Failure to Launch: Whose Problem is it Anyway?

When adult children stay around longer than you'd like, no one wins...

Posted Jan 17, 2017

“How is your daughter doing these days?” says one baby boomer mother to another. “Well, she recently moved closer to home. I love having her closer, but I have mixed feelings.” The inquisitor asks why.  As it turns out, this woman adores her daughter. She thinks her only child is one of the sharpest people she knows. But she was secretly thrilled when her daughter had moved across the country, where this mom used to make a yearly trip to visit her. “Oh God,” she says. “She is 29 now and tells me after all this time she wants to go back to school to finish her degree. I just hope she doesn’t ask if she can move back in.”

The look on this mother’s face is one of abject terror. Just when she thought she could begin enjoying her retirement, she is positioning herself for what she might do if her very capable daughter poses a question that has the potential to make her the bad guy. She imagines all kinds of disastrous scenarios: What if she hates me forever and turns to a life of drugs because I say no? What if I can’t re-frame this so she knows I love her, but I just don’t want her to move back in? And how will she ever pay off her current student loans if she has to apply for more of them?

These concerns for many parents are not uncommon. Some 20-30 somethings live in arrangements where they have their own entrance to and separate quarters within the family home, others live semi-independently with financial help from their parents as they pay off their student loans, some take seven years to get a four year degree and don’t know what to do with it, and yet others feign being on their own but see no shame in having their mobile phone bills end up at their parents’ mailbox or their toll road bills sent there, either. For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans ages 18-34 are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living situation, according to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center. If you are one of those parents who have given your all—and you know who you are— chances are good that you find it nearly impossible to let go of your adult child when they seem not to have found their “path” in life. Trouble, is, taking them back into the fold for free or even supporting them financially in some way may not aid in that effort—it may only deny it or delay it.

USA Today writer Peter Dunn, in his two part article on the topic, says “The financial support you are offering your adult children is toxic. You are hurting them, you are hurting yourself, and until you realize it’s not money that they need, everyone involved will feel the pain.” He alludes to teaching a child to ride a bike, and how it’s altogether possible that the moment you take the training wheels off and let go, she could fall a split her lip open. “Once you let go, and she falls and bleeds, she will quickly learn that balance and control equal the absence of pain. At that moment, everyone moves on with life.”

This may sound overly simplistic when speaking of a fast-talking, sometimes college-educated adult child who knows the ins and outs of how to get a primo concert ticket, navigate the Internet better than you’ll ever dream of, and has already found dozens of ways to avoid getting a full-time job because some types are simply not enjoyable. But by then the equivalent to never having let him or her fall off a bike becomes your problem, and not theirs. Have you ever thought about how, when your child was determined enough to get something or go somewhere, nothing could stop her? That may have included pleading with you ad nauseam, doing more chores around the house to “earn” it, or even sacrificing something to get it. That resourcefulness is something she developed over time, but when it’s used to survive, parents often cave and become overly compassionate when they should simply be telling their adult children that failure is part of the process.

While it’s true the delay of your child’s independence can stem from college debt, how much of that equation stems from your lack of funds or willingness to help them get a degree to begin with? Could your child have knocked down the first two years at a junior college or state-run school and then chosen where to spend the final two? Could he or she have worked full-time a year or two to earn enough to attend college? Or did he or she decide she had to go out of state or to a private college knowing you could not fully fund that education? Hindsight is always 20/20, but it’s important to remember that you played a part in that scenario as well by not setting up expectations about your own continuing role in all this.

We know resentments can run high when a previously-enabling parent suddenly finds the strength to say no to a boomerang adult child or when putting their foot down when their grown kid takes their sweet time in becoming self-sufficient. When done with measure, tact, and love thrown in, however, your adult child will eventually realize that you were simply trying to push them out of the nest to find their own destinies. Truth is, in many cases this is almost more painful to the parent than the child, since they think they risk their child’s love in perpetuity. This is rarely the case, however.

I recall how difficult it was getting phone calls from my own daughter when she decided against going to a college we could afford after high school and fled to the Northwest when her dad and I divorced. She flailed, going from job to job for three years and taking risks that made my hair turn grey (well, it was time for that to happen anyway). She knew she had my love and emotional support, but I rarely helped her financially, except to move her from place to place. And I visited her or paid her airline ticket home once in awhile. Sometimes I cringed at her living conditions. But we did not live together again until she decided to move back and open an online business, when she asked for a month or two of free rent in our home (I had remarried) as she got it up and running. She did well and was able to get her own place pretty quickly, renting a pool house from a relative in a suburb (she despises suburbs), but she knew she had few other choices at the time. Hers became a success story, but I wonder if she would have been so resourceful had I insisted on her living with me. 

“I don’t want my children to fail, but I look forward to their failures,” says Dunn. “They build character, resourcefulness and guile. It’s only when I try and mask their failures that their failures become my failure.” He goes on to admit that cutting off an adult child can certainly ring of callousness, but that continuing to support your adult child financially can ruin your financial life as well as their own. “There are no winners,” he says. “You believe you are sacrificing for another, but you aren’t. You are the captain of a sinking ship.”

I write this piece today because I cannot tell you how many friends of mine in their 50s and 60s are still supporting adult children in some way but can’t seem to find a way to let go. Many even realize they are being manipulated by them but laugh and shrug it off, thinking it won’t last much longer. I tell them that yes—you may have made some mistakes in “over-parenting” or spoiling your children— but even if you took steps to change things now, you have to believe you gave your all. Because you did. Your investment in them is alive and well. They need no more influence, undue praise or criticism from you. Your job is done.

They will no doubt resent you (perhaps even get dramatic) for letting go, but they may not realize what a favor you’ve done them until a few years down the road. You’ll have to steel yourself for that part. It can’t be fun. But you will probably both survive. And your child will someday learn to raise his or her own children to be more self-sufficient because you taught it to them before it was too late.