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How to live with your (newly returned) “grown-up” child

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Relational Problems » Featured Article

By: Lynn Margolies, Ph.D.

Lynn Margolies, Ph.D.

Relationships between parents and their “grown up kids” typically improve when kids go away to college, becoming  more cooperative and equal. Of course it’s easier to get along when living apart. But also, when parents have limited say over/access to what their young adult kids are doing, struggles around autonomy and control become irrelevant  and the power structure changes.  Parents let go, and teens no longer feel the need to push them away to exercise independence.  But what happens to this developmental achievement when kids return home for an extended time?

The transition to living together again can be stressful and regressive for everyone.  After having lived on their own with peers - kids’ behaviors, choices, and expectations may clash with their parents’ way of living and well-being. Emboldened to be true to their new, evolving identities and lifestyle, the young adult’s agenda, though developmentally appropriate, can leave parents feeling disenfranchised in their own home. On top of this, witnessing behaviors they don’t like or that concern them, parents find themselves in a helpless position and without the authority to enforce change.

Many parents need practical help with how to effectively talk (or text if that works better) with their now more “independent” college age kids about such issues. With explicit guidance, parents feel more confident taking charge of the climate at home and navigating their changing relationship with their kids.

How to positively impact your “grown up” child

Appeal to (and leverage) a positive value or trait that matters to your child. Get agreement.

This strength based strategy pulls for and reinforces a higher level of behavior consistent with who your child wants to be. Many teens talk about feeling they always seem to disappoint their parents and don’t do anything right. Recognizing and validating the good in your child conveys respect and faith in them, boosts morale and builds the parent child bond.

Which core value to invoke as leverage depends on what matters to your child, regardless of whether you think they’re living up to this standard, and keeping in mind that why you believe they should do something may be different from what motivates them.

Examples of positive values and how to use them to get to yes:

Being independent, responsible, taking charge

“Now that you’re more grown up/independent/responsible, I think you’re capable of  taking charge of some things at home and help out.” (Affirms their independence.)

Do you agree that you are?” (Gets their buy-in.)

“Will you help out?” (Getting agreement makes it more likely someone will follow through on a request, and less likely to rebel. Shows respect for autonomy.)

“It would be helpful to me if you were in charge of:  bringing out the garbage, making dinner one night a week, helping your brother with his homework.” (Sees them as helpful/capable) 

“Out of this list which 2 would you want to be in charge of?”  (Offers choice and collaboration but isn’t open ended.)

“If for any reason this somehow doesn’t happen what should we do?” (Plans for the inevitable but is collaborative, respects autonomy. Addresses reality without negatively derailing the conversation by shaming or forcing them to admit something.)

Common response from kids:

Teen: “Why don’t you ever trust me? You always think I will fail.”

Parent: ”I like to have a plan B/insurance plan.” (Parent owns the need to feel secure, bypassing arguments about the child’s trustworthiness. Effective boundary setting)

Being a good person, being in control.

“I know it makes you feel bad when you say hurtful things in anger. And I don’t like it either.” (Recognizes the good in their character, and allows parents to be aligned with them about the problem.)

Kids are disappointed in themselves when they act out, failing to live up to their own values. Typical repetitive lessons” about how to behave are not only insulting but hijack a positive value that’s already in place, eliciting  conflict and inviting them to disown it. 

Set limits when there’s an unhealthy family dynamic

Families, and other intact groups, have a personality of their own with dynamics that are difficult to change.

Sandra found herself going from having no kids at home to hosting a house full of her “grown up” 20-something kids and their partners. Dinner conversations easily led to competitive, contentious debates in which her kids ganged up and mocked her if she tried to join in and used terms they thought were ignorant, not politically correct, or current. This happened in spite of them acknowledging they were aware that she in fact shared the same values they were calling her out on, knowing they had actually learned them from her. When Sandra tried to stand up for herself or say that she was hurt, it only fueled them making fun of her.

Two ways to set limits when in a powerless position within the group dynamic:

  1. Enlist another family member:

    Appeal to an influential member of the group to be speak out. The person selected  could be a silent bystander family member, or one actively engaging in the negative behavior. Here, the family members with power were Sandra’s husband, David, and oldest son.

    At first, Sandra feared that it would be a copout to enlist help, or make her appear weaker. However, she changed her mind when she learned that a disenfranchised group member, regardless of how they landed there, has limited power to change a group dynamic alone by trying to stand up for themselves. Bullying is enabled by bystanders, particularly those in a position of popularity or power,  complicit  through silent or active participation. They can also use their power to change what behaviors are popular.

    Speaking out on another’s behalf will backfire unless the person speaking out  has the courage to fully own the unpopular stance.

    Wrong approach (no courage, will backfire):
    David: Mom is upset that you are all picking on her and she wants you to stop.  (Sets a limit but then undoes it by blaming the “victim,” further reducing their credibility and power.)
    Here, David simply acts as a messenger, retaining plausible deniability and implicitly colluding in marginalizing Sandra.

    Improved/effective approach:
    "I don’t like what’s been happening at dinner and find it stressful and disappointing to witness you all failing to live up to your own values. I expect that everyone will upgrade their behavior and show respect and gratitude." (Takes a stand. Devalues what they are doing, framing it in a way that makes it less desirable/more unpopular)

  2. Go behind the scenes outside the group dynamic and heat of the moment. Talk one on one with the relevant players (or text if you can be more successful):

    Use positive leverage. Be brief and direct.

    Examples using positive leverage to change attitude:

    Relationship with parents
    “I know you like us to watch shows together/ get along, but I don’t like how you’re treating me at dinner….It makes me not want to hang out with you later and watch our show.” or ..."For me it contaminates our time together later/affects how I feel towards you at other times.”

    Treating people respectfully, social justice
    “I don’t know if you’re aware of it (respectful, gives likely legitimate benefit of the doubt, reduces defensiveness) but in these discussions at dinner you’re coming across in a way that is belittling and against the values I know are important to you.”

Establish new house rules that create zones, or set boundaries on certain behaviors

When kids return home, parents often feel their household has been taken over and that they have no control. But parents can create new  boundaries/house rules/zones that feel right to them, and may even benefit the common good.  Establishing explicit guidelines at the beginning of the visit is opportune. However, new rules can be implemented at any time and parents should explicitly “reserve the right” to change policies that are not working for them, even when precedents have been set.

Parents will be more effective if they use their own comfort level (inarguable) as the reason for the boundary: what feels right to them, what is sustainable for them, or what they in good conscience as a parent are doing, right or wrong. Using the rationale that it’s for your child’s own good sets up a control struggle and invites debate. Though it is important to make space to understand and consider your child’s feelings and viewpoint, parents should be upfront when a decision is nonnegotiable and avoid creating misleading expectations by pretending there’s a democracy.

Examples of setting boundaries/zones:

“We’re all together/in transition in a new situation.” (A segue, establishes the right to change things.)

“Different environments: work, college, etc have different norms and rules.” (Normalizes restrictions in various contexts requiring people to conform.)

“Dinnertime over the summer didn’t work/isn’t sustainable for me. (Acknowledges the precedent, and establishes the right to shift course.)

“From now on….before sitting down, phones go to the charging station/in this box while we’re at dinner.” I am not going to police this but expect you to be grown up and responsible for yourself and one another’s compliance. I’m asking everyone to cooperate.” (Appeals to their autonomy, and the positive value of cooperation and self-control, shows faith.)

“While you’re living at home, we’re asking you to have some kind of established productive structure 15 hours a week. You can propose your ideas to us or we can help you come up with something.” (Confidently and respectfully establishes authority and boundaries - without judgment and justification.)

When parents identify and take charge of what’s most important to them and within their control, it becomes easier to let go in other areas and accept their “grown up” child’s developing identity.  Though it can feel “safer” to avoid being direct, staying silent and allowing kids too much power invites entitled behavior and leads parents to feel resentful and critical - perpetuating an unfriendly environment at home.  Alternatively, using a strategic, respectful and self-respecting approach not only enlists cooperation, but supports young adult development and models a healthy approach to relationships.


Disclaimer:  The characters here are fictitious but represent real situations and psychological dilemmas.

About the Author...

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow and completed her training and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped young adults, men, women and families from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms. Dr. Margolies has appeared in the media - on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton, MA.

Click here to contact or learn more about Dr. Lynn Margolies

Last Update: 11/20/2020

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