his first job after law school, and it’s fun,” says Kussman. “We eat breakfast together and start laughing about nothing, just like we did in high school.”
Have a Plan for Handling the Trickiest Issues.
Calmly navigate some common flash points.
- Rent. “Parents tend to fixate on it as a marker of responsibility, but if a child is home to save money for a goal you support, like grad school, it just stalls his progress,” says Gordon. One solution: Collect “rent,” put it in a savings account, and return it when the child moves out. Rent-free kids should contribute in other ways—driving younger siblings, painting the deck—so they see the arrangement as a two-way street.
- Adult sleepovers. Parents still have the right to set the rules under their own roof, say experts. (Dictating what happens out of the house is a different matter.) If you aren’t OK with an overnight guest, use “I” statements to make your point. “They let you state your policy in a way that doesn’t pass judgment or put the other person on the defensive,” says Gordon. “I am uncomfortable with your girlfriend sleeping over, because it’s confusing to your younger sister.”
- Schedules. You’re likely living on completely different shifts. Thankfully, young adults have more empathy than adolescents, says Gordon. Ask them to text when they’ll be home. “Say, ‘It isn’t because I don’t trust you. I just have a mom radar that comes on naturally when you’re home. Do me a favor so I’m not up all night worried you drove into a ditch,’” says Gordon.
- The exit strategy. “When the situation feels indefinite, parents are driven up the wall,” says Adams. Have semiregular check-ins about how things are progressing. Keeping an eye on the big picture prevents parents from freaking out every time Ben buys $200 kicks or sleeps until noon; kids get to see that it’s OK to make the leap even if the next step isn’t perfect. If necessary, set a time limit. “One friend offered her kids each one year at home,” says Fishel. “By then, they would be on their way to their Big Dream or, if not, they’d have to figure out a way to support themselves, even if it wasn’t their ideal job.”