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Why You Feel Helpless When Your Young Adult Won't Help

Here are some things to think about if your child seems like a layabout.

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As we all know, it is not unusual for young adults to continue living at home for a period of time once they are done with high school, and/or to return home for a period of time at one or more junctures on their pathway towards self-sufficiency. There are many challenges when it comes to this arrangement, but one that frequently arises has to do with parental frustration regarding reluctance or refusal on the part of young adults to “help out” while they are back at the ranch.

Some version of the following kinds of complaints is what I will often hear during fractious family therapy sessions:

  • “I can’t get her to clean her room and it’s a complete disaster area!”
  • “Couldn’t he at least work with me in the yard to rake the leaves or mow the lawn when I’m out there by myself? Does it even occur to him to help?”
  • “I’m expected to buy things on her precious shopping list whenever I’m at the store, but god forbid I ask her to go shopping for me—you would think I was asking her to climb a mountain!”
  • “I don’t ask him to do much—bring his dishes up from the basement, set the table before dinner, take out the trash, stuff like that—but I have to stay on him and ask him so many times that it’s just easier for me to do it myself. It’s like he’s 14!”

From my vantage point, there are many reasons that these conflicts arise, and rarely is it as uni-dimensional as the young adult “just being lazy” or “simply not caring”—even though it may very well appear that way to exasperated parents. Cooperative, reciprocal divisions of labor between the generations aren’t always natural to come by or easy to achieve, and this usually has something to do with the inner life of the young adult, with the inner life of the parents, and with the intersection of the two.

Here are some examples:

1. The young adult may not want to set into motion a contribution to household functioning that suggests that she is going to be there for very long—by side-stepping responsibility, she is emphasizing the transitory nature of her return home, envisioning herself more as something like a “hotel guest” than an actual, and possibly on-going, inhabitant of the home.

2. There may be a long history of the young adult having been excused from responsibility for household chores, and attempting to ignite that engine at this point—an engine that would have ideally been ignited years ago—is not likely to be met with success at this developmental stage.

3. Parents are not always clear about what to expect from the young adult who is living at home, or even if it’s justifiable to have expectations of their child at this point. So requests for assistance or support may be hesitantly articulated—muted or blunted in ways that reduce the likelihood that these requests will be taken seriously and fulfilled.

4. Making it easy for a young adult to behave more like a child and avoid responsibilities turns back the clock developmentally and keeps the parent-and-child equilibrium in the position that parent and/or child—even young adult child—might still feel most comfortable and familiar with. Parents may indeed be frustrated, and legitimately so, but the constant hectoring of their child keeps them engaged with their child, albeit maladaptively.The young adult may be frustrated, and legitimately so, but eschewing responsibilities preserves the delusion that he will always be taken care of by someone else.

5. If the young adult is staying home, or has returned home, for constructive reasons, such as wanting to save money while she is in school or as she prepares for additional training or education, parents may be hesitant to place clear demands on her while she is attempting to fulfill her personal goals and objectives—they don’t want to interfere with her focus on climbing the next rung of the ladder by “distracting” her with mundane chores.

6. On the other hand, if the young adult is staying home, or has returned home, for problematic reasons, such as having been unable to succeed at college or to find a job that pays a living wage, parents may be hesitant to place clear demands on her because they feel badly for her—they want her to concentrate on moving ahead with her life, not on becoming a more accomplished bed-maker or dish-washer.

With these complicated possibilities in mind (and none of them are mutually exclusive), here are some approaches and strategies to keep in mind that might help to dissolve a chronic state of tension when it comes to the nitty-gritty mechanics of family functioning:

1. In your own head, establish clarity regarding what you believe is a reasonable set of expectations when it comes to your young adult’s contribution to and responsibilities for your home-life.

2. Before presenting these to your young adult, ask her what she believes are reasonable contributions on her part.You are not compelled to agree with what she comes up with, but it will supply you with some additional information regarding how close or far apart you are. And if what she comes up with does seem reasonable and workable, you are ahead of the game because she has come up with it on her own, rather than having it imposed on her, making it more likely that she’ll follow through.

3. Pay close attention to how you present your expectations. Are you doing so in a deferential, hopeful way, or in a way that makes it clear that your request is non-negotiable? Parents sometimes use the word “help” when addressing these issues (“We’d like you to help out with the cooking.”) but the concept of “help” suggests that the helping individual is not really an integral part of the process—it has an optional feel to it. More effective is the clear establishment of expectations, and an affirmation that these are duties that need to be fulfilled.

4. Be sure to have a “bottom line." Talk is cheap—nagging, complaining, or raging are unlikely to facilitate any enduring change.You want to be prepared to respond with action, with the willingness to follow through with a consequence of one sort or another if your expectations are not being met. This could be as mild as withdrawing a subsidy that is currently in place (“If you’re not going to carry your weight around here, we’re going to take you off of our cellphone plan and you’ll have to carry the weight of that bill by yourself.”) or as impactful as ultimately withdrawing the privilege of being able to live in your home at low-rent or rent-free.

As you give these ideas some consideration, keep in mind that it’s impossible for an individual to have any self-respect if responsibilities are not being handled with grace, diligence and maturity. Parents who protect or excuse children of any age from being dutiful citizens of the home are depriving them of the richest source of self-worth that exists. Your young adult may not be enthusiastic about becoming a more viable and functional member of the household, and certainly may not thank you for being insistent that he do so, but inside, he will experience a sense of purpose and value that will lay the groundwork for his capacity to eventually move out of your home and move on with his life.

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