Monday, August 1, 2011

Stalled Launches and Boomerangs: The Nest That Won't Empty

There is something timeless about life at my friend Kara's house: as she has for years, she nags her daughter Emily out of bed every morning, cooks dinner with her in the evening and complains once again when Emily disappears into her room to spend more hours at her computer -- playing games and tending to her Facebook page. It may sound like any other day shared by a single mom and her teenage daughter.

But Emily is no teenager.  She's 26 years old, jobless and only intermittently attending classes at a local community college.

Kara tries to look at the bright side of her situation: "At least she's not on drugs or out drinking," she says. "And we get along pretty well most of the time. But I worry what's to become of her. Her young adulthood is dwindling away and she's going nowhere fast. She doesn't have many friends. She doesn't date. When I was 18, I could hardly wait to get out on my own and have my own life. Emily doesn't seem to care."

I've seen a number of failure to launch cases in my practice and also among families I know personally.

Of course, not every young adult living at home represents a failure to launch.

Some are reluctant boomerangs.

Many young college graduates are having a tough time finding jobs in the current economy or are at least temporarily trapped in no-pay or low-pay internships in their chosen fields and, at the same time, are saddled with student loan debt.  For economic reasons, some of these young people -- an estimated 20% of recent graduates -- are reluctantly but gratefully moving back home.

So are some young people who did launch but have hit an economic snag: the loss of a job, a divorce, a home foreclosure. Many of these, while appreciative of their parents' support, grieve for their lost independence.

There are also some young adults who live at home in order to help with or reach a financial goal.  One young man I know lived at home with his widowed mother and grandmother until he married, in his early thirties, in order to help them financially by paying rent and buying groceries. (He continued to help them financially even after moving out.) I've also met several young adults who live at home in order to pay off student loans faster or to save for a down payment on a condo or house. 

Still others stay at home due to cultural traditions that dictate that young adults live at home with their parents until they marry.

But there is another segment of the twentysomething population that is just staying put by choice, prolonging childhood and adolescence past the ages when their parents, in another era, were through school and married. 

What's going on with these young people?

Some are just comfortable at home.  For some, the comforts of home far exceed what would be possible in independence. A college dorm room or a starter apartment would be a huge step down from the comfort of life at their childhood homes. Unlike some peers, the tradeoff of freedom paired with tight budgeting and shoestring living doesn't make sense to them. 

Some feel reluctant to take on the hardships of launching themselves into the world.  They may be fearful of the demands of the outside world: dealing with professors or employers who expect so much, managing on limited funds, facing the world without the daily support of their parents. A number of members of this most hovered over and protected generation ever are in no hurry to take on the world.
They feel safe in their childhood rooms. They're in no hurry to learn to drive. This is a mind-set that some adults -- of a generation when we dreamed and fought for independence, when we got our drivers licenses on our 16th birthdays and left home at 18 -- often struggle to understand.

Some fulfill a function within their families that all are reluctant to change.  Some of these functions are unconscious but essential.  For some families, a stay-at-home adult child provides focus for parents who have grown apart. For others, the adult child is a treasured daily companion. Still others collude with a parent's need to be needed or the adult child's need to remain in prolonged adolescence.

Some have a life-limiting problem that keeps them from moving on.  A child may be chronically depressed or have some other form of mental illness and/or have a substance-abuse problem that keeps him or her from functioning in the world. 

Multi-generational living may be a temporary necessity or a chosen lifestyle for some families. It is very much a decision that parents and adult children need to make together in a spirit of love and compromise.  For some families, it is a no-brainer -- and a joy.

There can be a dark side, however. In some families, a child may be designated lifelong caregiver to an emotionally needy parent and never have his or her own life. In some families, parents may feel held hostage to a young adult child with a substance abuse problem or with a persistent disinclination to assume adult responsibilities. And sometimes, full adulthood can be postponed until it isn't possible at all.

I had a school friend I'll call Mindy who lived with her mother her entire adult life. Always overweight, she was shy and had few friends.  Although she worked in clerical positions for about 20 years, she was finally disabled by her extreme obesity. From her early forties on, she just stayed home with her retired Mom.  When her mother finally died, Mindy was completely lost.  She couldn't handle independent responsibilities from finances to driving. Her cousins had to step in to help settle her mother's affairs and Mindy soon found herself in a nursing home, feeling helpless, angry and frustrated -- and that she had never really lived her life.

What can you do if you find your nest not emptying but feeling crowded with adult children who are staying put or who are boomeranging back after college, divorce or job loss?

Agree on some ground rules.  These may differ from family to family. But they might include the requirement that your adult child is progressing while home: attending AA meetings or getting therapy, actively job-hunting or going to school, for example.  Simply regressing to childhood or loafing around the house playing video games or watching t.v. is not an option.  You may require an employed adult child in residence to pay some rent or contribute to food costs.  (At your own discretion, you might bank this money to give back to them for a nest egg or first and last month's rent for an apartment as their circumstances improve.)

Let them know the limits of your ability or willingness to help.  There may be a time-limit on your ability to help. If so, discuss this as a family and come up with a reasonable plan.

A family I once counseled had two adult kids living at home with the stated intention of finishing college and launching careers.  The adult children, both in their mid-to-late twenties, lived an endless summer as they leisurely considered their educational and occupational options -- and recoiled at the thought of transitional or part-time work in the interim. The father, then nearly 70, finally let them know that they had three years to pull it together before he sold his business and retired.  The mother insisted that they do their fair share of housework and meal preparation since she was working multiple jobs and her husband spending long hours at his business in order to support the household and the expense of the kids' extended college careers. Airing expectations and setting limits helped these parents decrease their level of anger and frustration and also served as a reality check for the adult children for whom time had been standing still. 

If your adult child suffers from emotional problems, mental illness or a substance abuse problem, find and insist on professional help.  This can be difficult with an adult child but it may make the difference between your child's life progressing in a positive way -- or a lifetime of dependence. Examine ways you may be enabling an addiction or failure to launch -- and perhaps seek help yourself in changing the family dynamics. These changes are far from easy and the challenge of overcoming a life-limiting addiction or living productively with a mental illness can be daunting. However, seeking help sooner rather than later may well prevent the sad scenario of years passing as your adult child languishes in the comfort of home and makes no progress in dealing with his or her problems.

The whole point, after all, is to see your children grow up and build satisfying, productive lives.  And that, most likely, will take them out of the nest and into jobs, relationships and homes of their own.

The best case scenario is not the perpetually empty nest, but a nest that fills again briefly time and time again, as your adult children come back to visit, bringing new loves, life partners and grandchildren and as you share a lifetime of love and delight in each other.


  1. Though some parents are too nurturing to throw their children from the nest, if a parent is single, he or she may not really want a child leaving the nest because of not learning independence themselves. Unfortunately, I've seen this stunt the child's social growth.

  2. I grew up chaffing and wanting my independence. I loved my family very much but I couldn't wait to leave. My Father's parting words were, "Come back to visit any time, but not to stay." There was no cruelty in his words and I always felt welcome to visit anytime. It was just how things were done in those days. You are right. Things have changed so much for so many reasons.
    Arkansas Patti

  3. You covered the topic well. I once dated a guy who was really the surrogate spouse for his mother. It was a sad deal. Now, at nearly age 60, he is disabled and still living at home. His mother had a life. He sadly did not.

  4. Good post. It gave me a lot of food for thought. Our son is still at home even though he finished college and has a job (but very low pay.) It's an issue that we just haven't dealt with. There i go, practicing avoidance behavior again!
    Jann aka #1Nana

  5. Oh dear, I have visions of my last-born outstaying his welcome. He was 22 this week and in the last year of studies. Living in a big city, all my kids stayed at home to study (cheaper). I am relieved that my older two are safely married and in their own homes (nearby). I am afraid I am inclined to make my youngest's life somewhat unpleasant always complaining about the state of his room etc. in the hope that he will clear out as soon as possible. Always welcome back to visit of course.