Parenting Emerging Adults: Boundaries and Limits

father sitting with son

A Cultural Shift

Recently, my husband and I were having dinner with another couple. At one point in the conversation, they mentioned that every family in their neighborhood had at least one adult child living in the home!

In earlier generations, adult children who returned to live at home after living independently were accused of being spoiled, selfish, and unwilling to leave the comfort of their parents' homes to embrace a less "cushy" lifestyle and a much smaller space. While this may or may not have been the case a generation ago, today adult children are returning to live with their parents out of necessity. Even some young married couples with combined incomes are returning, unable to support themselves.

One of the main reasons for this is that salaries have not increased at the same rate as inflation, leaving less money to pay for the necessities of life. I have seen this play out in my own family. My youngest daughter and her husband recently purchased a house that is roughly the same size as my current home. The houses in their neighborhood are actually cheaper than the houses in my own neighborhood, but they paid more than three times what my husband and I paid for our home 25 years ago. During that time, the average salary has increased by 75 percent while housing costs have increased 300 percent. The amount of money my husband and I had left over after paying bills is far greater than what my daughter and son-in-law have left over.

Young single adults who insist on living alone tend to find themselves foregoing marriage because they can’t imagine how they will afford married life until they pay off cars, student loans, and so on. And young married couples increasingly see the need to seek financial assistance from their parents as they begin to measure the cost of having children against their budgets.

Independence May Not Be the Best Option

In the wake of this new reality, families need to consider whether financial independence is the ideal choice for young adults in every situation. Honestly, this was a very hard lesson for me to learn as a parent. I come from a family where it was made clear that I was to be completely independent after college and that I shouldn’t expect any support, financial or otherwise, from my parents once I was out on my own.

This emphasis on independence, common in late 20th-century America, was, in my opinion, responsible for a cultural shift away from extended families being an integral part of one’s life. Instead, young adults embraced a narcissistic focus on "self" in order to survive. More significantly, dependence on God was replaced with faith in "me" to accomplish goals and become upwardly mobile.

Scripture takes a very different view of the idea of self-sufficiency: "Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5 NIV). 

Differing Points of View

I am grateful that God put me in charge of a college counseling center prior to my own children entering young adulthood. Otherwise, I might have been less than gracious when one of them had to return home to live with us. During my years of college counseling I watched as one bright, young, capable student after another graduated, only to return home when the salaries for the jobs that required a college education didn’t pay enough to afford rent, healthcare coverage, and the student loan payments needed for that very college degree.

These situations ushered in new challenges and conflicts between parents and their emerging adult children. While parents were adjusting to life without the kids at home, letting go of daily responsibilities, and enjoying time together that had been previously devoted to child rearing, their children had tasted life without parental restrictions and begun to develop systems for living that often did not resemble those in place in their childhood homes. So parents reluctantly accepted their children back home with the expectation of "business as usual" while their children reentered the home fully expecting to continue to live an independent life under their parents' roof. Talk about conflict!

About Those Boundaries and Limits

If you're familiar with this scenario, it's important to embrace the concept of Boundaries and Limits, one of the 7 Traits of Effective Parenting. Discussing boundaries and limits with your adult children will contribute to the good health of your relationship and minimize conflicts in the home.

The key areas of conflict that need to be negotiated when parents and their adult children are living under the same roof are related to management and maintenance of the home; respect for one another's schedules and space; payment for essentials; and navigating changing roles. In reality, most of these issues can create conflict even when parents and their young adult children are not living under the same roof.

Management and Maintenance of the Home

Having counseled many families with parents and adult children who are trying to figure out how to live together peacefully, I can say that home maintenance and management tend to cause the most conflict because of differing expectations. Typically, when adult children move back home their parents expect them to be ready to contribute to the upkeep of the house. But the young adult considers the home only as a place to stay while he or she is trying to save money to move back out. Both parties need to be willing to compromise somewhere in the middle of these two opposing points of view.

For example, while it may be reasonable for a parent to expect his adult child to keep her area of the home clean and properly maintained, it's not reasonable to expect her to embrace the same chore routine she had in high school. An easy way to prevent conflicts regarding care of the home is to charge a small fee for rent and to work together to define some mutually agreed-upon guidelines for contributing to the upkeep of the home. But all the while, keep in mind that parents are thinking in terms of long-term living, while their adult children are envisioning a short-term arrangement. Complicated projects, such as carpet replacement or roof repair, might be best managed by the parents while day-to-day upkeep and seasonal touchups may be reasonable requests for adult children. Ultimately, if parents and adult children are able to forge a relationship based on mutual respect, the adult children will likely volunteer to help with long-term projects as a way to show appreciation for their parents' generosity.

Respect for Schedules and Space

As the long-term inhabitants of the home, parents have a right to maintain their routines and schedules and to decide how the space in the home will be used. But they would be wise to negotiate with their adult children to establish guidelines that demonstrate consideration for one another. Here are some guidelines:

1. Schedule meal preparation times and discuss when and if parents and the adult child will eat together.

2. Talk about times when it might be helpful for the adult child or the parents to be out of the house, i.e., when the parents want to entertain friends without interference from the adult child, or vice versa.

3. Make a "Do Not Disturb" sign for the adult child’s door and respect it. Post-college age kids should be trusted to spend time alone without intrusion from parents. And parents might also consider a sign on their own bedroom door to provide a concrete reminder that their space is sacred as well.

4. Discuss care of any animals in the home. If the adult child has a pet, he or she needs to be responsible for the care of the animal and for the clean‐up or repair of any damage it might cause. If the animal belongs to the parents and has been a part of the family since before the adult child left home in the first place, both parties should discuss care of the animal. Additionally, the parents have the right to declare certain parts of the home off-limits for all animals.

5. Revisit schedule and space issues as they arise, and be willing to offer solutions that work for parents and the adult child.

Schedules and Space While Living Apart

Respect for one another's schedules and space may be an issue even if adult children are not living in their parents' homes. For example, sometimes parents expect their adult children to continue attending family events after they have moved out. On the other hand, adult children might take advantage of their parents by dropping by unannounced for dinner.

I saw both sides of this coin during two back-to-back counseling sessions a few years ago. In the first, I mediated a discussion between an adult child and his parents regarding his mother’s insistence that he attend a family Christmas dinner rather than go out to dinner with a group of his friends. In the next session, I helped facilitate a discussion between parents and their adult daughter who felt it was ok for her to drop in at Mom and Dad’s house anytime to do laundry, have a snack, or hang out with her friends in the back yard. Her parents saw this as an invasion of their privacy and were especially annoyed because they had come home from a day in the mountains to find the house a mess and the front door of the home unlocked. In both cases, I recommended this approach:

State - Debate ‐ Relate

1. The parents and adult child each explained what happened from their own perspectives.
2. The offended party explained why the other's actions were a problem.
3. The offending party responded to the other party's concerns.
4. Both parties worked together to come up with a solution.

In the first case, the mother explained that she saw her son's actions as a rejection of her and her family. The son responded that he loved his mother and enjoyed spending time with the family, but that he had made plans with his friends months ago. His mom suggested the compromise of changing the date of his dinner with friends. He rejected that solution, but his father suggested that he instead keep the date but stop in to say "hi" before going to dinner since their home was on the way to the restaurant where he would be meeting his friends. Mom, Dad, and son agreed to this approach and resolved to discuss future holiday plans months ahead of time in order to avoid conflicts. The solution itself was less important than the clarification from son to mother that his actions should not be interpreted as a rejection of her.

In the second case, the same process was followed, and the daughter's lack of courtesy toward her parents was identified as the main issue of concern. In the end, parents and daughter clarified what they thought was a reasonable use of the home by the daughter. Both parties agreed that the daughter would purchase her own laundry supplies, food, and drink before coming to the house (unless invited to dinner by the parents), and that she would give her parents a full day notice before stopping by the house.

The State - Debate - Relate process tends to work well in families because it provides an opportunity for members to understand one another and to work together to find a viable solution to a problem.

Payment for Essentials

Affording basic necessities can be difficult in this current climate of lower salaries and higher living costs. Most parents and adult children have different definitions of "necessities," of course! Food, water, clothing, transportation, and self-care needs would likely be considered essentials in the minds of most parents and young adults. However, how much food and clothing and what kind of shelter, transportation, and self-care items are "essential" would likely be defined quite differently. Prior to living under the same roof, parents and adult children need to decide together how much the adult children will contribute for rent and household expenses such as trash, utilities, Internet/cable, and so on.

A general rule-of-thumb is to calculate the percentage of the home the young adult is using on a regular basis, and charge that percentage of each essential bill. Things become complicated, however, when the adult child purchases personal items and becomes cash-strapped, expecting Mom and Dad to "cut some slack" in paying previously agreed-upon bills. After all, parents are supposed to make exceptions for their children, right?

In this case, the answer is "no." The freedom of young adulthood also brings responsibility. The agreement between parents and adult child needs to be similar to that of a landlord and tenant. Necessary expenses need to be paid before money is spent on extra frills. When parents and adult children are not living under the same roof, the same rule applies if, for instance, parents are helping the adult child pay for a necessary item such as a car needed to get to work when public transportation is unavailable.

Navigating Changing Roles

Any continued dependence on Mom and Dad, especially that involving finances, can make it hard for parents and adult children to recognize that their roles have changed. Both parties need to understand that they are adults and need to be respected as such. This becomes particularly important in the decisions that parents and young adults make with regard to jobs, relationships, and hobbies.

Both parties need to be free to make choices - and to reap the benefits of good choices or pay the consequences for bad ones. I suggest that parents and adult children:

1. agree not to interfere with one another’s life choices unless one party can demonstrate that the other is likely to suffer irreparable damage if he or she makes that choice.
2. agree to offer advice only when it is solicited.
3. remove the hierarchy that hopefully was in place when children were younger and parents had authority over them to protect and guide them. Now the goal should be to relate to one another as adult peers rather than as parent and child.
4. replace the parent/child dynamic with a mutual commitment to God, seeking Him before making important choices.

Finally, as parents seek to establish boundaries and limits with their adult children, they need to remind themselves to be flexible. Inevitably, there will be bumps along the road as parents and their adult children try to adjust to one another as peers. By establishing an environment of openness and honesty and practicing all 7 Traits of Effective Parenting, there is every reason to believe that this season of life can be enriching and rewarding for all involved.

 
Dr. Joannie DeBrito is Focus on the Family's Director of Parenting, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with more than 30 years of experience.