Back From School

August 15th, 2009

Dear Dr. Ponton:
It is again time for kids to go back to school, but not for my three “almost adult” children. My twenty-year-old daughter is taking a semester off from college and my two sons who have recently graduated are searching for, but have not been able to find jobs. One of them is smoking a lot of weed with his girlfriend and seems depressed.  My three kids spend a lot of time “hanging out” at home and my wife and I often feel like we’re the only ones working. When I see them lying around it makes me want towork harder and I find myself getting angry and unable to relax. I realize this is not easy for them but I had hoped that they would be “launched” by now.  How do I help them and myself?
-Disappointed Father

This dad’s questions are being asked by parents all over America. The past year has not been an easy one for anyone, particularly not for America’s young adults. Even in “normal times” the decade following 18 is a challenging one for young people and their parents, but recent financial, social and emotional changes are contributing to even greater levels of anxiety, anger, and frustration and increased inter-dependence at all levels. Half of America’s young adults are now living with their parents for a large part of their 20s. The other half often struggle courageously to live independently and are helped both financially and emotionally in ways that earlier generations of young people were not. For the parents the concerns and challenges that most of them are experiencing with their “grown” children are strikingly different from their own experiences as young adults with their parents. Most parents of today’s young adults grew up during a period when 80% of young adults left home at 18 and did not return. Many parents and teenagers still believe that this is the best model and think that something is wrong if they have not been able to make this happen.

Disappointed Father’s letter reminds us that families with young adult children are experiencing a disproportionate part of recent financial and social change, a vital aspect being that many young people are unable to find jobs, and are forced to return home to live even after graduating from college. Although these homecomings are aggravated by the recent recession, many are unaware that they have been occurring with gradually increasing frequency during the last twenty-five years and mirror patterns in Europe where large numbers of youth have lived at home for decades.

How parents and young adults think about this change appears to be key.  Nearly all young people in Italy live with their parents until their late 20’s and only a handful regard it as a problem.  There, it works for parents and young people.  Asking Italian families about this, I have heard “That’s what I did. That’s what families do.” – “Our son still needs our home, he’s growing up slowly.” – “I like living with my parents. They are great people.”  “It’s the only way to save money.”  Custom, perceived developmental need, genuine affection and finances all play a role but most important it is approached positively.
Germany offers a contrast and greater similarity to the evolving situation in the United States.  Like Italy, a large percent of young people, more than 70% live and have lived at home during their 20’s but unlike Italy most of these young people and their parents consider this to be a problem.  This has proven to be a difficult social situation for Germany when young people feel both angry and that they have disappointed their families.

America’s pattern had been evolving slowly as more young people, both college and non-college grads spend more of their twenties at home, but the last year has speeded-up this process.  What can be done?  Not only for our country, but for individual families.  Here, I think Disappointed Dad’s letter offers us some important questions and clues. First, he describes his three children as “almost adult.”  It is hard to tell whether he means this critically or supportively.  From the end of his letter when he asks what can be done for his children and himself we can guess that he is using it supportively.  My current work with many families in this situation indicates that young people very much want to be recognized and treated as adults, especially because many feel a loss in self-esteem at not being able to find a job.  At the same time, many do not carry the full adult responsibilities of the parents they are living with.  It is also my experience that many parents have trouble thinking about their twenty-something children as adults whether they are living at home or not.  After all, they are still their children at twenty, thirty or whatever age, and it is hard to modify a pattern that has been in place for decades.  It is also hard to think of them as adults when there is a situation like this father’s where the parents feel like they are the only ones working and their grown kids are “hanging out smoking weed.”  This is a situation primed for disaster, one that I have seen frequently in the last few years.  Guidelines for this living situation need to be worked out early.  An important ground rule to establish when young people return home is that household chores and responsibilities will be shared jointly.  For most American families, this involves making a switch.  It is my experience that many parents don’t expect this type of participation from high schoolers, even college students, and “cover” for their adolescents doing more laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning and meal preparation than they care to admit.  Parents are often exhausted and relieved by the time their kids leave for college or their first apartment. Kids returning home may expect the same situation.  Frank conversations regarding household chores are key before young people are back; written agreements often need to be part of it.  Weekly family meetings where household chores, expectations and problems can be discussed are often a necessary part of this transition.  If this does not work out, family counseling needs to be considered.  A second area to discuss early is the length of stay.  This is especially vital in this Dad’s situation where three young people are back at home with only the daughter, who is taking a year off, having a planned departure.  A departure date can always be renegotiated but it is important to have one, indicating that this is a temporary arrangement that will end at a specific time when certain circumstances are met.  Many parents have difficulty setting this guideline, believing that they should always provide a place for “their children.”  A provisional departure date doesn’t discount a parent’s desire to provide for grown children in emergencies.  It acknowledges their adulthood and promotes independence.  It is important to add that many parents avoid working out chore equity because they see the arrangement as temporary and view attempting this change as more work than it’s worth.  Avoiding this conversation does not help grown children or their parents.  Chores at home prepare young people for the adult world.

This father’s mention of his son’s girlfriend brings up a third key area – privacy.  Many young people who do not have jobs rely on their close friends for support, and romantic relationship in the early twenties provide pleasure and help young adults to learn.  Working out opportunities for privacy is a key aspect for all generations.  Acknowledging and finding a place for sexuality is a vital part of a successful mutual living arrangement.  In my experience this is one of the most difficult topics for young people and parents to discuss but failure to do so often sabotages the entire experience.

Another problematic area that this father inquires about is his kids “smoking weed” in his home.  This is a question that I plan to discuss more completely in later columns, but feel it is important to say something about it here.  It is the question that I’m asked most often by parents of adolescents.  Living and working in northern California during the years following legalization of marijuana has been an education.  I have learned that marijuana is prescribed to almost anyone who requests it under the guise that they possess a serious medical condition that marijuana is the supposed appropriate treatment for, that current-day marijuana is much stronger than the weed from thirty years before, and that it can be home-delivered much like pizza.  It is often “prescribed” by my colleagues for young people who are lacking in energy and depressed or anxious, compounding their problems by not appropriately treating their psychological condition and adding a drug that lowers energy, decreases motivation and is extremely difficult to stop using.  One guideline that needs to be discussed and strongly considered before young people return is the importance of a drug-free home.  This protects everyone, parents and young adults alike.  This stage of family growth when young people are coming and going, and it is a period of growth even though it contains losses, is a time when emotions run high.  Recognizing and accepting this as “normal” is key but finding ways to make a transitional arrangement calmer are key.
One of the other important concerns that this father voices is that he finds himself unable to relax with his kids back at home “hanging out.”  Taking into account all of his worries, he is probably too anxious, in part because he watches his kids not working and feels the household burdens are entirely on his shoulders.  One potential advantage of generations living together during tough times is that team spirit and a sense of unity can be built but it has to be worked on by all members.  Ideally, this family – parents and young people – should be playing and working together.  Making this happen is going to be challenging for this father especially if he has been or sees himself as the one “pulling the wagon” in his family.  He might worry that if he slows down the younger ones won’t start.  Traumatic times teach us that we need to learn to depend on each other.  There is a lot that we can learn from thinking about this family situation.

Ten Tips for Families with Twenty-Somethings Living at Home

  1. Ideally, the return of grown children to the family home is an opportunity for parents and children to grow closer.  Approaching the situation with an awareness of the positive aspects is vital.
  2. European families have experienced grown children living at home for decades, in some countries such as Italy, more than 90% of young people.  Their strategies for making it work can be examined and role model for the United States where this is a more recent change.
  3. Even before grown children return home it is important to open communication and work out ground rules for the new living arrangement.
  4. An important ground rule to work out is chore distribution.  This includes discussion of laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning and meal preparation, among others.  Many parents but especially mothers feel burdened with grown children living at home because chore distribution is not equitable.
  5. Another guideline that needs to be discussed and strongly considered before young people return is a drug-free home.
  6. Working out opportunities for privacy is a key aspect for all generations living together.  Acknowledging and finding a place for sexuality is a vital part of a successful mutual living arrangement.
  7. The stage of family growth where young people are coming and going, is a time when emotions run high.  Jealousy, envy, anger and conflict may be present between generations and siblings as new boundaries are shaped.  An awareness of these complex emotions eases the transition.
  8. A discussion of provisional departure dates before a young person returns home can ease the transition for all.
  9. All members of the family need to learn to relax during this period.  Factors such as equitable chore distribution promote this but it is challenging.
  10. Traumatic events, such as a recession, are difficult but allow families an opportunity to become closer.  Working together as a team instead of criticizing and fighting promotes growth and intimacy.