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Author: Beth Chung, LMFT – Associate Director of Family Therapy
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Living with your Young Adult: A Balanced Approach to Parenting

Author: Beth Chung, LMFT – Associate Director of Family Therapy

The number of young adult Americans living with their parents has increased considerably over the past 40 years, with 34% living with their parents in 2015 compared to 26% just ten years earlier in 2005 and less than 15% in 1975 (1).  Factors include delayed marriage, economic stressors, and the “new normal” of college graduates returning home (2). This creates a challenge for families as parents must navigate how to parent their young adult children, a process for which most parents are unprepared. Parents often struggle with the balance between treating their young adult as though they are 15 again and allowing unlimited freedom without expecting any accountability.

Often when parents attempt to implement boundaries, expectations, and consequences, young adult children can respond with defensiveness and frustration. According to Erikson’s stages of life development, it is normative for young adults to build on their sense of self and identity, and part of this process is determining their own expectations for themselves. Hearing parental input can be especially overwhelming for young adults who live with their parents. However, this parental input is unavoidable when young adults are living with their parents. Finding a balance as parents is imperative. If parents attempt to control their young adult children or use similar techniques they did when their children were younger, this can create both resistance and a strain on the relationship. On the other hand, if parents allow for any behavior from their children simply “because they are adults,” this can lead to parental frustration and resentment and lack of young adult ownership.

So, how can parents strike a balance of treating their young adult with respect while setting appropriate boundaries?

DON’T nag.

DO share your reactions.

Often parents can feel anxious and frustrated when they see their young adult engaging in unhealthy behaviors, ranging from eating habits to social choices. One way parents often react to their frustration is by telling their young adults a “better” way to live. “You should wake up by 8:00am.” “You have to be home by 11:00pm.” “You shouldn’t eat that.” While these directives can be well meaning, it is rarely effective because these statements are often rigid, leave little room for compromise, and can feel like nagging. Instead, parents can consider sharing their own thoughts and feelings about their young adult’s behaviors.

Instead of “You should be home earlier,” consider “I feel anxious when you are home after midnight. It is also loud when you come in, and the rest of us are sleeping.”

DON’T assume.

DO share your expectations.

Parents may hope that if they share their thoughts and feelings about situations, their young adult will change their behaviors. And when they do not, parents can feel disappointed and discouraged. However, it is important that young adult children know what the desired outcome is. It is helpful to both state clear expectations while also allowing for conversation and compromise.

Instead of “Why didn’t you come home earlier when I told you how I felt?” consider “To be fair to everyone, I would like for us to agree on a time you will be home. What do you think?”

DON’T give up.

DO share your boundaries.

Parents may share their reactions and expectations, and their young adult may still decide to make a choice with which parents disagree. This is where the “I’m an adult, I do what I want” attitude may enter. While it can be discouraging to try to communicate openly only to be met with continued opposition, there are ways to address resistance. Often when parents “give up” or “given in” on a certain issue, this can create parental resentment. This also sends the message to young adult children that crossing boundaries is acceptable. While parents cannot change their young adult’s mind about certain behaviors, parents can share their boundaries. Concrete expectations and natural consequences are a helpful way to demonstrate to young adult children that their actions impact others.

Instead of “Okay, fine” or “I can’t believe you’re not making these changes,” consider “It is ultimately your choice when you decide to come home. However, if you are home after midnight, then I am going to set the boundary that you cannot use my car the following day. I need to feel respected in order to feel comfortable allowing you to use my car.”

DON’T focus on too much.

DO prioritize.

When young adult children live with their parents, it is easy to become overwhelmed because parents have access to many of their young adult’s choices and habits. If parents comment on everything that bothers them, this can create relationship strain and get in the way of the young adult navigating their adulthood independently. Also, focusing on every issue is not as effective as choosing 2-3 main issues to discuss regularly. When parents can focus on 2-3 main issues, those issues can be discussed thoroughly and specifically, whereas focusing on every detail that is bothersome can distract from finding solutions.

Instead of “Oh wait, and one more thing,” consider “Let’s meet for 30 minutes each week as a family so we can discuss how things are going.”

DON’T despair.

DO ask for help.

Parenting adults is difficult. Parenting a young adult living at home is all the more challenging and complicated. It can feel foreign and awkward to navigate parenting a young adult. Sometimes, an outside perspective and mediator can help initiate difficult conversations. Further, having a specific place to follow up on conversations and keep accountable can give both parents and young adult children relief from the anxiety of when/where/how to have these conversations at home. Family counseling can help not only with conflict but also with prevention.  Families can consider family counseling when their young adult children move back in to establish household boundaries and rules and/or if attempts to do so independently have been ineffective.