Adult children living at home

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This article is a written transcription of Linda’s Corner podcast 40 – Adult Children Living at Home.  Click here to listen to the podcast.  

Adult children living at home

Welcome to Linda’s Corner.  My name is Linda Bjork.  Today I’m going to be talking about adult children living at home.  I am the mother of 5 wonderful children who have all grown up.  I’m learning that having children who are adults is an experience with a whole new set of challenges, since I still love and care about them and want good things for them and want to help them, but I’m no longer legally responsible for them, and I can’t tell them what to do.  It creates a whole new set of dynamics.  

If they move away into their own apartment or home then it’s easier to adapt to a lot of those changes naturally, but if a situation arises where you have an adult child living with you, that can create some challenging situations.  

To start off with I’m going to share a story of when my husband and I had to live with my parents.  I am an experienced basement dweller, and I’m so grateful that my parents let us stay with them when we needed help.  We had only been married for a few years and my husband was still in the process of training and preparing for his dream job as a professional pilot.  The process is lengthy, intensive, and expensive.  I had recently quit my job so I could be home to care for our new baby.  And at the time that change in employment status cut our income by about two thirds.  

Lewis was working as a flight instructor and the pay was dismal.  His income varied depending on his student workload and he was bringing home anywhere from $400-$800 each month.  This was in the early 1990’s so you’d have to account for inflation, but it was a pitifully small amount.  We barely had enough to pay our rent, and on the good months we could also pay our utilities and gas for the car.  There was no money for food or diapers and there was no money for the additional training, flight time, and ratings that Lewis needed in order to meet the minimum requirements to be hired by the airlines.  We were stuck in a place where merely surviving was a challenge and progress seemed impossible.  

 The whole situation was demoralizing and humiliating.  We were barely hanging on, and then our landlady informed us that she was raising the rent… At that point we had to throw in the towel and ask my parents if we could stay with them.  And it was a blow to my husband’s ego, it was a hard thing to do.  However, because my parents allowed us to stay with them, it reduced our required expenses and we were able to put more money towards my husband’s training so he could eventually get hired with the airlines.  It took a little longer than we would have liked, but it worked and in time my husband got hired with Skywest Airlines and we were able to buy a house.  I will be eternally grateful for the role that my parents played in helping us become successful and self sufficient.  We were living in my parents’ basement for a purpose, and it fulfilled that purpose. 

However, having an adult child living at home, doesn’t always have the same satisfactory results.  For example, we have a neighbor that we’ve been friends with for many, many years and they also had an adult son who was having financial problems and they invited him to move into their basement actually about the same time that my husband and I moved into my parents’ basement.  This neighbor’s son, I’m going to call him John, but that’s not his real name, stayed in his parents’ home for the next 20 years.  He was taking advantage of his parents and it was harming them financially, mentally, and emotionally and it nearly destroyed their marriage as well.  In order to get John to move out, they had to get legal help since by now he had tenant rights even though he wasn’t actually paying any rent and they needed police assistance as well to get him to actually leave.  Naturally this affected their relationship with John and became estranged for a couple years afterwards.  It was a mess.  It was a mess for the years when he was there, it was a mess trying to get him out, and it was a mess trying to pick up the pieces after he left.  

Often when an adult child is living at home, they kind of take over the house and it can feel like a monkey on the back type of situation.  When my husband and I lived with my parents, we unwittingly stepped on their toes a few times and we had to learn new boundaries.  From my perspective, this was the home I grew up in, and as a child growing up I thought it was my house.  I never thought of it as my parents’ house,  I thought it was mine.  I lived there.  That means it’s my house, right?   And since my parents took care of my needs, and fed and clothed me, as a child I assumed that what was theirs was mine.  Everything was mine, it was a free ride and it was awesome.  That perspective works when you’re a little kid, and your parents are responsible for you, but it doesn’t go over very well when you’re an adult.  

Because I was still carrying some of those childish beliefs, we did some things without even realizing that we were stepping on my parents’ toes by not showing them the respect they deserved.  It’s really embarrassing now to look back and realize how skewed my perspective was.  I wasn’t trying to be awful or ungrateful, I just misunderstood the way things really were.  I needed a reality check.  My parents’ home was theirs, not mine, I was a guest in their home, and they were doing me a favor.  I needed to respect their expectations, their rules, and their personal space.  There was a learning curve involved, as we learned new boundaries and expectations.  I’m grateful that my parents’ spoke up when they weren’t happy, because honestly, we had no idea that we were causing any offense, until they said so.  

In the example that I gave of my neighbor, John, who stayed with his parents for 20 years as an adult, I can imagine to some extent what he was thinking.  He was probably thinking, “This is my house, my parents are responsible to take care of me, whatever is theirs is automatically mine,” and so forth, the same way that a child feels.  He never learned that reality check that it wasn’t his house, it was his parents’ house.  And what was theirs was theirs, it did not automatically become his because he wanted it.  because he was an adult, his parents were no longer responsible to take care of his needs.  Even though he was 40 years old, he still didn’t get it.  He still had the mentality of a minor child living at home.  

So it’s important for parents to establish boundaries and expectations and make those known and understood.  But unfortunately, that can go wrong too.  It seems that All of our best laid plans can go awry. We have another neighbor, who had a young married son and he and his wife moved into his parents’ home.  In this case the parents did a pretty good job establishing boundaries, but they weren’t very generous.  The only part of the house that the young couple were able to consider theirs was the bedroom where they slept.  That meant that things you have to do everyday, like going to the bathroom or going to the kitchen to get something to eat was very uncomfortable.  The young wife felt like an intruder whenever she left the room and a prisoner when she stayed inside the room.  Unfortunately, the situation was bad enough that their marriage didn’t survive.  

So with the personal experience of having to live in my parents’ basement and knowing how much we needed and appreciated that help, and also witnessing first hand lots of ways that allowing an adult child to live with you can go very badly, my husband and I had to decide what we were going to do with our kids when they grew up.   We were talking about this dilemma with one neighbor one day and this was years ago and they said that they just decided never to allow any of their adult kids to move back home, and that was a simple and direct way to handle it, and maybe it’s the best solution for their family, but we didn’t feel that was the right answer for us.  We thought there was a way to help our kids, and have it be a positive experience for everyone involved. 

We wanted to begin with the end in mind.  What did we want?  We wanted to be able to offer support that would help our kids move forward if they needed help.  We wanted to maintain good relationships, so we still liked each other while they were here and after they moved out.  We wanted to clarify boundaries and expectations to minimize stepping on toes.  Also we wanted them to respect our house and our rules, and take good care of it while they’re living with us.

We decided that an important part of making this successful was to designate a space.  So with this in mind, When we built our home, which is just a modest rambler, we decided to include a small mother-in-law apartment.  It has a bedroom, a bathroom and a small kitchen that has a small sofa in it, so the kitchen also serves as the living room.  The apartment is small, but it covers the basics.  It didn’t have an outside entrance when we built the home, but we added that later.  We’ve learned that it is so helpful, if at all possible, for the mother-in-law apartment to be as autonomous as possible. 

We also needed to clarify expectations about money.  The main purpose of having an adult child live with you is so that they can save money, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  We decided to charge rent which is due on a certain day each month and then we created a savings account and put all their rent into that savings account.  Then when they moved out, we gave them the money in the savings account.  This does a lot of good things.  First it keeps them in the habit of paying bills and making payments on time, and when they move out, that’s a skill that they need to have.  It is also building savings for them so they can have that nest egg they need in order to move forward when they move out.  Also it creates an incentive to move out.  They don’t get the money until they move out.  It’s a reminder that they’re there for a purpose, it’s temporary and it’s to help empower them to move forward and be successful and independent.  

We also wanted to maintain good relationships with our adult kids.  We wrote a contract and all parties have to sign before we allow them to move in.  The first part of the contract is an agreement to assume good intent when disappointments, disagreements, unmet expectations, and offenses occur.  Because those things are going to happen, you can’t live together without stepping on each other’s toes, but if we’re willing to communicate, resolve differences, and freely forgive each other when we step on toes, then it’s all going to be okay.  

In the written contract, we also include expectations about personal space boundaries and showing respect.  We include the ways that we will respect their space as well, which is really important.  We include the financial expectation and date of each month that rent is due.  We explain about the savings account, and that money paid in rent will be returned to them when they move out.  

So how has this plan worked out?  Well it’s worked out really well so far.  Our little basement apartment has pretty much been in constant use since we finished it.  Our daughter and son-in-law lived there for a year.  At one point my son-in-law actually asked if we could raise the rent because he wanted to save money faster, and although he really could have done that on his own in addition to paying rent/savings, he found it helpful to have a specific amount due each month.  They found a house they liked and with the savings they accumulated from staying with us, they were able to make the down payment.  So it helped them move forward.

Shortly afterwards my son and his wife moved in.  We had an interesting experience with them when shortly after they moved in, my son got in an accident and broke both legs.  He was unable to work for a while, so of course, we had to make some allowances when he couldn’t pay rent, but they did the best they could, and they accumulated enough to make a down payment on a house as well.  

Then another daughter, who is a college student, wanted to save money for school, but she wanted the privacy and autonomy of living on her own, so she lived in the apartment and she actually just moved out last month when she got married.  And she has some savings to help her start out in her new married life which is awesome.  

In each situation, we’ve been able to get along and still like each other when we’re done.  And our kids have been grateful for the assistance.  I have not felt taken advantage of.  Which I really appreciate.  

We’re not perfect and we still step on each other’s toes from time to time, but over all, it’s been a really positive experience.  Obviously there’s more than one right way to do things, but hopefully you can use the things that we’ve learned from our experiences to adapt to your situation so that it’s a positive experience.  I’ll include a copy of our rental agreement on the twogood things website so you can download it, if you’re interested and modify it to suit your personal needs. Just google two good things Bjork and it two good things should pop up.  It will be available under the “Linda’s corner” tab.  

In closing I’d like to share two quotes: 

The first is by Ann Landers, “It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” 

 And the second is by Denis Waitley, “The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” 

See you next time on Linda’s corner.