When "Grown" Kids Boomerang Home to Stay

Parenting last stage adolescents who come home to stay

Posted Jul 11, 2011

Yogi Berra had it right, not just about the game of baseball but about the game of parenting as well. "It ain't over 'til it's over," he observed. And so for many parents, just when they think the nest is finally empty and their son or daughter has been successfully launched, that old bedroom is re-occupied by a returning older adolescent come home not just to visit, but to stay.

It's very common during the fourth and final stage of adolescence, what I call "trial independence" (ages 18 - 23), for a young person who has been living apart from family to return home to take up residence again. Precise estimates are hard to come by, but the New York Times (August 18, 2010) cited that 40% of young people in their 20's move back in with parents at least once. ("What is the matter with 20-somethings?")

It may be they need a place to carry them over a break in their work or educational lives. It may be that they have lost their independent footing, encountered some life crisis, and need a safe place to recover before stepping out on their own again. In either case, this return can create an awkward home coming.

Having become accustomed to living separately (without exposure to each other's daily presence and influence), moving back together is an adjustment because both parent and adolescent must give up some freedom in the process. The parent has to give up freedom from ignorance about the young person's conduct, and the adolescent has to give up freedom from parental scrutiny. While the parent struggles with how much parenting responsibility to reassert, the adolescent struggles with how much autonomy to surrender.

Both usually agree that since the young person has been functioning independently and is older, their relationship should now be more grown up. But here is where the return home can start to get abrasive.

Thinks the adolescent, for example: "I am now too grown up to report my comings and goings to my parents." However, parents want to know how late he or she will be home at night so they don't have to worry.

Think the parents, for example: "Our adolescent is now sufficiently grown up to live in the neat and orderly way we like." However, the adolescent wants home to be relaxed enough not to have to worry about picking up and putting back after himself all the time.

What's going on? Usually, the answer is regression. The frame of reference that each imposes on the return relationship tends to resemble the one that described how it was when they last lived together. So they each revert to that. Parents remember insisting that the adolescent adequately inform them when going out at night. The adolescent remembers ignoring, or at least delaying, compliance with housekeeping needs of parents. The return home typically revives old habits of behaviors in them all.

So what needs to happen? Clarification of CONDITIONS and committing to MUTUALITY are the answers. For adequate clarification, the basic terms of return must be specified and agreed upon. For adequate cooperation, efforts must be made by both sides to help make the relationship work.

From what I have seen of these boomerang situations, the return home goes best when parents are proactive and specific about declaring what they need in the relationship. Play "wait and see how it's going to be" to have the young person back home, and parents risk living on returnee terms they don't like.

They need to come up with a set of conditions that will minimally structure the young person's stay so that the hosting works well for them, and thus for her. Because the young person needs welcoming parents, not complaining ones, he or she needs to know the basics of what they need. The three kinds of conditions are: purpose, limits, and demands of the stay.

Start with PURPOSE. What is the objective of coming home? If the young person says, "to take a break, hang out here for a while, and forget my troubles," this answer is insufficient to justify their permission for a return. A better answer might be, "to use the time to take a couple community college courses to test my interests, to hold a job, to save my earnings, and so at the end of a year I have enough money to move out and live independently again." Always specify objectives for coming home that, when reached, result in readiness for leaving home again.

Then there are LIMITS. What limits do parents want to set on the adolescent's freedom while at home? For example, what limits do they want to set on the young person's socializing at home, determining what is watched on the family room TV, use of the computer, driving a family car, eating whatever is in the kitchen, borrowing parental belongings, sleeping in during weekdays? Of course, the first limit to set is how long the stay is to last. An open ended stay can drag on for a long unproductive time.

Finally, consider DEMANDS. What demands on the adolescent's time and energy do they want to make? For example, what demands do they want to make about contributing household responsibilities, helping around the home, making own spending money, shopping for and cooking family meals, looking after younger children? Such demands are not intrusive, they are supportive. They give the young person a constructive role to play in the family.

Having mentioned these suggestions to some parents, they shook their heads and objected. "That's no way to treat a guest!"

"That's right," I agreed. "You need to treat your returning adolescent not as a guest, but as a returning member of the family come home for a working stay designed to turn out well enough (not perfectly) for everyone.

Now consider Mutuality.

A major cause for a return home to work out badly is when the adolescent proceeds to live in a one way (all his or her way) relationship to parents and they accept this inequity, to their hurt and angry cost. Instead, they must insist on mutuality. He or she must live with them on two-way, not one way terms. Simply put, this means practicing reciprocity, compromise, and consideration.

RECIPROCITY in a relationship is achieved when each party actively contributes to the wellbeing of the other. Thus just as parents provide a living space for the adolescent, the adolescent provides some house-keeping services to help maintain that space.

COMPROMISE is achieved when in disagreement both parties agree to move off their immediate self-interest to define a common interest where each gives some to get some of what each wants. Thus when Sunday and the time for family worship arrives, and parents want the adolescent to attend church when she does not, they settle on her attending not every week, but every other Sunday.

CONSIDERATION is achieved when each party in the relationship makes an effort not to tread on each other's sensitivities. Thus the adolescent keeps music played quiet enough not to offend parental ears, and parents do not ask about who the adolescent is going out with when he dates.

To the degree that the older adolescent can live on terms of mutuality with parents (practicing reciprocity, compromise, and sensitivity) this training can have significant benefit in two ways.

First, it establishes a basis of mutuality for conducting the adult relationship with parents in the years ahead. And second it teaches essential skills for successfully managing a significant partnership when the time for that relationship arrives.

If the young person is simply unwilling to meet their minimal conditions and live on two-way, mutual terms with them, then parents should not criticize or get angry. They should respect the young person's choice, and then say something like this. "We understand that you have reached an age when living only on your own terms is what you need to do. Unhappily, this will not work living with us. Therefore, within the next two weeks you need to make other living arrangements. Of course, while you are still in town we would love to get to see you as always."

Returning home after having left for independence is not a right, it is a privilege. As a counselor I am aware of this having seen young people in need of such family support who have no welcoming or healthy home to return to. Maybe they are not wanted back or it is not well for them to do so. In either case, they may have to make emergency arrangements that can be to their disadvantage, perhaps berthing where they are not safe or where they are at risk of being exploited.

Returning home is a not a luxury available to all. The adolescent is privileged to have a home that welcomes her return, just as parents are privileged to have this precious extended family time with their older adolescent son or daughter. As I suggest, this needs to be a two-way street.

To avail herself of this privilege, she must agree to meet certain household terms, just as parents have to consider what her needs are when living back with them. "Please don't ask me all the time how my job search is going and what I'm planning to do with my future. Please don't share your worries about me to me when I have enough worries of my own. Please respect my private social life with friends. Please provide me a safe and loving place to stay as I figure out and prepare for what to do next."

Next week's entry: Graduating high school and the summer of freedom come