Relating to adult children — 10 March 2005
Boomerang Kids: When Adult children continue to stay home

Many of today’s adult children are not in a hurry to leave home, as compared to the youth of previous generations. This new phenomenon is often very bewildering and sometimes worrisome to parents.

Today, many 18-28 year olds either never left home, or returned after college. According to the University of Michigan professor Bob Schoeni, 20% of 26 year olds are living at home with their parents. They are happy to receive their parents’ support as they continue to explore their future options.

This phenomenon has been termed “emerging adulthood” or “youthhood”, and the young adults are referred to as “threshholders”, “boomerang kids”, “kidults”, or “twixters”. Time Magazine of January 24, 2005 reports various researchers’ explanations of this occurrence. Some say that the current generation’s young adults are lazy, confused, and unmotivated. Others see them as very serious about their future and cautiously exploring various career paths to the “right” one.

My experience is with a select group of people involved in this problem, mostly middle class Santa Cruz County residents who are doting, loving and involved parents. These parents devote themselves to parenthood and make their children the center of their lives. They also model values, work ethics, responsibility and moral conduct.

These parents expect that upon high school graduation their children would either go to college, a junior college, a vocational school, or to work. They become very troubled by the sight of their young adults occupying the couch watching television, or playing computer games all hours, while promising to seek employment in due time.

I call these young people “The Children of Privilege”. They grew up in comfortable homes with all the amenities. They were supported, loved and provided for generously. It never occurred to them that their lifestyle was a privilege – not a lifetime right.

In the process of providing their children with everything they possibly could, some parents neglected to guide their children in several areas. They were lax about teaching independent skills, communal responsibility, and vocational guidance.

Human nature is structured to use the least amount of energy necessary to obtain a benefit. Thus, indulged children have low motivation for learning to care for themselves. Many parents expect children to feed the dog, make their bed, help with the dishes or mow the lawn. However, the list of chores is often short compared to the real tasks of independent living. Few parents expect children to learn to iron clothes, mend, cook, or even do their own laundry. The common reason given is that the children’s main job is their education. That is true. And parents’ main job is their children, their marriage, their careers, their homes, their finances and their community, amongst others. So why do we expect children, who are ‘adults in training’, to magically have practical life skills at 18 or 22 without practice? How can they feel confident in venturing into the world on their own when almost everything has always been done for them?

These children also lack guidance about communal responsibilities. The idea that each individual must contribute significantly, not just symbolically, to the family with whom he lives, is alien to many young adults. Some learn it the hard way when they have roommates in college or housemates in their first away from home living. Few learn and practice it at home. Why is it that a teenager is exempt from cleaning the shared bathroom, or changing the linens of all beds, or emptying all trash cans in the home, not just his own? Isn’t it the way we need to contribute our fair share to the group?

As important as teaching tasks, teaching consideration for the needs of others in the family is even more imperative. Young adults should be startled out of their own preoccupation with themselves and notice others. If dad likes to read the newspaper uninterruptedly in the morning, it is gracious for the teenager to voluntarily help his siblings get ready for school. Not because he is asked to do it, but out of consideration for his father.

Perhaps the greatest oversight of good parents is in the area of vocational guidance. As early as age 13 parents need to inquire about the child’s vocational plans and dreams. They need to help the youngster identify his talents and interests and guide him toward fields that utilize both. They may also create the opportunity for the child to observe people in those fields. Without parental involvement, the child is unlikely to know how to devise a career path for himself. This process may take up to five years and if not done in the teen years. it is left to be done later.

If your young adult is reluctant to leave home, please consider the following:

• View your child not as lazy, apathetic, or unmotivated, but as overwhelmed, fearful and unprepared for independent living.
• Realize that your adult child has probably been accustomed to being provided for and still expects you to come up with her life plan.
• Discuss with your child his life options that incorporate his interests and talents. Make recommendations, but DO NOT do it for her.
• Set a realistic time line by which your adult child needs to attend school full time or find employment and move out of the house. Offer specific short-term financial help. Be firm. Allowing him to stay bewildered is a disservice to all of you.
• Being lax, permissive or victimized by your adult child’s inaction does not make you a good parent. Firm boundaries are supportive of her competence in beginning adult life on her own.

• If the adult child does not meet the deadline – be prepared to force him out of the home. As cruel as it may seem, tough love is needed here to launch him into productive adulthood.

March 6, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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