By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
Discussing boundaries and limits with your adult children will contribute to the good health of your relationship and minimize conflicts in the home.
Recently, my husband and I were having dinner with another couple. At one point in the conversation, they mentioned that every family in their neighborhood had at least one adult child living at home! In earlier generations, adult children who returned home were accused of being spoiled and selfish. While this may or may not have been the case a generation ago, many adult children today are returning to live with their parents. However, now it is usually out of necessity. Even some young married couples with combined incomes are returning, unable to support themselves. When kids return home to live with their parents, setting boundaries with your adult children and putting limits in place is a critical step.
The Cost of Inflation
One of the main reasons for this is that salaries have not increased at the same rate as inflation. Inflation leaves less money to pay for the necessities of life. I have seen this play out in my own family. The first home that my youngest daughter and her husband purchased was roughly the same size as my first home. They paid more than five times what my husband and I paid for our house 25 years earlier.
Despite the increase in housing, the average salary had increased by only about 30% over that same period of time. Therefore, the amount of money my husband and I had left over after paying bills was far greater than my daughter and son-in-law.
Young single adults who insist on living alone tend to find themselves foregoing marriage. One reason for this is because they can’t imagine how they will afford married life. After all, they still need to pay off cars, student loans, and so on. Young married couples increasingly see the need to seek financial assistance from their parents as they begin to measure the cost of having children against their budgets.
Independence May Not Be the Best Option
In the wake of this new reality, families need to consider whether financial independence is the ideal choice for young adults in every situation. Honestly, this was a tough lesson for me to learn as a parent. My family expected me to be completely independent after college. I shouldn’t expect any support, financial or otherwise, from my parents once I was out on my own.
This emphasis on independence was common in late 20th-century America. In my opinion, it was responsible for a cultural shift away from extended families being an integral part of one’s life. Instead, young adults embraced a narcissistic focus on “self” to survive. More significantly, a faith in the ability of oneself to accomplish goals replaced dependence on God.
Scripture takes a very different view of the idea of self-sufficiency: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5, NIV).
Differing Points of View
I am grateful that God put me in charge of a college counseling center before my children entered young adulthood. Otherwise, I might have been less than gracious when one of them returned home to live with us. During my years of college counseling, I watched as bright, capable students graduated, only to return home shortly after that. The jobs that required that college education didn’t pay enough to afford rent, healthcare, and pay back student loans.
These situations ushered in new challenges and conflicts between parents and their young adult children. Parents were adjusting to the empty nest and were enjoying time together that they had previously devoted to child-rearing. Meanwhile, their children had tasted life without parental restrictions. They began to develop systems for living that often did not resemble those in place in their childhood homes. These parents then reluctantly accepted their children back home. They expected “business as usual” when their children reentered the house. The kids, however, fully expected to continue to live an independent life under their parents’ roof. Talk about conflict!
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About Those Boundaries and Limits
If you’re familiar with this scenario, it’s essential to embrace the concept of setting boundaries and limits. Boundaries and limits encompass one of the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting. Setting boundaries and limits with adult children will contribute to the good health of your relationship and minimize conflicts in the home.
Here are a few critical areas of conflict to negotiate when parents and their adult children are living under the same roof:
- management and maintenance of the home
- respect for one another’s schedules and space
- payment for essentials
- navigating changing roles.
In reality, these issues can create conflict even when parents and children are not living in the same house.
Management and Maintenance of the Home
Home maintenance and management tend to cause the most conflict because of differing expectations. Typically, when adult children move back home, their parents expect them to contribute to the upkeep of the house. But the young adult sees the home as a place to stay while they are trying to save money. Both parties need to be willing to compromise somewhere in the middle of these two opposing points of view.
For example, it may be reasonable to expect an adult child to keep her area of the home clean. However, it’s not reasonable to expect her to embrace the same chore routine from high school. One easy way to prevent conflicts regarding the care of the home is to charge a small fee for rent. Another way is to work together to define some mutually agreed-upon guidelines for contributing to the upkeep of the house.
Keep in mind that parents are thinking about long-term living, while their adult child is envisioning a short-term arrangement. Complicated projects, such as carpet replacement or roof repair, might be best managed by the parents. Day-to-day upkeep and seasonal touchups may be reasonable requests for the adult child. Ultimately, if parents and an adult child can forge a relationship based on mutual respect, the adult child will likely volunteer to help with long-term projects. Assisting with tasks can be one way they choose to show appreciation for their parents’ generosity.
Respect for Schedules and Space
As the long-term inhabitants of the home, parents have a right to maintain their routines and schedules. They also have the right to decide how to use space in the house. But they would be wise to negotiate with their adult child to establish guidelines that demonstrate consideration for one another. Here are some guidelines:
1. Schedule meal preparation times and discuss when and if parents and the adult child will eat together.
2. Talk about times when it might be helpful for the adult child or the parents to be out of the house. For example, when the parents want to entertain friends without interference from the adult child, or vice versa.
3. Make a “Do Not Disturb” sign for the adult child’s door and respect it. Post-college age kids should be trusted to spend time alone without intrusion from parents. And parents might also consider a sign on their bedroom door. Doing this can provide a concrete reminder that their space is sacred as well.
4. Discuss the care of any animals in the home. If the adult child has a pet, he needs to be responsible for the animal and for the clean‐up or repair of any damage it might cause. If the animal belongs to the parents and has been a part of the family since before the adult child left home in the first place, both parties should discuss the care of the animal. Additionally, the parents have the right to declare certain parts of the home off-limits for all animals.
5. Revisit schedule and space issues as they arise, and be willing to offer solutions that work for parents and the adult child.
Schedules and Space While Living Apart
Respect for one another’s schedules and space may be an issue even if adult children are not living in their parents’ homes. For example, sometimes parents expect their adult children to continue attending family events after they have moved out. On the other hand, adult children might take advantage of their parents by dropping by unannounced for dinner.
I saw both sides of this coin during two back-to-back counseling sessions a few years ago. In the first, I mediated a discussion between an adult child and his parents regarding his mother’s insistence that he attend a family Christmas dinner rather than go out to dinner with a group of his friends.
In the next session, I helped facilitate a discussion between parents and their adult daughter, who felt it was ok for her to drop in at Mom and Dad’s house anytime to do laundry, have a snack, or hang out with her friends in the back yard. Her parents saw this as an invasion of their privacy. They were incredibly annoyed when they returned from a day in the mountains and found the house a mess and the front door unlocked. In both cases, I recommended this approach:
State – Debate ‐ Relate
1. The parents and adult child each explained what happened from their own perspectives.
2. The offended party explained why the other’s actions were a problem.
3. The offending party responded to the other party’s concerns.
4. Both parties worked together to come up with a solution.
The Case Studies
In the first case, the mother explained that she saw her son’s actions as a rejection of her and her family. The son responded that he loved his mother and enjoyed spending time with the family, but he had made plans with his friends months ago. His mom suggested the compromise of changing the date of his dinner with friends. He rejected that solution, but his father suggested that he instead keep the date but stop in to say “hi.” After all, their home was on the way to the restaurant where he would be meeting his friends.
Mom, Dad, and son agreed to this approach and resolved to discuss future holiday plans months ahead of time to avoid conflicts. The solution itself was less important than the clarification from son to mother that his actions were not a rejection of her.
The second case followed the same process. The main issue of concern was the daughter’s lack of courtesy toward her parents. In the end, parents and daughter clarified what they thought was a reasonable use of the home by the daughter. Both parties agreed that the daughter would purchase her laundry supplies, food, and drink before coming to the house (unless invited to dinner by the parents) and that she would give her parents a full day notice before stopping by the house.
The State – Debate – Relate process tends to work well in families when setting boundaries with adult children because it provides an opportunity for members to understand one another and work together to find a viable solution to a problem.
Payment for Essentials
Affording necessities can be difficult in this current climate of lower salaries and higher living costs. Most parents and adult children have different definitions of “necessities,” of course! Most people consider food, water, clothing, transportation, and self-care needs to be essential. However, how much food and clothing and what kind of shelter, transportation, and self-care items are “essential” would likely be defined quite differently. Before living under the same roof, parents and adult children need to decide together how much the adult children will contribute for rent and household expenses such as trash, utilities, Internet/cable, and so on.
A general rule-of-thumb is to calculate the percentage of the home the young adult is regularly using and charge that percentage of each essential bill. Things become complicated, however, when the adult child purchases personal items and becomes cash-strapped, expecting Mom and Dad to “cut some slack” in paying bills. After all, parents are supposed to make exceptions for their children, right?
In this case, the answer is “no.” The freedom of young adulthood also brings responsibility. The agreement between parents and adult child needs to be similar to that of a landlord and tenant. Necessary expenses need to be paid before money is spent on extra frills. When parents and adult children are not living under the same roof, the same rule applies if, for instance, parents are helping the adult child pay for a necessary item such as a car needed to get to work when public transportation is unavailable.
Navigating Changing Roles
Any continued dependence on Mom and Dad, especially involving finances, can make it hard for parents and adult children to recognize that their roles have changed. Both parties need to understand that they are adults and need to be respected as such. Respect becomes particularly crucial in the decisions that parents and young adults make concerning jobs, relationships, and hobbies.
Both parties need to be free to make choices – and to reap the benefits of good decisions or pay the consequences for bad ones. I suggest that parents and adult children:
1. agree not to interfere with one another’s life choices unless one party can demonstrate that the other is likely to suffer irreparable damage if he or she makes that choice.
2. agree to only offer advice when solicited.
3. remove the hierarchy that was in place when children were younger. Now the goal should involve relating to one another as adult peers rather than as parent and child.
4. replace the parent/child dynamic with a mutual commitment to God, seeking Him before making important choices.
Finally, as parents seek to set boundaries and limits with their adult children, they need to remind themselves to be flexible. Inevitably, there will be bumps along the road as parents and their adult children try to adjust to one another as peers. By establishing an environment of openness and honesty and practicing all 7 Traits of Effective Parenting, there is every reason to believe that this season of life can be enriching and rewarding for all involved.
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