Here is August’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My oldest child graduated from college this past June, and he moved back into our home soon afterwards. I’m so proud of him for graduating, but I have to admit that it is frustrating to now see him spending so much time watching Netflix with no apparent plans for his future. We also have several younger children, and I worry about what kind of message this sends to them. What should I do?
Sincerely, Proud But Frustrated Mama
Dear Proud But Frustrated Mama,
I am going to let my associate, Rebecca Freking, LMFT answer this one. She works with a lot of teens and young adults. She writes:
The first piece of good news is that you are not alone in your dilemma. More and more twenty-somethings are finding themselves back in their parent’s home for various reasons. The twenties used to be a time when you got married and started your career. Now, researchers have documented that more twenty-somethings are experiencing what’s called “emerging adulthood,” where they explore and develop on a personal and professional level before settling down. Many twenty-somethings are also dealing with student loan debt and rising rental prices, which means more and more are landing back at home during this phase. The first thing to remember is that this is a normal stage for many kids your son’s age, and not a sign that something has “gone wrong.”
Even so, you now have a challenge on your hands. A twenty-year-old at home is not the same as a fifteen-year-old at home, and you should have different expectations accordingly. As soon as possible, I recommend that you sit down with your son and discuss your expectations while he’s living at home: Do you expect him to pay rent? If not, how about household contribution in terms of chores? (This contribution should reflect the increased responsibilities that you’d expect from an adult versus a teenager.) Is there a limit to how long her can live at your home? What about sleepovers and romantic relationships? Alcohol use? What kind of financial support are you willing/able to provide?
It is your home, and you have a right to set ground rules for these core issues. And while you can’t control his career decisions, you can create an environment where your son feels welcomed, but not too Who wants to go get a job and pay rent on their own apartment when they can live rent-free where Mom does the laundry?
Your son is a young adult now, and your role as his parent has changed. It is still a very important role, but instead of being his coach, you are now his consultant. This means that you respect your son’s individual decisions (even if you disagree with him), and offer your opinion and advice when he asks for it. This is tough work, especially as this is also a time of life where your son is going to make mistakes that you see coming a mile away. This also means letting go of some things, such as his messy room or his choice of romantic partner. Try to differentiate between the values of your home (e.g. establishing a family-wide rule that we don’t watch violent movies in the living room), versus things you wish your son would do differently (e.g. his love of violent movies gets on your nerves, but he’s not exposing your other children to these movies when he watches them in his room).
Money can be a particularly tough area to navigate, and this is why it is so important to have a conversation about your expectations as soon as possible. Some parents decide that a young adult should make some kind of financial contribution to the household, whether that’s chipping in for groceries or paying rent. You’ll need to make a decision that takes into consideration your son’s unique situation. Is he in a career that requires “putting in your dues” for a while, or is he just dragging his feet and not taking advantage of the opportunities that are available to him? Set expectations that respect his situation, and that encourage him to launch from your home in a healthy way. One note: money should not be used to control your son’s decisions. Your son is now a young adult and in charge of his own decisions. Your primary goal at this point is to establish a respectful, adult relationship. Avoid any “strings attached” negotiations, like offering to waive his rent if he dates the person of your preference.
And while many twenty-somethings are dealing with new economic issues that previous generations did not have to face (e.g. enormous student loans), you also need to take care of yourself first now. If you are able to provide support, and you think it’s a fair arrangement, then great. If not, you can provide a bed and a safe haven, and that’s worth plenty.
It’s okay if you don’t do things perfectly (who does?). I recommend that you re-negotiate your expectations with your son at least twice a year. Best wishes as you enter this new phase of parenthood!
Yours, Rebecca (and Shelby)
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.