Jane Adams, PhD, a social psychologist based in Seattle who specializes in parent/adult child relationships. She is the author of I’m Still Your Mother: How to Get Along with Your Grown-Up Children for the Rest of Your Life. JaneAdams.com
Your job was to raise your children and send them off into the world…but what if they come back? As of 2016, about 15% of 25-to-35-year-olds lived with their parents, a sharp increase from the 10% who did so in 2000, according to a study by Pew Research Center. And the numbers may continue to rise.
Whether kids are returning home for economic reasons or simply because they are having a hard time cutting the cord, the key is to make the situation successful for all involved. Having a history of getting along is no guarantee that things will go smoothly when adult children move back in. Parent/child relationships change when children become adults (and adults get used to living in their “empty nest”), and it’s important to set new ground rules that respect the needs of all involved.
How to create a harmonious home if your adult child asks to move back in…
Discuss the potential return with your spouse before responding to the adult child. When an adult child asks to move back in, the correct reply isn’t “yes” or “no”—it’s “I’ll discuss it with your mother/father.”
This is too big of a decision to make without reaching agreement as a couple. Don’t assume that you and your partner will be on the same page—it’s very common for married people to have different reactions and concerns, in part due to the different roles partners play in the household. Example: The parent who tends to do most of the housework might react with concern that he/she will have to pick up after this adult child if he moves back in. Or the parent who handles the family finances might be concerned about whether the child’s return will affect the parents’ retirement plans. If either partner feels forced into this new living arrangement, the household’s relationship stresses will rise and things are unlikely to go smoothly. Additionally, it is important to discuss whether this is a healthy choice for the child. Are there any concerns that your adult child is lacking in ambition or afraid to stand on his own two feet?
Often, parental concerns can be overcome by making the child’s return contingent on certain agreements—from time-frame goals to monetary concessions (more on these later). But this must be discussed as a couple before the child is given an answer. Be sure to provide a date for a response so that you don’t leave your child hanging.
Negotiate a set of house rules as you would with any new roommate. Worried about getting your sleep? A rule limiting noise after 10 pm could be the solution. Worried that the adult child will eat everything in your fridge? There could be a rule that the returning child buys and labels her own food or contributes a certain amount of money to the food budget.
The key is to create these rules together with the adult child—but you have the right to lead the conversation. It’s preferable if the rules apply equally to all members of the household. When parents simply impose a set of rules on an adult child, it reinforces the uneven parent/minor child dynamic of the past, which stands in the way of building a successful relationship as adults. If you’re thinking, It’s my house and I have every right to set the rules, you’re absolutely correct—you do have that right. But if you make the decision not to take excessive advantage of that right, everyone will benefit. The adult child who is handed a list of rules is likely to feel disrespected and even might respond by reverting to teenager-esque behavior.
Instead, have a sit-down meeting where parents and the adult child propose and discuss potential house rules. Explain why each rule you propose is important to you, then open the rule up for honest discussion. Be willing to modify your proposed rules if the adult child voices valid concerns about them. Example: You propose a rule that family members must each pick one laundry day per week, so that everyone has a chance to use the washer/dryer. The child points out that sometimes he has to do laundry more often because he works in health care, a reasonable objection. Perhaps the modified rule could be that laundry outside of your designated day cannot go in the wash until after the other person’s laundry is done.
There are five topics that need to be discussed and agreed to when parents and their adult children work through the details of the child’s return…
Money. If the child is moving in to save money…pay down student debt…or survive a spell of unemployment, it might not be practical to request market-rate rent. Still, adult children who live at home should contribute to the household, even if it’s a token amount such as $25 a week. Exception: If money is extremely tight for the child, you could give him the option of contributing a certain number of hours each week toward household chores in lieu of rent.
Money is especially likely to become a point of contention if an adult child pays very low (or no) rent but splurges on vacations, dinners out with friends and/or excessive clothes. Parents can offer assistance with setting budgets. As time goes on, parents can request an increase in rent if it appears the child is capable of paying more without hardship. It is not appropriate to criticize his spending or demand that it stop. He is an adult who has a right to make his own financial decisions—even if you don’t agree with those decisions. But the parents have a right to tell the child he must move out if their goodwill is being abused.
Guests. It is perfectly reasonable for an adult child to have friends over—including romantic friends. But it’s also perfectly reasonable for parents to feel a bit uncomfortable about having adult strangers in their house. The best compromise often is to allow guests but set limits. These might include constraining the hours when guests can visit…the days when they can visit (not on weeknights, for example)…the number of days per week/month when guests can visit…and/or that advance notice be provided when guests will visit. It’s certainly reasonable to set a limit on how often romantic friends can sleep over—or even if they can sleep in the same room if it runs counter to your religious or moral beliefs. It’s one thing to let your child move back in, but another thing entirely to have his partner virtually living in your home.
Curfews. It is not appropriate to set a curfew for an adult child. If your adult child were living somewhere else, you wouldn’t even know she was out late. Some parents struggle with this, lying awake at night worried about the adult child’s safety until they finally hear the door open in the wee hours.
It’s reasonable to request a text message on nights that she’ll be out later than expected. Try presenting this request as a courtesy the adult child could do for you, not an obligation. Example: “You have every right to stay out late. It’s just hard for a parent to get out of that worrying mode, even when their kids are grown. A quick text would really help me.”
Personal spaces. Your adult child’s room must be treated as his private space. Do not enter the room without permission unless there’s some emergency. Do not insist that the child keep his room tidy—that’s not your business (within reason, of course…you don’t want old food attracting bugs). But you can insist that shared spaces such as bathrooms be kept to your standard of cleanliness. The adult child also should understand that he will be expected to clean up after himself and do his own laundry.
Move-out date. Consider establishing a tentative end date for the child’s stay before she moves in. Examples: Is the child moving in to save money while in grad school? Perhaps the move-out date could be within a few months of graduation. Are you expecting to retire, sell the home and relocate? Share the anticipated sale date with the adult child.
Having a move-out date can decrease the odds of misunderstandings…improve the adult child’s motivation to search for a job or pay down debt…and help parents reassure themselves that this is a temporary situation.
Having an adult child move back in might feel like a setback—but for many families, it actually turns out very well. This is a chance to build a new relationship with a loved one who previously was your responsibility but who now is something much closer to a peer. You might enjoy having a drink together or trying a new hobby.
Moving back might mean that the adult child will be partially dependent on you longer than expected…but it also means that you can be dependent on this adult child in ways that otherwise might not be possible. Examples: If you go out of town, he can water the plants and take care of your dog. If you need a ride to the airport, she might drive you.
Remind yourself—and your adult child—that it’s perfectly normal for families to be interdependent on each other. Right now, that means you’re providing your child with a place to live…but later it might mean that the child is there to help you.