For parents today, boomerang kids are becoming more common: adult children who initially leave home but then later come back. Perhaps you watched them drive off to college, the car packed full of their belongings, or as they headed off to their first job and apartment in a new city: excited, hopeful, and maybe a little nervous. Then, for whatever reason—whether due to no job offer after graduation, unaffordable city rent, or the new job that didn’t work out—your adult children move back home with you.
Even if you expected this return home, what happens next is critical—both for your transition into parenting adult children, and for your adult child’s personal growth, development, and eventual transition to independent adulthood.
This resource guide will give you the background and the boundaries you need to work toward a healthy parent-child relationship in this stage of life. And, eventually, an empty nest that stays that way—at least until the grandkids come to visit!
What Has Changed?
If you have adult children living at home with you, you’re not alone: The Pew Research Center reports that 32% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 have moved back into the nest, sparking the term, boomerang generation.
This unprecedented shift—for the first time ever, more young adults in the U.S. live with their parents than with a spouse or roommates—may be good news for the parents who miss the hustle and bustle of kids in the house. But for those who had strained relationships with their children, for those who are providing increasing support to aging parents, or for those who simply want to work through their empty nest bucket list, an adult child’s return home can be highly disruptive.
A parenting coach and parent to three adult children, Dr. Richard Horowitz of Growing Great Relationships says the term “emerging adulthood” is used more and more among psychologists and industry experts, due a more fluid definition of adulthood. “The previous timeline for an ‘adult’ was turning 18, graduating high school, perhaps having some support in college, then being on your own after graduation,” says Horowitz. But what actually makes an individual an adult? There can be variations in maturity among your own children, too, based on personality and temperament.
With college debt at an all-time high and well-paying jobs in high demand, many adult children rely on parents to supplement their income. If the parents cannot provide financial support, the children move home. The reality today? It’s harder to be financially independent, says Horowitz.
Besides the money, many adult children have been raised under a different style of parenting (for example, helicopter parenting) and may not be as readily equipped to handle obstacles or cope with life’s challenges on their own. Children who are too attached to their parents (or vice versa) also may find independence more difficult.
Author, educator, and former teacher Heather Goodyear has learned much about this phase of life from being the mother of six children—two of whom are adults, and one who is on the cusp.
“In going through this process with them, I have noticed two things that seem common among adults their age,” says Goodyear. “One, they have a hard time knowing where to start once their formal education ends. They want all the answers lined up for the future to make sure where they start in their decisions for work, home, or family ends up being the right choice down the line, so they don’t look back and see they made a mistake,” she explains. “Two, they want to be significant. In a culture where everything is posted and everyone seems famous, they feel a lot of pressure to be significant.”
Tess Brigham, a Bay Area-based trained psychotherapist turned 20-something life strategist, cites “crowdsourcing advice” as another barrier to successful launching—that is, leaving the nest and building a life independently, instead of languishing at home.
With countless blogs, social media postings, text messaging, FaceTime, and a host of other “instant communication” options, young adults often struggle with figuring out what they want because they have too many opinions in their heads by the time they ask for their parents’ help.
How Do You Prepare for a Child’s Return Home?
In a word: Plan.
Before allowing an adult child to return home or answering the request for financial assistance, parents need to know what their parameters are, and to engage in a negotiation with their child before any plan is put in place, says Horowitz.
Creating this plan works best before the adult child comes home, and must involve everyone who lives at home (even stepparents or spouses who are “less involved”), says Brigham. “Not setting expectations or boundaries before a child moves back home is the #1 problem I hear in my practice and beyond,” Brigham says.
Get your issues out on the table—like curfew—and establish whether this is a temporary or longer-term situation. Ask them their plans for employment, too, Horowitz says. The more ownership your adult child has of this plan—knowing what their end game is, for example—the more likely they’ll be to follow the rules and guidelines you set.
How Do You Set Ground Rules and Expectations When Your Adult Children Move Back Home?
One of the most important things parents with boomerang kids should remember, according to Dr. Horowitz? They’re still the parents. “This is the biggest barrier to healthy adult child-parent relationships,” he says. “You can validate your kids and negotiate family centered parenting without giving up your authority.”
Cynthia White, mother of a 29-year-old daughter and 32-year-old son, set very clear guidelines for her children when it came to advanced education. “Before university, I explained to them in no uncertain terms what I expected from them there. I and their father paid for their schooling in ratios proportionate to our incomes,” says the Vancouver Island based writer. “I told my kids I didn’t care what they studied but that I expected at least a B average, and that if they wanted to waste time at school, they could do that much more cheaply at home,” she says. They each kept up a B average minimum and graduated on time, White reports.
Besides setting expectations, motivating your children to take on new responsibilities—like caregiving for a grandparent—can be a valuable tool for launching. Heather Goodyear saw this scenario play out in a positive way when her dad had a health crisis. “I really watched my children grow up then,” she says. “Our family had to rally around my parents, I had to be away from home at the hospital a lot, and we were traveling back and forth for weeks since my parents lived in a different state.” Goodyear’s oldest children reported that time as being very significant to them. “They understood what it takes to be there for your family, were self-motivated to take on new responsibilities, and realized the world would not always revolve around them.”
How Do You Support Your Children Without Enabling Them?
Dr. Horowitz believes the most important factors of a good relationship are mutual respect and effective communication. Regardless of what struggles may interrupt the path to independence—unemployment, illness, toxic relationships, money matters—respect and communication provide the foundation to handle these challenges without enabling (or in extreme cases, estranging).
Elisabeth Stitt, author of Parenting As a Second Language and founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching, believes parents fall into enabling because they don’t like their new role.
“If you have done the job of raising an adult, probably you are the one who is struggling—struggling to accept that you have been demoted in importance,” Stitt says. “Sure, a connected child will still ask you your opinion and will even come to you for help in an emergency. Young adults will make mistakes and will need rescuing, like getting together first and last month rent plus the deposit but forgetting that the car insurance is due the same week, and all of a sudden there is a cash flow problem. Or he’ll call in a panic because he has a stain on his ‘interview’ shirt. But mostly, he will use his resources and find solutions to his problems.”
There’s a difference between rescuing on a limited basis and longer-term rescuing (to the point of preventing launch). And, despite the growing numbers of boomerang kids, Brigham says adult children do want to launch, and are, in fact, designed to do so.
But too many parents get stuck in their parenting role instead of a guiding role. “At this point, you should be a consultant, not the CEO,” Brigham says. “You’re not telling them how to run their company, but instead, you’re giving them expert advice.” Ask questions that get them to problem solve—such as What are your instincts on this? or Where do you want to be?—but don’t solve the problem for them.
“Present the advice and be a sounding board; otherwise, why would they ever leave?” Brigham says. Those who have their parents’ full support often end up “stuck in time,” she adds.
When grandchildren are involved, the equation changes slightly, says Stitt. “Just shy of 25% of children in the United States are living with a solo parent. Solo parents are less likely to have the same monetary resources as parents living together, and research shows that (as one might expect) having money is related to the likelihood of children attending and graduating college,” she explains.
Given these numbers, a grandparent might choose to help a parent save money by providing housing, childcare, or even infusions of cash, per Stitt. “While this support might still hinder the adult child’s growth and self-esteem, the benefit to the grandchildren is worth considering.”
Money being the sensitive issue it is, it’s crucial for parents to get a handle on their own cash flow before allocating a steady stream to their grown children. We’ve offered guidance on this issue in this article, Giving Money to Grown Children: When to Stop and How to Break the Habit.
Steps to Restoring the Peace After Adult Children Move Back Home
If your adult child is already living under your roof, these practical principles may help curb conflict and lessen the time to launch:
Set Timelines and Expectations
If you’re late to this task, don’t be discouraged: Start now. Sit down to discuss the following: Will your child be contributing toward rent and/or food? Is there a time limit on how long she can stay? Will chores be required of him, and will he need to adhere to a curfew? Will she let you know before friends come over, or if she’s spending the night at a friend’s? If he doesn’t have a job yet, what is the timeline for employment?
Get on the Same Page with Your Spouse or Partner
Whoever is at home together before an adult child moves back in must be on the same page. Brigham says often a spouse who may not be “as involved” (or stepparents) are cut out of decision-making, which is not healthy for the marriage relationship or for the family as a whole.
Difficult, painful circumstances may have led to your adult child’s moving back home. A broken relationship. A health issue. A career snafu. Whatever the reason, cheer them on and guide them to making wise choices for the future, without dwelling too much on the past. When they do launch fully, this will help preserve a positive relationship for the long term.
Be a Consultant, Not a Manager
Don’t do everything for your child once they move back home, as they need to learn responsibility or, in today’s terms, “adulting.” They need to understand how to balance work with self care and meeting basic daily needs (groceries, household maintenance, bill-paying, budgeting). Getting everything done is what adulting is all about, says Brigham, and, if you’re jumping in too often, you’ll only end up delaying independence.
Have a Plan of Action
Maybe timelines are unpredictable, but a plan of action doesn’t have to be. Talk about goals together. Keep the end game in mind. If it’s helpful, come up with a way of mapping progress you can see, and post the plan in a visible place.
Consider Your Own Needs
Remember not to lose yourself in this process of supporting an adult child. Don’t stop doing the things you love, or dropping obligations to meet your child’s needs at every turn.
Don’t Get Pulled into Guilt
An adult child who expects you to “do for them” instead of working with them to “do for themselves” may try to manipulate you with guilt. While they may technically be an adult, if they are living in your home, you are still the authority. You can validate the difficulty of their present transition without sacrificing your authority, says Horowitz.
Don’t React to an Adult Child’s Anger or Frustration
Perhaps your adult child is very compliant and helpful at home but is angry about being “stuck” there. Don’t take it personally. Remember, the goal here is one of independence, of separation. That doesn’t mean you won’t still have a relationship or connection once they’ve moved on!
Don’t Let Your Adult Child Control You
It’s your house. And, if you have worked together on house rules and expectations, your adult child needs to respect that. Maintain your position of control and authority as the parent, so that they have the structure they need to gain independence.
Let Go When They’re Ready!
You may love having your son or daughter around because you truly enjoy their company, or because you miss having the hustle and bustle of children at home. Find other outlets to socialize when your child is ready to go, and don’t hold them back on account of your feelings about an empty nest.
When Should Your Adult Child Move out of Your House?
There’s no single “cutoff” age, but what may be helpful is setting a goal: for example, when your son has kept his job for more than a year and is able to pay all his bills on his own, or when your daughter finds an apartment she can afford on her salary, although she may still come home for meals until she can afford groceries.
Answers around timing can be especially difficult when the young adult has special needs or mental illness—and each family will have to make a decision based on their unique situation.
As in most matters related to parenting, clear communication and the setting of appropriate boundaries can help both you and your adult child navigate the challenges of a successful launch. After all, your goal is the same: to see your adult children independent and moving forward with their own lives.