Adult children who live with their parents

When still living under the same roof as your parents, the old adult-child dynamics are likely to persist

Gráinne and Glenn McManus with sons, Conor (left) and Killian, at their home in Glasnevin, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Gráinne and Glenn McManus with sons, Conor (left) and Killian, at their home in Glasnevin, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


You don’t really grow up until you leave home. Of course you know that household bills have to be paid, food has to be put in the fridge and clothes don’t wash themselves, but you may have never budgeted for weekly groceries, worried about insurance, opened a fuse box, or wondered who to call when the toilet won’t flush.

The reality of domestic life doesn’t hit home until you face all that without a parental helping hand. And, at the moment, more young people in Ireland are having to put off that day because paying for their own place is out of the question.

According to a survey published last week by the Irish League of Credit Unions, just 32 per cent of third-level students are living away from home, compared with 49 per cent in 2011. Even when they graduate, a lack of employment opportunities often means they are still not going anywhere, or moving back home, at a stage when they should be fully independent.

We’re living in an age when our offspring fast-forward through childhood but prolong their adolescence. When still living under the same roof as your parents, the old adult-child dynamics are likely to persist.

“The parent does too much care-taking, both at a practical and emotional level, and the adult child falls into dependency behaviour and will have expectations that the parent will look after them financially and practically,” says Mary Rafferty, a mediator at Consensus Mediation.

Not good at growing up
Bernadette Ryan, a therapist with Relationships Ireland, doesn’t think Irish people are very good at growing up and out of their family of origin. The archetypal Irish mammy runs around doing things for her children well into their middle age.

Psychologically, moving out when you start college is the best option, she says. But it may not be practical.

And for couples whose children may have dominated their lives for 20 years, it can be very hard to let go, she points out. So both sides need to ask themselves, honestly, is there another option?

The age of the adult children still at home makes a big difference. At 18 and starting college, it is a continuation of their journey towards independence, says Ryan, but it’s time for a new set of rules as school imposes a certain structure while college life is more fluid.

“Parents can feel a bit adrift; they have lost any sort of control they thought they might have had.” Students have to start taking responsibility for their own lives but if, for instance, they want to stay out all night, they need to send a text as common courtesy, she suggests.

Parents are not doing children any favours keeping them dependent. They need to step back and be clear about boundaries but, again, Ryan feels Irish people are not good at that.

“We let things fester,” she says, whereas a few ground rules help everybody.

So, presuming parents and their adult children are capable of sitting down and talking, what are the issues they need to look at if they are not moving out or have moved back home?

Feelings of resentment
Rafferty’s advice to parents is to first reflect on your own feelings about having this adult child still, or back, in your home. What behaviours may trigger your resentment and what are you prepared to tolerate?

“Conflict will happen where your values, your needs or some aspect of your identity is being challenged by the other person,” she explains.

Values will come into play in the matter of finances, tidiness and socialising. On needs, every person needs to feel respected as an adult; both the parent and the adult child. And when it comes to identity, young adults may be at the stage where they are questioning how they see themselves.

“In particular, when an adult child is not as successful as he or she might have hoped to be, mum or dad coming in and shaking their head is really going to lay the icing on the cake,” says Rafferty. And this scenario may also cause parents to see themselves as not having performed adequately.

“If parents are being triggered by how an adult child’s behaviour makes them feel about themselves, that is their issue rather than their child’s issue,” she says.

Once you have thought through the likely areas of contention – money, chores, lifestyle, having friends back – it is time to talk.

Acknowledge your adult child has gone beyond the stage of being told what to do, Rafferty advises, but explain you want to find a way to live together under the one roof that is viable and fair for everybody. Once you have set out your own stall, ask what is important to them.

The dogmatic “not under my roof” is a complete waste of time, she says. “Not only is it not helpful, it will only provoke the opposite side. People will just trot out positions and not get into deeper discussion of what things are really important to them and how it makes them feel.”

Finally, when you’ve had your ground-rules conversation, agree a timeline for a review.

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