Deciding to Let an Adult Child Move Back Home

Before we agree to allow our adult child to move back in with us, are there some key things we ought to consider or any safeguards we need to put in place? Our thirty-year-old daughter has just completed drug rehab and we're giving careful thought to the option of letting her come back home until she gets turned around. We want to support her in any way we can, but we've also heard some horror stories about parents who were unable to get their child to leave after things went south. Do you think there's any danger of this in our case? What should we do?

It all comes down to the nature and quality of your relationship with your daughter. Ultimately, only you and your spouse are in a position to know how much stress that relationship can bear and what it will permit you to do.

The key issue here is trustworthiness. Do you trust your daughter implicitly? Or do you instead have a sense that there’s a certain degree of risk involved in the arrangement you’re contemplating? As parents, you’re naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to your own flesh and blood, but that doesn’t change the fact that some people – and your adult child might be one of them – simply can’t be trusted. Others can become untrustworthy in a relatively short period of time as a result of some unforeseen crisis or alteration in circumstances. In view of what you’ve told us, we’re assuming that you have hesitations about moving ahead with your plans. Whatever those hesitations may be, they’re bound to be aggravated by the fact that your daughter is just coming out of a serious bout with drug addiction. All things considered, you’re wise to be thinking about putting some safeguards in place.

None of us knows what the future may hold, but for the present you can determine your daughter’s trustworthiness by evaluating her behavior in terms of three simple standards of measurement: 1) Do her words match up with her actions? 2) Do her actions match up with her actions? And 3) Do her words match up with her words? In other words, have you observed a consistent pattern in both her behavior and her beliefs, or does she say one thing today and change her tune tomorrow? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, or if you suspect that negative changes may be in the offing, it would be a good idea to take some steps to protect yourselves.

Why do we say this? Because the horror stories you’ve heard have a real basis in fact. It’s easy to assume that you can always ask your daughter to move out if things take a turn for the worse, but if you aren’t careful, and if she proves uncooperative, you could find yourselves on the wrong side of the law. In most states, a young adult who establishes residence in his or her parents’ home cannot be forced to leave without due process. That means involving the police, filling out formal eviction papers, and going to court – sometimes a long, arduous, and expensive procedure.

Many parents don’t realize that legal residence can be established by something as simple as receiving mail at a given address or using that address for some other formal or legal purpose – for example, putting it on a driver’s license or ID card. It’s best to prevent this from happening up front if you have reason to suppose that things could go seriously wrong at some point. Legally, it’s far easier not to let your daughter come home at all than it is to get her out of the house in the event of a crisis. (You can, of course, procure a restraining order if she becomes so volatile or violent as to pose a serious threat to your safety or the safety of other members of the household.)

What can you do to ensure that the situation doesn’t get out of control? Here’s what we’d propose. Before even considering a step of this nature, take time to get in touch with your own emotions and motivations. Make sure you aren’t acting on the basis of fear, worry, or false guilt about having been “bad parents” in the past. Ask yourselves, “Who is most likely to benefit by the plan we’re considering? Is this really in our daughter’s best interests, or are we simply looking for a way to feel better about ourselves?”

If you conclude that anxiety or illegitimate motives may have played a part in shaping your perspective, deal with them right away – prior to making a decision. If necessary, enlist the help of an objective third party – a trusted friend, a church elder, or a qualified professional counselor. If you opt for counseling, ask your therapist to help you take a close look at your family system and determine whether there are any dysfunctional patterns present that may have given rise to your daughter’s drug problem in the first place or that might cause further difficulties in the future.

Once you’ve come this far, the next step is to take an objective and realistic look at your daughter. Try to see her as you would any other young woman of her age and station in life – in other words, as an adult to whom you can relate as a peer. Is she trustworthy? Is her character such that you would refuse to take her on as a renter if she weren’t a blood relative? Do you get the sense that she’s working hard to “get herself turned around” and put her life back on a solid footing? If so, it’s okay to come alongside her with practical help and support until she’s in a position to launch out on her own. If not, you need to be very careful that you don’t end up enabling her to continue in a negligent and irresponsible lifestyle. That will only work against her in the long run.

If you do decide to take your daughter in, we’d urge you to sit down with her ahead of time and draw up a written contract specifying the terms of the arrangement. Handle this as you would any other business agreement with another responsible adult. Print out a renter contract form (they’re available online or through your local Division of Housing) and fill it in together in the context of a family meeting. List your house rules, making them as clear and specific as possible. Address such topics as rent, utilities, bills, pets, cleanliness, conduct, safety, and an appropriate level of respect for your property and the property of other members of the household. State plainly that drugs, alcohol, and behaviors that violate your personal values and moral standards will not be tolerated on the premises. You might require random drug testing and sobriety as a condition of her remaining in your home.

As you go through this process, be careful not to meddle in things that aren’t your business. For example, don’t presume to set curfews, as if your daughter were still an adolescent. Don’t tell her what she can and cannot do when she’s out of the house. Remember that she’s an adult now and that your relationship with her in this instance is that of landlord to tenant. At the same time, help her understand that, as a tenant, she’s obligated to abide by your rules. It’s your home, after all. Your name is on the mortgage, and that means that what you say goes as long as she’s under your roof.

How you handle infringements of the contract is strictly up to you. There’s always room for grace and forgiveness, even between landlords and renters. But the advantage of a written agreement is that it gives you a sound legal basis for eviction in the event that violations become flagrant and persistent. If things reach such a pass, and if you feel that you simply don’t have the heart to put your own flesh and blood “out on the street,” it’s perfectly acceptable to do whatever you think necessary to help your daughter find other living arrangements. You could, for instance, assist her with first and last month’s rent on a cheap apartment or hotel room. You could also provide her with a small sum of money for basic necessities. If you think she’s apt to react violently to your decision, ask some friends and neighbors to come over and act as witnesses when it comes time to move her out of the house. Their presence will serve as a deterrent to unseemly behavior. Once on her own, it will be up to her to figure out a way to get her life back on track.

Call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of trained family therapists available to speak with you over the phone. They can also refer you to reputable and qualified family counselors working in your area.


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