Five Words That Work

For an increasing number of young adults, growing up no longer means moving out. About 23% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 are living with their parents or grandparents, compared with just 11% in 1980. Some have pressing reasons to live at home—perhaps they recently experienced a divorce or layoff and are in a period of turmoil. But many are simply choosing to live “at home.”

This arrangement doesn’t just complicate parents’ lives…it prevents these young adults from truly launching their own lives. The kindest thing parents can do is not coddle these “kids” but nudge them out of the nest.

Here’s how to respond if an adult child wants to move back in…and how to get an adult child currently living in your home out the door…

When an Adult Child Wants to Come Back

There’s nothing wrong with letting an adult child live at home temporarily during times of turmoil. A child who has lost his/her job or his partner might need a safe place to lick his wounds. But it is in no one’s interest for a parent’s home to become a place where this adult child can hide from life. So when a child asks if he can return, say yes—but that you’re concerned that he might not be happy if he does, because of the rules he would have to live by. These rules might include…

You must get a job. If the child protests that he can’t find anything better than flipping burgers, tell him he’ll have to flip burgers. It’s not enough for the child to promise to “look for work.” This could mean nothing more than sending out a résumé every now and then. He must understand that living in your house will not help him escape or delay joining the work force. Besides, working in an unpleasant or low-paying job could be the motivation he needs to go out and find something better.

You must contribute 25% of your take-home pay as rent. This reinforces the message that living at home is not a free ride. The adult child also should be responsible for paying his personal expenses.

Helpful: If you do not need this rent money, set it aside in an interest-bearing account. If the adult child works hard to get his life on track, present the money to him when he moves out. This return of rent must come as a surprise, however—if the child expects it, that could undermine the message that he must pay his own way.

You will have to do housework. List specific chores that he will have to do such as his laundry, clean his room, take out the garbage, etc.

Also: If this adult child has young children who will be moving in, too, and you have offered to help with child care, set limits. Perhaps you will provide child care one or two days a week or you will help when the adult child is working, but he should not ­expect you to babysit every evening while he goes out with friends.

You will have to abide by the house schedule. This might mean guests must be out by 10 pm…the TV volume must be turned way down (or off) by 11 pm…or that there’s a midnight curfew.

You must deal with your own debts. Do not get sucked into your adult child’s financial problems. Not only could this cripple your retirement, it could cripple the adult child’s sense of financial responsibility. It’s fine to offer guidance, but don’t bail him out.

You must move out by a specific departure date. This could be one month, three months or six months down the road—the timetable is up to you. The important part is that there is a deadline so the adult child doesn’t start to see living at home as a permanent solution.

If these rules sound severe, they’re meant to be. If living in your house is unrestrictive, the adult child will have less reason to move out and get on with his own life.

When you pitch all of this to your child, explain that you understand that it probably doesn’t sound very appealing and that you won’t be offended if he opts to get together with some friends and split a cheap apartment—no harm in floating this idea.

If the child still wants to move in, get a handshake agreement that he will abide by the terms you laid out. If he does, treat him with respect—don’t joke about the bad job he has been forced to take or tell him he’s made a mess of his life. Instead, commiserate by sharing stories about your struggles as a young adult—the child might not realize that you faced challenges early on, too. Offer advice when it is requested, but do not try to run his life—that will not foster the sense of responsibility you are trying to help him develop.

If an Adult Child Already Is Living in Your Home

If you failed to establish strict rules and a departure date before your adult child moved in, this child might now be showing little interest in moving out. If so, tell the child these five words—“I owe you an apology.” This is more likely to get the child’s attention than yet another admonition to get a job or an apartment.

When the child asks the reason for the apology, reply, “When we let you return home, we had the best of intentions, but in retrospect, it wasn’t what was best for you. We should have had an agreement in place for how this would work, because without that, it clearly isn’t ­working for anyone. We realize that you’re not going to like this, but if you’re going to continue staying here, this is what will be required…” then list rules and deadlines such as those described earlier.

How to Raise Kids Who Return Only for Visits

Four ways to increase the odds that young children and teens will move out when they grow up…

Encourage without overpraising. By all means tell your child “good job” when he works hard and accomplishes something—but do not consistently tell your child that he is the greatest thing in the world. Overpraised children can turn into adults with an inflated sense of self-worth. They might consider ­entry-level jobs beneath them and end up living at home when no one offers them a six-figure salary and corner ­office right out of school.

Assign children chores. Kids raised in households where everyone pulls his weight tend to become adults who understand that they must work hard and take responsibility to achieve anything.

Remind laggard teens that your home has a check-out time. If a teen lacks drive and responsibility and doesn’t want to adhere to your rules, remove a strip of 18 squares of toilet paper from a roll, then sit the child down for a talk. Count off one sheet of the toilet paper for each year this teen already has lived—16 for a 16-year-old, for example—then hold up the small number of remaining squares and say, “You have just two more years living under my roof.” This is likely to earn you some teenage eye rolling, but it truly can be an effective wake-up call.

Let the child take the lead on college money matters. College is supposed to prepare kids for adult life. Taking charge of college finances is a crucial part of that. Help your kids pay their tuition (or even pay for college outright) if you are in a financial position to do so—but insist that college kids take part-time or summer jobs to cover some costs. If college loans are needed, the child—not the parent—should take these out. Your role is to help the child understand loan terms and the dangers of going deeply into debt.

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