Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Back from College with the Introjected Parent

Moving home after college can be tough on everyone.

Like many facets of adolescence, college graduation is tinged with irony. 

Come May, the pomp and circumstance, many of the speeches, and all of the well intentioned questions are about the end of childhood and the transition to adulthood. The expectation was that college graduation ended the period of preparation and exploration that is adolescence and began the series of commitments that constitutes adulthood.

At the same time, the first thing that most youth did when they took off their graduation robe was dump their accumulated belongings in the car and head back to live with their parents. 

This isn't the 'boomerang kids' or 'failure to launch'.  It's youth getting ready to launch, getting their feet under themselves, and keeping a roof over their head as they continue their search for job and apartment. 

In the mean time, they're back in their old room and they and their parents have to figure out how to live together again.

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Major family transitions are typically marked by tension and conflict.

That isn't a bad thing.  Change often requires re-negotiation of expectations and the development of new norms and ways of interacting with one another.

Families with returning adult children have seen it before When children enter puberty and transition to middle school, their new status causes them to demand more autonomy and causes their parents to treat them differently. It's not 'raging hormones' that causes the fights.  A big part the rise in conflict typical of early adolescence is the process of re-negotiation.

In healthy families, that means discussion, conflict - even fights - and eventually arriving at a new equilibrium. In unhealthy families, parents and adolescents stop talking and just withdraw from one another.

Moving back home after college is the same type of transition, only the compexity is even greater.  Graduates are now clearly adults.  But for (adult) kids who have been living at school, moving home also means reintegrating into a family that has changed since they've left. 

Two issues to think about: legitimacy of authority and the introjected parent.

There are lots of issues that could be discussed about this transition: finances, how much help is too much, when support becomes dysfunctional . . . I want to focus on something simple: renegotiating family rules and expections.

One framework used for thinking about the re-negotiation of family interactions that occurs during early adolescence has focused on the legitimacy of parental authority.

Legitimacy of parental authority refers to the adolescents' and parents' beliefs about what areas it is okay for parents to control and set rules about and what areas it is not.  When parents and their kids think about issues, they tend to group issues into four categories: 

  • Personal issues are things that only influence the person themselves - who they choose as friends, what type of books they like, etc.  These are issues that both parents and children agree are outside the legitimate sphere of parental authority.
  • Prudential  issues are safety-related concerns.  Because part of the parental role is to protect children, both parents and children agree that it is okay for parents to set rules about safety issues like talking on the phone while driving, drinking, cooking when adults aren't home, etc.  For adults, on the other hand, prudential issues are usually considered within the personal domain.  
  • Moral issues are fundamental questions of right and wrong.  Again, because part of the parental role is to socialize youth, parents and children both agree that it is okay for parents to set rules like 'don't hurt your brother' or 'don't steal'.
  • Conventional issues are issues of conforming to social norms and are usually judged similarly to moral issues. 

Social cognitive theory suggests that when parents no longer have the social role of protector and socializer - i.e. when their children make the transition to adulthood - all issues become 'personal' and parents no longer have legitimate authority as parents  to set rules for their adult children.

Think about it.  Your kid is living in their own apartment across the state from you.  Would you feel it was okay to call them and tell them to go to bed?  Or to insist that they shave in the morning?  Or to call you when they get home at night so you know where they are?

Probably not. 

Does that mean that because it is no longer legitimate for parents as parents to set rules, adult children living at home should have complete freedom to do whatever they want?

No.  But the basis for legitimacy changes.  Legitimate authority can be grounded in many factors other than the role of parent.  We do work-related tasks that our bosses assign us because that is our role within the organization.  We obey police officers because we believe they have the right to make reasonable requests of us.  What makes a request reasonable?  It is within the legitimate domain of their authority: i.e. it falls directly from their job as a designated officer fulfilling their duties.  Traffic stop, yes.  Personal favor, no.  Similarly, when adults live together and share a house, it is reasonable - i.e., within the legitimate authority of the homeowner - to ask others to conform to ground rules that make it easier for people in the house to live together. 

For example, when adults live together, it's nice to know who's coming to dinner so people can plan.  It is reasonable to tell people when they can expect you home so no one worries. It is also reasonable for all adults in the household - old and young alike - to share in responsibilities for keeping the house functioning.  This includes sharing chores.  And, ultimately, it is reasonable for people whose house it is to set the conditions for other adults to live there - even if this means saying they are uncomfortable with overnight guests or people drinking in their underwear in front of the tv.

Advice for parents: Lots of things that parents typicallys set rules or nag their older adolescents about fall in the prudential and conventional domains: when to get up, when to go to bed, cleaning rooms, curfew, etc.  As a rule of thumb, you might ask yourself whether this is something that you would feel comfortable having a 'firm conversation' with about if your adult child lived in their own apartment.  Most of those issues are probably now in the personal domain.

On the other hand, courtesy is a perfectly reasonable expectation of all people living together. And modeling is always a good thing.  When you go out, tell your (adult) child where you're going and when you'll be back.  Ask them to do the same.  It is courteous for someone to call or send a text if they're unexpectedly coming home late enough that you'd worry.  It is certainly reasonable to say whether or not they're coming home for dinner.  And if there are household expectations about dress or rising times, those need to be clear. 

But remain in the here and now.  Household rules are not legitimate because you're the parent and they're the kid.  These are reasonable expectations for how caring adults treat each other and how responsible adults act when they live together. 

That means that you should follow them too.

The introjected parent.  I rarely draw on neo-Freudian theory, but I think there is much insight in Peter Blos's concept of the introjected parent.  Blos argued that when adoelscents respond to a parent, they are actually reacting to two different people: the real one in front of them and the 'introjected' parent.  The introjected parent is their internalized image of the all-powerful, omniscient parent of their young childhood.  The mom who would tower over them and yell when they did something wrong.  The scary dad who would send them to their room.  And the incredibly comforting, loving parent who could fold them in their arms and make everything okay.

Blos argued that when young people are establishing their autonomy, they separate themselves from the real parents' usually benign rules fairly easily.  Pushing away the introjected parent is much harder because in this parent-child relationship, the child is just a small child and the parent is all powerful.  So the adolescent has to push hard to separate themselves from this controlling and frightening force.

Advice for adult children.  There is something to think about here as you think about how you are responding to parental requests.  When a parent asks where you're going, is this a reasonable inquiry or a true interrogation?  When they ask when you got in, is this a restriction on your personal freedom or the same kind of question any other roommate might ask? 

And when they ask you take out the garbage or clean the living room, is that a reasonable request that anyone would ask of another responsible adult they were living with?

One final thought: Courtesy

Parents often complain simultaneously that kids don't act enough like rseponsible adults and then try to control them as if they were children.  Some adult children want to be treated like adults when it comes to being able to come and go as they please, but want to be taken care of when they get themselves into financial scrapes or when it comes to sharing in housework.  PEOPLE NEED TO MAKE UP THEIR MINDS.  Adult children are adults.  They need to be treated and act like them. 

Early aduldhood is a challenging time which requires parents and their children to learn new ways of being together.

My favorite writer of parenting advice - Miss Manners - talks about manners and courtesy as a matter of taking other people's feelings and needs into account.  Living together is complicated and the needs of different people often conflict. This is especially true in tight circumstances - like a home - and in stressful times - like when someone is looking for a job.

During times of transition, it's really important to give each other some slack, act with courtesy, and be kind  to one another.

The economy still isn't that strong.  You may be living together for a while.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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