When an adult child returns to live with mum and dad
THE kids were gone but now they’re back. In their absence, you refurbished the empty nest, made one bedroom into a guest room, the other a home office. You and your partner had early retirement on the horizon, maybe opening up your home for a spot of Airbnb so you could fund an extended trip around the US. It was something you dreamed of during the long slog of raising children.
And now, your son, in his late 20s, out of home, and living independently for 10 years, is back, priced out of the rental market and wanting to save a deposit towards buying his own place. And your daughter, split from her partner and unable to afford a place of her own, is back under your roof too.
It wasn’t meant to be like this, you moan — a sentiment shared by parents in many countries as adult children make the so-called boomerang move, aka return to their childhood home. A study by London School of Economics (LSE) researchers, Returns home by children and changes in parents’ wellbeing in Europe, points out that over the past half-century, intergenerational co-residence had declined dramatically in Western countries. “This pattern has recently altered and in some countries intergenerational co-residence has increased, a shift interpreted as a family response to high unemployment rates, poor job prospects, and financial hardship among young adults,” it states.
In Ireland, according to CSO data, the number of 1839-year-olds living with their parents stood at 413,727 in 2016, up almost 14,000 on 2011 figures. While there were almost 32,000 fewer 30-34-year-olds living in Ireland in 2016 than in 2011, almost 4,000 more in this age group were living with their parents in 2016 than in 2011.
“We’ve always had a sense of young adults having to make tough choices. In my era, a lot of kids had to emigrate — there was a sense the country couldn’t provide. Today, it’s about the job not providing enough to fund accommodation,” says Frank Conway, founder of financial education programme Moneywhizz.
Faced with exorbitant rents that deliver a double financial whammy — young people struggle to afford rents that then make it impossible for them to save a deposit towards a place of their own — there’s often a “prolonged delay in finding that final step of one’s own independence”, says Conway.
It’s a situation that pulls parents down as much as it does the boomerang kid. The LSE research found parents’ quality of life (‘feelings of control, autonomy, pleasure, and self-real- isation in everyday life’) decreased significantly when an adult child moved back to an empty nest. This was regardless of reason for their return — though there was no effect when other children still lived at home. Looking at parents in 17 countries, the researchers focused only on parents aged 50-75 to reduce chances that home return was driven by parental support needs. The drop in quality of life was similar to the effect of developing an age-related health limitation, like difficulty walking or getting dressed.
The research explored the effects of different reasons for returning home — unemployment, partnership breakdown — in themselves, distressing to parents. Controlling for this, a child’s return still causes substantial decline in parents’ wellbeing. The researchers conclude: “Parents enjoy their independence when children leave home. Refilling an empty nest may be regarded as a violation of this life course stage.”
Dr Marco Tosi, who wrote the paper along with Professor Emily Grundy, said: “When children leave the parental home, marital relationships improve and parents find a new equilibrium. They enjoy this stage in life, finding new hobbies and activities. When adult children move back, it’s a violation of that equilibrium.”
Prof Grundy says there’s a misconception that parents, in an empty nest, are sitting around waiting for visits. “But parents move into another phase,” she says.
And empty-nesters may have higher expectations of this life period than had previous generations. “Far more [older] people are now used to taking long holidays abroad or having active holiday pursuits.”
She points out that boomerang kids make inroads on parental space — and people’s expectations of space have got a lot more demanding. They’re much less tolerant of having to share rooms or even bathrooms. Plus they have more possessions, so need more storage.
When adult kids return, parents may feel they’ve failed in the parenting role, says Grundy. “Rightly or wrongly, parents always feel how their child does reflects on them. Parents want to be able to say their son/ daughter is doing well and settled, rather than saying ‘it hasn’t worked out and they’re back home’.”
In this post-raising-kids phase, parents expect to have more free time and more financial freedom. And then it all goes kaput — the kids are back, they’re adults now and don’t want any restrictions placed on them. There can be big confusion about the new boundaries needed in this situation, says psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Bernadette Ryan.
“Parents are bewildered about what their new role is. Adult children don’t have the same parenting requirements as young kids and teens. With the best will in the world, it can be difficult to make it work — the two generations have completely different needs.”
The return home can be experienced by everybody as regression, she says. “In an ostensibly adult household, everyone reverts back to type: Mum is in mum mode and the adult kid can be expecting dad to give them lifts and mum to do the washing. Yet, everyone has grown out of these roles.”
Age Action gets calls about the issue, but generally when something has gone wrong and there’s been a communication breakdown. “An adult child has moved back. The outgoings have increased. Maybe the older couple didn’t have broadband and now they do, but the adult child is refusing to make a contribution to those bills,” says Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications at Age Action.
He says the young person may well be moving back in
difficult circumstances. “Maybe their children are coming too. This can create quite a number of challenges. The older couple have had their house working pretty much as they want and now they have to adapt to these changes.”
Conway points to socioeconomic considerations inherent in boomerang moves. Who pays for extra electricity usage and food costs? What about house insurance, home and contents cover? Adult kids might have expensive gadgets — are they paying their share of extra insurance cost? Can the young person pay their car insurance? This could be an extra couple of thousand euro a year for parents, money they’d earmarked for home improvements.
“The challenge for this generation of parents may be: They gave to their own parents in the past — and now it’s flipped around again, and they’re the generation that’s always giving,” says Conway.
Does the returning child pay rent? And what about parents who’d been set on early retirement and — to address the pre-pension gap — wanted to avail of the rent-a-room scheme whereby they can earn €14,000 a year tax-free?
“This would constitute a form of lost income for parents if the returning child isn’t paying rent,” says Conway, adding that questions of ‘reverse inheritance’ also come up.
“Parents say ‘I was going to support them anyway through my will — maybe it’s now they need that helping hand, at the very beginning of the process.’”
While some parents lack courage and/or skills to establish some ‘money rules’ for the boomerang move, most will do so, says Conway. “They see it as part of joining the adult club for the child,” he says.
A key rule might be: In return for parental support — allowing them to live almost rent-free in their home — boomerang kids must have the discipline to save the deposit towards a house buy.
Family therapist Anne McCormack finds boomerang moves are not given a lot of prior consideration.
“Tensions get high and people are thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into?’”
She says it’s vital to have an inter-generational conversation at the start with clear communication about the expectations of each party. “This can be challenging for parents who don’t want to give the impression the child isn’t welcome. But it’s not the same as when kids were young. Parents are at a different stage now and have different expectations. It’s really important not to feel bad about having that conversation.”
McCormack recommends a conversation akin to what you’d have if you were setting up a contract, with a period of review built in — ‘we’ll try this for six months/a year’. Establishing ‘terms and conditions’, she says, will offset a lot of tension. “It helps parents if they know this is a finite situation — ‘this is for two years and at the end, s/he will be able to move out and get their own place’.”
Ryan has experienced adult children living at home — one is off travelling now and she has just one at home. “It’s not as difficult as it was. We’re slowly forging a way to establish new rules and live together harmoniously but it’s not without its ups and downs.”
She says helping an adult child strive towards autonomy while they’re back in the childhood home is not ideal. “The ideal is they go away from family and establish themselves independently. What’s most difficult is letting them live their own lives, make their own mistakes, when they’re right under the parents’ nose. It can be hard to resist the urge to make things right for them.”
Parents need to stand back, she says, which is easier the more the parent is engaged in their own life. “If a parent doesn’t have a sense of purpose in their own life, they can interfere. Some feel it’s their right — ‘in my house my rules’ — so a bit of realism needs to come in. A key thing is respect. The adult child has to respect they’re living in the parents’ home and that parents have their own lives. Parents need to respect the child has their life as well.”
McCormack sees pros to boomerang moves if both parties can live together harmoniously, if they’ve established rules and dealt with potential tensions.
“Parent and adult child connection can really be strengthened by sharing day-to-day life at this stage. If parents are supportive at a stage where the child has transitioned to adulthood but isn’t yet able to be financially independent, if the young person’s grateful for this, it can really strengthen the bond. Hanging out together and enjoying each other’s company — living with your child when they’re an adult — is a real opportunity to get to know them in a different way.”
Above all, enjoy the experience, says McCormack. “For most people, it’s shortlived, even if it goes on for a few years, so it’s good if people can enjoy it.”