Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
August 2001
By Margaret Stoll, Ph.D.

For numerous reasons many young adults find themselves needing or choosing to move back home with their parents. This could be as temporary as a summer vacation from college or for more unexpected or longer situations such as divorce. The adult child may need financial and emotional support or even childcare assistance after the breakup of their marriage. With the high cost of living, the expense of buying a home, the length and cost of higher education as well as the high divorce rate, many adult children are returning to their parents' homes for relief and assistance.

This return to one household can be quite stressful. The young adult college student, for example, is now used to being independent, not having been accountable to parents or others; keeping their own hours. However, their parents may continue to expect greater authority or involvement with them when they are again living under the same roof. Their different expectations can easily result in conflict and misunderstanding.

For adult children having been on their own for quite a while, possibly in marriages or with children, returning to live with their parents can stir up primitive childhood feelings such as vulnerability, lack of control or dependency. Especially if their move home was due to unfortunate life circumstances they may find themselves being unusually sensitive, emotional or reactive to their parents and family in ways that are confusing both to themselves and to those around them.

The parents also encounter new challenges when their children move in. Having been used to finally living on their own without children, they may experience a lack of privacy. It may also be confusing to them to know what role to take with their children. How do they integrate them back into their household and yet treat them as independent adults and not become overly focused on rules or discipline as if they were adolescents or children again? Old conflicts over discipline or parent-child relationships may resurface between the parents with the children back in their home, possibly re-igniting issues that had previously subsided.

One special circumstance that is a potential source of confusion and conflict is when the adult children have children of their own. How much should the grandparents participate in the care taking and discipline of these children and how do they handle differences they have with the parents over these matters when they are all living in their home? Obviously, the grandparents need to respect the authority and wishes of the parents yet at the same time, naturally, want to have a meaningful and honest relationship with their grandchildren.

One way to minimize the hardships of children moving back home is to discuss and agree upon some conditions prior to the move. Communication and agreement about how long the children will be there may avoid later misunderstandings. Other topics to discuss and decide include expectations about finances, i.e., 'will the children be paying for anything and how much?; do they have responsibilities in the home such as cleaning, cooking, etc?'.

Some general guidelines to assist the family through the multigenerational household include maintaining an overall respect for each other. This consists of respecting each other's physical space and belongings as well as allowing autonomy, privacy and independence. To the adult children, "Remember, this is a privilege, not a right. Be appreciative." To the parents, "If you offer your home to your children, do not shame them or use their hardship against them or threaten to make them leave frivolously."

Another guideline is for clear communication and an open ongoing dialogue about expectations, needs and grievances that arise. It is also suggested that family members take responsibility for their own lives rather than centering their entire lives around each other. This may take the form of various outside social and recreational activities. In this way, members have a chance to experience some separation and also to avoid the risk of relying too heavily on each other to meet all of their needs.

A final recommendation is to consider one or a couple of family counseling sessions to initially discuss and establish the clear communication and expectations. Additionally, if frequent, chronic or excessive conflicts occur within the family, then ongoing or intermittent family counseling to help mitigate this is advisable. Even families without undo conflict may discover that ongoing meetings with a therapist provide an opportunity to air issues in a timely manner in a supportive environment.

On a positive note, the combined household can potentially be an opportunity for the development of new, more reciprocal relationships and enjoyment of each other if family members bear in mind various aspects of the situation. With this comes the possibility of a feeling of support and a greater sense of extended family that is often missing today in our mobile society. Throughout the life cycle, from childhood to old age, it is this sense of connection and relationship with others that can sustain us through hardship and contribute to our emotional development and well-being.

Dr. Stoll is a psychotherapist in practice in Redondo Beach and Glendale. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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