Ideas, tips, and information about parenting adult children

Published: Sunday, Sept. 9 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Jeanette Petersen, left, sets the table for Sunday morning brunch while daughter Amy, right, prepares the meal for the two of them and their house guests. Amy Petersen moved back home with parents and says they have worked out a deal where one cooks and the other cleans.

Tina Larkin, Associated Press

It’s a story Garth A. Hanson has heard many times.

A 30-year-old man, his wife and children arrive at a parent’s home expecting help after losing their home. They live in the basement but help themselves to the parent’s food, beg for an interest-free loan, hog driveway space and claim hours of free baby sitting. They basically take over the house.

“I’ve seen several examples of that,” said Hanson, a retired BYU professor and lecturer who speaks at BYU's Campus Education Week. “The parents get to the point where they just hate these kids. They want to kick them out but they don’t want to endanger their grandchildren. It gets really messy until they separate.”

In a tough economy with more competition for fewer jobs, mingled with the constant problems of life, more men and women are moving home to live with their parents. But should parents provide an easy escape. When those scenarios arise, parents should cautiously examine the situation and look for ways to coach their kids to be self-sufficient, said Hanson, author of the 2005 book, “Principles of Love: How to Successfully Parent Your Adult Children.”

“I don’t think that we should significantly alter or destroy our lives to support our adult children,” Hanson said. “There may be exceptions that we should carefully consider, but not many.”

Moving home

The percentage of men ages 25 to 34 living in their parents' home rose from 14 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For women in the same age demographic, the figure rose from 8 to 10 percent.

In a recent Forbes article titled "Failure to Launch: Adult Children Moving Back Home," Alan Dunn wrote that a college degree doesn't have as positive of an effect on a student's future as it once did.

"For many, graduating college manages only to increase the individual’s debt without leading to job opportunities," Dunn wrote. "With so many people graduating college, a degree does not have the same coveted rarity as it once did, and there are simply not enough jobs to go around for everyone to enter their dream career right out of college."

An adult child moving back in with parents is rarely an ideal situation, Hanson said.

Reasons for returning home can vary but could include educational pursuits, loss of employment, loss of residence, divorce, day-to-day financial woes and the need for cheaper child care. There have also been occasions when wayward adult children have moved in to abuse or take advantage of an older, vulnerable senior, Hanson said.

Parents are genuinely concerned and want to help but lose control of the situation when they fail to establish strict guidelines up front. As the situation deteriorates, parents begin to ponder questions like, “What do I do to get my child out of my home?” or “How can I help my child without getting burned?”

“This doesn’t mean they don’t love them," Hanson said. "It only means the imposition is greater than the parent wants to bear."

The interview

When an adult child comes home for help, perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is conduct what Hanson calls a “responsibility interview.” He defines this term as an event where two or more adults sit together, discuss future arrangements and agree upon whose shoulders certain responsibilities will fall, as well as consequences for failed obligations.

“I’m not kidding with this,” Hanson said. “This is one of the most important things you can do with children and grandchildren.”

As an example, if an adult child is moving home, the interview could involve discussing the amount of rent and a payment schedule, food plans, baby-sitting expectations, yard work and follow-up interviews to evaluate the arrangement.

“Don’t forget the most important question,” Hanson said, “When do you plan to move out?”

To make living arrangements as tolerable or enjoyable as possible, Hanson also recommends the following:

Be clear about expectations from the start.

Remind them they are living in your house, not theirs.

Be able to say “no.”

Remind them they have the option of going elsewhere.

Hanson illustrated his point by telling about a 33-year-old woman with three kids whose husband had died in an accident. She had no insurance and needed to complete her college degree to get a quality job. The woman went to her parents, who lived in a modest home, and they had an “interview.” She asked to live in their basement for two or three years, offered to pay as much rent as she could, requested minimal baby sitting and promised to give them plenty of space to live their lives.

“They worked out an entire plan and it worked beautifully,” Hanson said. “She did all she could on her own, raised her own children and worked through it. That was a successful experience.”

Christina Newberry, author of "The Hands-On Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home," supports Hanson's idea of a living-together agreement.

"You may not be both on the same page," Newberry said in a New York Times article last March. "The adult child may be expecting the best of both worlds — the same freedom as when he was living away, but the perks of having Mom doing the laundry. If there are no rules, it’s chaotic.”

Newberry believes parents should require their adult child to contribute something for the privilege of living in their home.

"I would encourage parents to charge rent, or at least a token amount — not necessarily the market rate — in recognition that the adult child is adding to the household expenses," she said. "It’s good for the adult child’s self-esteem to know he’s not a moocher, and that he gets in the habit of paying a monthly amount."

To give or not to give

Some parents need to realize there is a difference between abandonment and allowing consequences, Hanson said.

“Protecting adult children from the consequences of bad decisions may bring more harm than good. Taking yourself down will probably not help the child and could ruin you,” Hanson said. “Most of our adult children will survive their crises without us, perhaps even better than with us in the long run.”

Hanson recommends not loaning money to children when:

The money will be used to keep the child from experiencing the consequences of bad decisions.

The parents will be hurt significantly if the money is not paid back.

The money is being used to “buy” a better relationship with the adult child.

The adult child has other acceptable options.

One mother told Hanson about helping her oldest son start a business. He talked her into loaning him tens of thousands of dollars — her life savings — and within six months, the money was gone.

“Unwise lending or giving of money is probably one of the biggest causes of problems in parent-adult child relationships,” Hanson said. “I would like to loan them money or help them, and they promise to pay back, but most don’t. The truth is that if the adult child could borrow money from banks or credit unions, they would do it. But they can borrow money from parents and not pay any interest and miss payments whenever they want, without any penalty.”

Don McNay, a financial columnist and author, knows how parents can avoid financial heartache and contention with adult children — "Cut them off."

"I'm seeing a lot of elderly people lose their houses, savings and often their lives (financial pressure is a key trigger for suicide) because children 'borrowed' money and never paid it back," he wrote for the Huffington Post. "It's time to cut them off. The kids will pout and cry. They will try to make you feel guilty. Immature people do that. ... Just say 'No.' Your own survival is at stake."

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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