/ Coping with Adult Children Returning Home: A Value-Driven Framework


As adult children return home, families are increasingly challenged to develop new ways of relating to each other. This paper presents a value-driven framework for families facing this challenge. Respect and honesty are presented as core values to guide this negotiation. Courtesy, warmth and structure are posited as key tools for making respect and honesty work, thus preserving and potentially enhancing the quality of family relationships. Special considerations when children are involved are also discussed.

Key Words: Sandwich generation, adult children, family relations, values in psychotherapy

    1. Elizabeth Seagull is Professor of Pediatrics and Human Development, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.return to text

    We Americans are generally unprepared to deal with issues raised by the rapidly-growing phenomenon of adult children returning to the family home. Although extended family households are common around the world, modern American culture has been characterized by nuclear family households, with young adult children expected to leave and establish a separate residence. Parents of young adult children, as they reach late middle age, often hope that this period of their lives will be one relatively free from the personal and financial responsibility of caring for the needs of another generation. If they enjoy good health and financial security, they may find themselves with more time and energy to spend on hobbies and on reconnecting as a couple — if they remain a couple after years of putting personal and marital needs second to children's needs. The recent increase in the number of adult children returning home, with or without children of their own, to live with their parents, intrudes on this rosy picture. An additional threat to the independence of late middle age may arise from obligations to take increasing responsibility for aging parents, "sandwiching" the late middle aged adult between the needs of the generations above and below them.

    The return of young adult children to their parents' homes has presented new challenges to many families as they are faced with the necessity of renegotiating family tasks and roles. Family members who felt comfortable enough when it was clear which family members were the adults in charge and which members were the children, with lower power and authority, may become confused when the "children" are adults and, most especially, if they are also parents. The purpose of this paper is to present a value-driven framework and some specific guidelines for helping families in this situation to develop strategies that may work for them as they negotiate the potentially treacherous, yet possibly rewarding, challenge of living in an extended family.

    Core Values

    Two core values must function together at the heart of any relationship if it is to be successful over time: respect and honesty. Respect implies a willingness to understand that the other person in the relationship is truly a full person with feelings, thoughts, abilities, values and rights of his or her own. Respect carries within it a willingness to check one's own appetites, desires, and actions and the possibility of modifying gratification of these if they intrude upon the other or, at least, of negotiating a compromise. Respect in a relationship suggests that one is willing to grant to the other esteem, attention, consideration, and privacy. Respect implies that difficulties or confusion will be handled by seeking information and attempting to solve problems, rather than by secrecy, gossip, and "mind reading." Relational respect is mutual, with self-respect an essential component. In a respectful relationship, neither person will tolerate abuse or degradation of or by the other. In psychological terms, respect implies boundaries: You are you; I am I. We are different and separate. We can learn to be together without losing our sense of self. I have my thoughts, feeling and desires; you have yours. Differences enrich our relationship and do not necessarily imply that either of us is "right" or "wrong."

    Honesty goes hand-in-hand with respect. To be dishonest with others is to treat them with disrespect. Honesty can be painful; it is most painful when we realize we have deceived ourselves. Being internally truthful, however, is a prerequisite to being honest with others. To value honesty is to dedicate oneself to continuing self-examination. There are constant opportunities in relationships to be insensitively flip, to be thoughtlessly clever or funny at the expense of others, to be cruelly righteous or judgmental, to be intolerantly sure of the one right answer, to hurt others with a display of power for fun, to "win" in a way that makes others lose. Giving in to these momentary temptations can destroy respect, shaming and harming others. When repeated too often and repaired too infrequently, these words and actions can crumble the fragile trust on which the relationships we care most about are built. In those moments when we stop to be honest with ourselves, we know this, and we realize that humility and care must be at the core of what we may too easily, and wrongly, label as honesty. We therapists, sad to say, must take part of the responsibility as a profession for having promoted the abuse and misunderstanding of the role of honesty in the life of relationships. The excesses of "letting it all hang out," promoted in an historical time period when patients were often unable to speak to important others about the feelings most meaningful to them, have come back to haunt us. True honesty does not encourage us to be cruel to those we love, but bids us to walk softly and speak thoughtfully, albeit courageously, especially when painful feelings and delicate topics must be discussed.

    Three Essential Tools for Making Relationships Work Courtesy

    To have honesty without cruelty, we need courtesy. One definition of courtesy is "an expression of respect." To live in relationships with other people, particularly when we are living in the same household, we need a way to operationalize respect-with-honesty. Courtesy provides the path for doing this. Courtesy teaches us to be aware and respectful of the feelings and preferences of others, but it does not demand that we abandon our own values, feelings, and needs in the process — in fact, just the opposite — it gives us a respectful way to express these. When the butter is at the other end of the table, courtesy does not tell us we must do without it. On the contrary, it gives us a polite formula, "Please pass the butter," to which the person sitting nearest the butter must respond. Furthermore, the rules of courtesy teach us that we may not lecture others at the table on whether butter is desirable in the diet. True courtesy is a great respecter of privacy and boundaries. The rules of etiquette, for example, require parents to teach their children politeness by example; therefore, correction of one's own children in the presence of others must be done quietly, without shaming. Name-calling, "put downs" or other forms of humiliating others are out of the question. The rules of etiquette have great value for all those who live, work, or socialize with other people; families with adult children are no exception (Martin, 1997).

    Another basic way of being respectful and courteous in relationships is to speak only for oneself, and not for others. Instead of attributing motives, thoughts and feelings to others, seek information directly from them by asking questions. Look for the best, not the worst in people, especially those you love. At the same time, be clear and straightforward in expressing your own ideas and preferences. That way, others do not have to guess and "mind-read." It is most unfair to think that others "should have known" what you felt or desired if you did not make your wishes known (Gordon, 1990; Patterson & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1984).


    Warmth in relationships is difficult to define or explain, but we know it when we see or hear it — we feel it. Warmth can be conveyed in a tone of voice, a sympathetic face, by positive attention, validating comments, by expressions of delight in the happiness or achievements of others, or sadness at their disappointment or pain. Warmth feels genuine.

    Parents who are warm are interested in their children's ideas, activities, and feelings. They are involved in their children's lives and attentive to their experiences. They convey unconditional positive regard for the child's personhood, even when they disapprove of particular behaviors. It is difficult to be warm in relationships if one's basic needs are not met or if one is hungry, tired, frightened, or in pain. Therefore, parents who are consistently warm are generally people whose own basic needs are being met, and who are, thus, able to convey to their children a sense of calm confidence. People who are warm seem to have a generosity of spirit which holds the promise of sufficient "affectional supplies" — enough love, kindness, and approval for everyone they care about. Warmth goes beyond courtesy, which can be cold, even while correct.

    Research on children's development consistently finds warmth to be one of the major dimensions of parenting associated with good outcomes in children. The second major dimension of parenting associated with positive child outcomes is structure (Lamborn, Mounts, Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991).


    Structure refers to parenting that is characterized by rules and expectations for the child's behavior. In structured families, the child knows what the rules are, and parents monitor the child's behavior and enforce their rules over time in a way which the child experiences as consistent. Parenting styles which are high on both warmth and structure are associated with the best child outcomes: Children who are the most prosocial and competent and who have low rates of both externalizing and internalizing problems.

    In fact, the combination of clear, firm, rules and interpersonal support is an excellent combination for success in any human system, from the family, to the school, to the workplace. When people know what is expected of them, are taught how to perform the expected tasks, are encouraged to do well, and are rewarded for performing according to expectations, they tend to be both successful and satisfied.

    Adult Children Returning Home without Grandchildren

    Applying the principles stated above to the family with adult children returning home can go a long way toward making the situation more comfortable and less stressful for all concerned. First, all the adults who will be living together need to sit down and discuss "ground rules" for everyday living together, preferably before the final decision to move in is made, but, at the very least, as soon afterward as possible. This discussion should frankly address the practical, concrete matters of everyday living. How, for example, will finances be handled? Is the young adult going to pay rent? How much? With what frequency? When is it due? Will the amount of rent be subject to change depending upon the young person's employment status? What about utility bills? It is respectful to all involved to be clear about such important matters.

    The use of space, equipment, and commodities must be discussed. How will the adults share the common living areas? What if one generation wants to have friends over? What are the expectations regarding "seeking permission" vs. "giving information" about these plans? Should the generation not hosting the gathering expect to be invited as a matter of routine? How will items such as laundry facilities and power tools be shared? What about supplies like food and paper goods? Although it may seem petty to discuss these things, the chances for harmonious living are much greater if one party does not find him/herself quietly seething over an issue such as, "Why am I always buying the toilet paper and the stamps!"

    Noise is another issue which should be discussed. Older people may turn up radio and television to levels painful to younger people who do not have a hearing loss (or vice versa); people from different generations quite often have different tastes in music and television programs. What is a fair and workable way to accommodate everyone's needs and desires?

    Neatness is another potentially "hot" issue. The mother whose child is an adult boarder in her home is especially vulnerable to feeling resentful about messes which seem to convey an expectation that she must either clean up after her adult child or nag him or her to do it. Neither is a good solution. Family members should reach an understanding, early on, regarding the level of neatness they expect from each other on a daily basis — exactly what constitutes cleaning up after oneself in this family? The question of sharing chores related to the household is also an essential topic of discussion. If everyone is using the toilets, is everyone going to take a turn cleaning them? If not, is there another way to divide the labor that will suit everyone? The division of household chores is a strongly genderized issue in our culture; even with changes, women continue to do more than half of the housework, so the gender of various members of the household is likely to affect this discussion (Hochschild, 1989). At the same time, generational membership is very influential in determining expectations regarding chore assignment, so there is plenty of potential for conflict over this issue across the generations.

    Time and schedules should be discussed up front. Are the older adults going to feel resentful if the young person regularly sleeps in until noon before going out and looking for a job? What do various family members expect in terms of informing each other of their schedules? What is a good amount of time to spend together? Are there expectations, for example, of regular "family dinners?" The more these issues can be made clear and explicit from the outset the less often the family will have to deal with hurt or angry feelings because unspoken assumptions and expectations have been violated. Perhaps most important is the time frame for the living arrangement. It can be very hard for parents to say, "We love you, but how long are you planning to stay?" yet the reality is that people need to know what each others' expectations are to avoid problems later. Airing this issue early on keeps it from becoming a "taboo subject," which no one can bring up later.

    The initial discussion of these issues should be considered only a beginning. The family will need to set up a system for regular review. Time must be set aside on a regularly scheduled basis to ask each other, "How is this working for you?" "Do we like the system, or does it have some 'kinks' that need to be worked out?" Regular review makes it easier to bring up problems and "normalizes" the idea that problems are inevitable but can be worked out if they are identified and solutions are explored.

    An issue with particular applicability to adult children returning home is the question of "Who are you now?" During our growing-up years we all tend to "freeze" our parents in time, remembering them as they were when we were children and adolescents. Thus, we may be shocked to discover, ten years after we have left home, that Mother has decided she likes rock music after all, or Dad, a confirmed atheist, has begun to attend church regularly since his heart attack. In the same way, parents tend to "freeze" their children in time as they were when they lived at home. "He has always hated Chinese food" or "She loves wearing purple," parents of adult children state with confidence, only to find, to their surprise, that their children have changed with time and exposure to new experiences since leaving home. We all carry many such expectations of the tastes and behavior of family members that unconsciously shape our attitudes and behavior when we are reunited after living separately. Adult children and their parents need to make special efforts to become aware of these preconceived ideas and check to see if they are outdated, particularly when they concern expectations for negative behavior and family conflict. At the same time, we should not be unduly surprised to see some of the issues that were problems in the past resurface again, thus giving the family the opportunity to rework them and perhaps reach a more satisfactory outcome now that the child is an adult.

    Adult Children Returning Home with Grandchildren

    As if the above were not enough, the family in which an adult child is returning home with one or more children of their own must deal with all of these issues, and then several more. Primary among these is, "Who is in charge of the children?" For many families, the difference in roles between being a parent and a grandparent is expressed in such popular sayings as, "Grandchildren are your reward from God for not killing your children," or "The reason why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy." The notion that it is a grandparent's "right" to "spoil" a child can make for a great deal of pleasure for grandparents and grandchildren when exposures are limited to vacations and special occasions, but can also wreak havoc with parental standards and expectations if all three generations are living together under one roof. Undermining parental rules and discipline is clearly bad for children; if grandparents cannot respect the parents' right to rear their children as they see fit (assuming that they are neither abusive nor neglectful), it may not be possible for the three generations to live together.

    Corollary issues which should be discussed include, "Whose rules?" and "Whose enforcement?" Parents should have their own rules and standards for their children that exist before they join the grandparental household, but the grandparents may have additional standards. Negotiation of additional rules can be quite challenging. It seems reasonable for grandparents to set some extra rules such as "No eating in the living room" which apply to their house and their belongings that would be affected by spills and sticky fingers. However, adding rules for other aspects of child behavior may conflict with parental beliefs and values. Who will enforce the rules and by what methods is a potential mine field for negotiation between the generations. What if the parents spank their children and the grandparents disapprove of spanking? What if Grandmother believes children should not be given dessert until they finish their vegetables, but parents disagree? These are the kinds of issues about which people often feel strongly. How much compromise is possible when dearly-held values are at stake? Conflict between adults around rules and their enforcement promotes child misbehavior, inviting escalating problems if the adults cannot work out a comfortable solution.

    At the other end of the spectrum, it is neither fair nor appropriate for children to abandon the responsibility for rearing their children to their parents. Unlimited free babysitting should not be an unspoken assumption. Whatever arrangement the family works out (and there is a wide diversity of acceptable possibilities), it should be one clearly agreed upon by all adult parties involved, with times set aside on a regular basis for review. Sunday night supper, for example, might be set aside each week as a time to discuss how things are working out in the shared household, including what is and is not going well, and exploration of possible changes. It is especially important for the grandparent generation to be clear-eyed about what is and is not acceptable to them. As the shared household is theirs, it is reasonable for them to establish ground rules for their grandchildren, as well as their children, regarding what behavior is acceptable in their household. If the parents do not feel comfortable with these rules, then they and their children may need to live elsewhere. A nonblaming, straightforward, and respectful approach to discussion of these issues can prevent long-term hurt feelings or severed relationships.

    Grandchildren Without Their Parents

    When adult children are impaired due to serious mental or physical illness or abuse of substances, grandparents may find themselves in the unhappy position of being responsible for rearing their grandchildren whose own parents are incapable of doing so. In such situations, legal consultation is imperative. If a grandparent is to have primary responsibility for taking care of grandchildren for a significant length of time, this should be legally formalized to protect all parties involved. This is necessary for such everyday practicalities as insurance coverage, the right to take a child for routine medical care, enroll a child in school, or take a child on a family vacation out of the country. Informal arrangements, furthermore, are always in danger of being disrupted at the whim of the impaired parent, even when this is not in the best interests of the child. If grandparents have serious concerns about the safety and welfare of their grandchildren, they may need to seek help from Children's Protective Services.

    A full discussion of the psychological issues involved when children must be reared by their grandparents is beyond the scope of this paper. Grandparents, however, should work with professionals who can help them to become aware of the complex attachment issues which will arise and give them guidance in dealing with these. Children whose rearing has been disrupted by parental death or dysfunction are likely to have difficulties with separations and major issues with trust. As a result, it is imperative for the adults who care for them after such disruption to be consistently trustworthy and scrupulously honest.

    A particularly painful issue may arise if, after a number of months or years, the parents wish to resume parenting their own children. Depending upon the degree and quality of contact between parent and child during the period when grandparents had primary responsibility for rearing, this may be damaging for the children involved. Those who care for a child over time eventually become that child's "psychological parents" (Goldstein, Freud & Solnit, 1973). If this has occurred, transferring the child's care back to the parents is not a simple matter. In these situations, legal and psychological consultation should be sought to protect the children's best interests.


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