Fully launched adult children, who had jobs and campuses and apartments, are returning home in droves, because of a pandemic. Like COVID-19 itself, and like so many other phases of your child’s life, this is a development that you never saw coming.
According to Zillow, which tracks real estate trends, nearly two million young adults moved back into their parents’ homes during the first two months of the pandemic. In another survey, 39 percent of adults ages 24 to 29 say they are planning to or have already moved in with their parents.
Campuses closed, jobs disappeared, rentals were abandoned and the kids – some with spouses, children and pets – returned to their childhood bedrooms. Parents who were dreaming of man caves or craft rooms, and younger siblings who had their own rooms for the first time, had to move over. In small homes, the adult children are couch surfing and working from the kitchen table.
In my own once-empty nest, we now have an adult son back in his room in the basement. His roommates fled their apartment, his lease was running out and his job told him to work from home. The job had been tolerable with the camaraderie of the office and the free cafeteria and gym, but it became a drudge in an empty apartment. He decided it was time to go back to school and finish his degree. As parents, we cheered this return to school, and offered him shelter as our final contribution to his education. But, let’s admit it, this unexpected turn of events is a minefield.
For the foreseeable future the pandemic has upended our young adults’ lives. And parents are getting a look at how those kids function, now that they have been out on their own. We’re witness to their homework patterns, their crazy hours, their ubiquitous cell phones, their unhealthy eating habits, their dirty dishes and wet towels on the floor. Worse yet, we have to worry each time they leave the house whether they will bring home the virus.
First things first. Let’s admit that many of us who said adult children should rarely if ever rebound to our homes have had to adjust our thinking. We assumed basement dwellers were enabled and indulged. They have earned some unflattering names around the world: rejuveniles; kidults; KIPPERS (for Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings); bamboccioni (big babies) in Italy; parasaito shinguru (parasite singles) in Japan; and la generation Tanguy (after a perpetually tanned movie character) in France.
Even before the pandemic, living patterns for young adults were changing. An adult child who left and never came back was already the exception. Jane Adams, author of When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us, writes, “Leaving home is no longer a single event for a majority of them. Forty percent of young women and 50 percent of young men who leave home after finishing their undergraduate education subsequently return one or more times. It may take 10 years before they fully shift their home base from under our roof to under their own.” One factor driving that is young people putting off marriage and child bearing. Their single life is flexible and it’s easy for their single self to return to the nest.
Leaving home is an important part of the detachment process for children. It’s easy to exercise tough love in the abstract – to tell a struggling child that solving their own problem is the best path to independence. Back in the day (was it only six months ago?) if your child lost their job and could not pay the rent, you would tell them to get another job flipping burgers or waiting tables or grinding gizzards in a packing plant. Those were character-building jobs and we never envisioned an economy where they would be the first to dry up. Yet, a worldwide pandemic has forced many parents to change their rules. “Write when you get work,” does not roll so easily off the tongue these days.
There are a few parents who can say without guilt, “You are no longer my problem.” But that’s not most of us. Authors Ross Campbell and Gary Chapman wrote in their book Parenting Your Adult Child, “As parents, we don’t have the choice of being unconcerned. Someone has said, ‘The choice to be a parent is the choice to have your heart walking around outside your body for as long as you live.’ You are concerned because they are a part of you. The question is, ‘How do I channel my concern?’”
So, Jack or Jill have moved home. They didn’t want it; you didn’t plan for it. Yet here we are. You need some perspective and rules to navigate these waters:
What’s the plan?
Campbell and Chapman say rebound kids come mostly in two varieties – strugglers and planners. The strugglers have one idea, to live at home until something changes. The planners are saving money, finishing school, paying debts, saving for a house, recovering from a divorce. As soon as their goal is accomplished, they are out the door. But COVID can turn a planner into a struggler because plans aren’t easy to realize and home turns out to be mighty comfortable. Conversely, COVID can transform a struggler into a planner with some careful parental nudging.
Without taking over the young adult’s decision making, parents can set rules and consequences. (As at our house: “You can quit your boring job, but only if you find another or enroll in school.”) Parents can observe behaviors up close and have honest conversations about the future. They can subtly keep their adult child focused on the national economic recovery and employment opportunities. They can remove some of the comforts of home by requiring chores and civil behavior. They can set expectations for safe behaviors that protect all members of the household from COVID.
“I’m not your baby!”
True enough. The child you sent out into the world at 18 is not the same one who returned at 25. She has been managing her own money for a few years. He has fallen in and out of love without you arranging the play dates. She sets her own curfews. He remembers to put gas in the car. Nagging is not your best look, so now is not the time to fall back into those old patterns. Respect your child’s adulthood, while making it clear you expect them to act their age.
“You’re not the boss of me!”
Also true. But you are the owner of the house, and you still may be raising minor children there. So, you set the rules that set the tone in your house: No taking the family car without asking; no leaving dirty dishes under the bed; no slamming the doors upon arrival after midnight; no unauthorized sleep-overs if that’s your wish; no eating the last Dove ice cream bar (okay, that’s my personal rule.) With any luck, your adult child already has been set straight on these basic rules by roommates who wouldn’t tolerate those behaviors either. Don’t allow any backsliding in that regard.
Pick your battles; just not the same ones as before.
Just because you give them a safe place to land during a pandemic, doesn’t mean you are responsible for their recovery, any more than you are responsible for their laundry. Room and board may be enough. Joy and Gary Lundberg observed in their book, I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better, that we sometimes mix our desire to help with power to change another. “It seems there is a universal desire to help someone in trouble and to be the one able to solve the other person’s problem. The confusion and frustration come from not knowing what to do and how far to go. We all have a desire to help each other in times of stress, tragedy, or disaster…Burdens are lifted when help is given; however, this does not make the problem all better. Each person must face the problem squarely and deal with the event and its losses…I do not have the power to make anything all better for anyone else. I can offer my help, but I cannot make it all better.” And there’s good news; when a person solves their own problem, they are stronger and better for the experience. But, you already knew that.
Multi-generational living is not a sign of failure.
It works for some families and is the historic norm in some cultures. Mom and Dad may need help with their own setbacks, including in a pandemic. Adult children can contribute to the household expenses. Grandparents provide calming perspective during a time of uncertainty. Siblings benefit from seeing how the real world can change plans. Child and elder care can be shared when money is tight for the whole household. A family business can thrive with adult children pitching in. Extended family ties are strengthened, which pushes back against an isolating trend.
Quarantine is a different kind of “alone.”
For a single adult, moving home emphasizes aloneness. Without a relationship to anchor their self-image, young adults may feel that moving home is a regression. And a pandemic is not the ideal time to seek out new friends and partners. Sociologist Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, calls COVID a “clarifying moment” for single adults who previously may not have invested much in pairing up. Wilcox consulted on the annual American Family Survey which, among other topics, explored the pandemic’s effect on single adults. While it has been challenging, the good news is that COVID has not overly stressed family ties. The survey found, “On the whole, family relationships appear to provide resources and support for navigating the coronavirus, not cause for emotional stress and difficulty.” (See this Deseret News article for a closer look at single adults and COVID.) The takeaway is that your adult child can find comfort in family ties, but also may be struggling with being unattached.
When is checkout time?
Years ago, when my last child went off to college, I put a sign in his room that said, “Checkout time is 18.” It was a joke for guests who stayed there when I repurposed the room. But it turned out to be wishful thinking. You also may be down one guest room, or have a couch surfer. And like me, you will eventually have to decide when checkout time has arrived. COVID complicates this question. Only you and your child can evaluate the arc of the pandemic in your region and weigh the risks he or she will be taking by reentering the workplace or resuming normal young adult living. While it’s helpful to consult with other parents in the same dilemma, no two households are alike. Your child may be an unmotivated slacker taking advantage of your love, while a friend’s child might be the ideal house-mate for these times. Start now to determine the benchmarks for moving out: your child’s risk factors; the safety and affordability of housing alternatives; their earning potential and job options during the pandemic; the mental and spiritual consequences of them staying or leaving; your observations of whether they are progressing or regressing in your home; their impact on the rest of the family and on your financial security. Bottom line: Have the circumstances which brought the child home changed?
Enjoy the journey
If you’re like me, you love having the chance to reconnect with your adult child. Mine is funny and smart and helpful. He knows when to join us for a board game, and when to retreat to his bedroom. He does the dishes and yard work. We binge watch favorite TV shows and sit quietly together with our separate books just like we did when he was learning to read with Harry Potter. Count yourself lucky if your biggest problem with your rebound child will be having to say goodbye again.
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