In my studies as family counselor, one of the first courses we took was a look into the family lifecycle. We obviously know the individual lifecycle – birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and then older adulthood (and of course we could subdivide that many ways).
The family lifecycle, then, has the following stages: launching (leaving your parents after adolescence), coupling, parenting young children, parenting adolescents, launching your own children, then adulthood in later life. Each of these phases of life carries unique challenges and obstacles to be overcome.
Parenting of young children, for example, includes managing expectations of both the parents and the grandparents and finding the balance of family support that will work the best for the family. Parenting of adolescents involves working out how to manage the wills and growth of independence of the adolescent children as they are not as dependent on their parents anymore.
One area where I have seen a lot of trouble (especially in Seattle, Washington in 2019), is the struggle that families have when they have an adult child living at home. I believe that this situation is causing a lot of trouble for families not because it is inherently a bad thing, but because 1) we as a society don’t have a “script” for this, and 2) this occurs as a clashing of life cycle stages.
The “script” would say at the age of 22(ish) the child is done with college and can now move out on their own. However, more and more adults are living with their parents much later into their 20’s, largely due to the economic difficulties of living on their own in this day and age. During this time both the children and the parents in these situations have unstated and unmet expectations that are not allowing them to move onto their next family lifecycle stage.
Additionally, this clash of lifecycle stages occurs not necessarily due to “failure to progress,” but to a sort of regression when realities of life cause children to move back into the home when they feel they had already launched. I can relate to this scenario, personally, as this was exactly what occurred to me in my mid-twenties.
I attended a small, Christian, liberal arts college called Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA after growing up in the greater Seattle area. This was a fantastic program that emphasized not only providing education but also putting out into the world responsible and well-rounded people.
I felt my time there helped me to be ready for life and to pursue my career and personal life goals. I had learned to take care of myself and to be quite efficient in my work. During this time, I even remember remarking how good it felt to be independent and going out into the world.
I graduated from my undergraduate program half a year yearly, so I was only 21 when I finished college. For the next two years, I stayed in Santa Barbara, working and taking care of myself. I was far from home so I learned to handle issues as they came to me. I handled heartbreak, leaning on my friends and support systems I developed. I grew in relationship to a new church I found and became involved there.
I even had to handle a period of time when my apartment lease ended and I could not find affordable housing for a month or so, bouncing from couch to couch every week and attending as many open houses as I could. I learned a lot about myself during this period and honestly felt I could tackle anything life threw my way, as long as leaned into the support networks I had built and my faith in God.
In 2014, I decided it was time to return to grad school to finally finish my education and become a marriage and family therapist. In talking with my parents about what my options were, my father and mother graciously offered to let me return home and life rent free while I attended school over the next two years, saving me thousands in student loans. Looking back at this, this was a fantastic deal and at the time it made all the sense on paper, but I had no idea how difficult it might end up being for me personally.
When I returned home, I found that even at age 24, I felt 14 again. I had spent the last two years truly launching, becoming a version of myself that I liked. I was confident and hard-working – I got stuff done! I had picked up cycling as a hobby and was working towards longer and longer distances, pushing myself.
However, now that I was back in the confines of my childhood home I found myself slipping back into the habits of my adolescence. While living with roommates in my post college days I had become much tidier and on top of house hold chores, but when living with my parents again I became complacent with little things like dishes and cleaning my room.
Beyond the practical changes in my life, I noticed that my relationship with my parents began to revert as well. I would get into arguments with them like a 14 year might. I felt small and unaccomplished. I began to question all the progress I had made in my life over the last few years. Had I really made those changes or was that all dependent on living two states away? I was less motivated and didn’t like the self I was seeing all that much.
The study of marriage and family therapy really is the study of life as we all have families and relationships we come from, even if we have cut them off. While I studied things like the family life cycle, others in my class were at different life stages. Some honed in on how their marriages were affected by what we were studying, others were taking care of the parents in late life. Some had newborns of their own.
For me, I was seeing the literature on adolescence launching reflecting my own situation to a “T” – except that I had already launched! This is when I found out these cycles are not always linear, and sometimes we go through them multiple times. The cycle I laid out earlier is sort of the “prototypical” cycle, but in reality, there exist so many variants.
Divorce, adoptions, and the blending of families all complicate this cycle. Severe illness can complicate the adulthood stage of life. I say this to point out that while it felt on my end like I was “failing” to launch, even as I was training to become a therapist, I was simply living through a different variant of this cycle.
So what helped me through it? Well, first off were some direct and adult conversations with my parents. We talked about the struggles I was having living at home after being independent for a significant period of time.
But in all honesty, I never truly felt like I was back to that early adulthood going into couple phase of life until I finished school and moved out on my own again. It’s normal to feel a need to move on, and it is a reality that sometimes life prevents us from doing this at the pace we want to. It is important to give each other some compassion in this stage.
Even in the Bible it speaks to this: Ephesians 5:31 states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” There is an expectation that we leave and move out. Note, however, that this is descriptive of a process, not prescriptive of a timing. It is important to hold grace for each other in this transitionary period.
How a Family Counselor Can Be Helpful
At this point, let me go through some particular reasons why this stage may be difficult for both the children and parents in this situation and advocate for why a family counselor might be incredibly helpful in this process.
1.It’s harder than it looks to move back in
For someone facing the prospect of moving back in with their parents, it might feel like facing a major regression in their life. They might feel like they are falling behind in relation to their peers. As such, it is important for parents to remember that their adult child is likely to face a crisis of self-esteem.
As this is more the time for coupling in the family lifecycle, the prospect of dating and managing a relationship while living at home might feel like a hurdle that is not worth jumping at this time. Parents, come with an understanding that even if they are getting a “free ride,” the emotional world might not feel free for your adult child.
2.It’s harder than it looks to have your children move back in
On the flip side, it’s hard for parents to be feeling like they are not progressing either. Most people are imagining their late career/early retirement years to be still housing their children. You might have expected grandchildren by now, but instead, you still feel like you’re parenting an adolescent.
If you’re the adult child living at home, know that your parents probably were hoping to be a little more settled right now than they are and potentially travelling more. Parents, also know that this transition can be a strain your marriage too. Sometimes there might be misplaced ill will towards the child at home when you and your spouse are trying to figure out how to relate to each other after 20+ years of parenting.
3.Everyone is stuck in a stage
The key to these situations is the following: everyone is feeling stuck! Nobody is where they likely wanted to be at this stage, so that frustration is likely going to come out towards each other. Rather than seeing each other as the problem, perhaps reframe it in such a way that you are all facing the problem of not progressing collaboratively rather than combatively.
So what then can you do to try and navigate this situation more effectively? Begin by recognizing the reality that everyone is an adult now. Behaving like an adolescent or being too top-down is not going to be helpful for anyone. Perhaps you should think about your relationship a little bit differently – not just as a parent/child relationship, but a roommate-tenant relationship.
Come together and determine what are, and what are not, the responsibilities of the adult child at home. Establish clear boundaries for what is expected, and if you are the child follow through with them. On the flip side, parents should respect that their child is an adult now and has their own life, responsibilities, and things to get done.
If you are the adult child at home, my biggest recommendation is this: be an adult! Try and set up some specialized space if you can to get work or school done that allows you to be productive. Live like you would if you lived on your own or with roommates in your own life stage.
You probably wouldn’t “spill” into their space or count on them to take care of things for you, so take ownership of your own things and responsibilities. This will help with the self-esteem of living at home as well, as you will feel more accomplished and less regressed.
Finally, know that this transition and phase of life can be quite difficult! As I said earlier, we as a society do not yet have a “script” for what this looks like. We may in 20 years or so as the culture shifts and this becomes more and more common, but for now, we do have difficulty.
Working with a family counselor during this time can be quite effective to help you manage your expectations and communicate more effectively. It’s a strange time talking to your child/parents on a more level footing.
Having a family counselor can help you to feel heard and understand where your family member is coming from. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a family counselor and get moving towards more peace at home today!
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