Boomerang kids extend parenting experience to golden years

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They call them boomerang kids.

And you thought your parenting chores were done when your kids went off to college. Or that you and your spouse would finally enjoy those golden years on your own again.

"Parenting never stops. But today the empty nest is taking even longer to empty," said Rona Novick, a child psychologist and coordinator of the Parenting Center at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"Just the start-up costs for life have gotten prohibitive for many young adults, so more of them are extending their time at home, or returning home after college or graduate school," said Novick.

Donald K. Freedheim, professor of psychology and director of the Schubert Center for Child Development at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, also sees more adult children returning home.

"I've always felt that our modern culture is stretching out adolescence more and more, if you consider a criterion of adulthood to be financial independence," he said. "We see young adults, certainly in college and even graduate years, still being dependent financially on parents."

The other reason, he said, is that parents are growing older but feeling younger. "I think of my dad at my age and he seemed like an old man. But I'm not old," said Freedheim. "You see the generation between 40 and 60 being healthier, more conscious about exercise, so we don't graduate into that role of seer, even though we might be grandparents. We're still in the parent attitude, psychologically."

There might be other reasons adult children come back home as well. "They might struggle in a marriage for one reason or another, or come home after a divorce, or there might be problems with alcohol or drugs," said Judy Balswick, a teacher in the marriage and family program at the Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology in Pasadena and co-author of "Then They Leave Home: Parenting After the Kids Grow Up."

So how should parents adjust to these boomerang adult children?

Freedheim said he believes adult children should return home only under two circumstances: to visit or while in transition. "To think of going back to a parent's home as a way of life is not good. It's something we ought to fight, and not let the natural forces take over."

Novick points out that parents are always walking a delicate tightrope, "trying to fall neither on the side of making our children too dependent on us, nor on the side of pushing them into so much autonomy that we're not there for them."

But while walking that tightrope, how do you simply live with adult children while fostering independence? Consider that your adult child has lived away from home under his or her own rules. He or she may not have experienced a curfew in years.

Additionally, old habits die hard. Even an adult child may come home and expect a parent to do his or her laundry, cook his or her meals. And parents may still expect children, no matter how old, to follow the same old patterns — cleaning their room or coming home by a certain time.

"When children go home, no matter what age, they regress," said Freedheim. "And since parents don't want to grow older, they may see being a parent as preserving their youth to some extent, making them feel useful."

Returning home can also raise all kinds of larger issues, including dependency, obligation and responsibility. "It's perfectly normal at age 5 to expect a roof over your head, but I don't know that's something one should still expect [a parent to provide] at 25, 35 or 45," Novick said.

She also pointed out that the tasks of daily living can take on monumental importance in such situations. "No longer is it simply, 'Where are my socks?' but it's, 'You touched my personal things, which is a sign of your intrusion.' Small minutia of everyday life become imbued with all kinds of emotional overtones," said Novick.

Her advice on that score: "Families that make this work are those that are able to grow and don't get stuck in old patterns."

All three experts strongly recommended establishing clear house rules and expectations from both sides.

Novick also advised learning "what everyone's expectations are about what people's roles are," she said.

Freedheim believes parents of adult children should have strict rules about how their home is run, and also should have those children pay something for living there. That might help them find that independence.

"I really feel this is very important for both sides," he said. Children should pay rent even if on a loan or very favorable basis, he said, at least to be accountable for the adult privilege of shelter. "Then children also don't feel guilty about taking money or [sponging] off their parents," he added.

"It's good not to make it such a soft, easy thing where all you're doing is keeping your children dependent," Balswick said. "Instead, ask them to carry their load, and even be responsible not just financially but for the atmosphere in the household, contributing to make it a happy place."

Novick also recommended that parents teach children the realities of household finance — a topic not covered in college. Teach them money management, budgeting, the perils of credit cards, the costs of living.

"Do anything you can to promote autonomy," she said. Help your adult children become independent.

Said Freedheim: "It's the biggest task parents have."