How To Cope With Having Your Adult Kids Back Home

Adult kids

The pandemic is bringing families back together. Here’s some expert advice for parents.

The coronavirus crisis has upended all of our lives in unthinkable ways, and for many of us, that means a rearrangement of our living situation. To help our Wake-Up Call newsletter adjust to this unique situation, our good friends Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan of Grown and Flown spoke with us about the surprising number of adult children they’ve seen moving back in with their parents.

Together, they offered some advice on how to make the most of this transition — plus psychologist Lisa Damour jumped in to explain why some adult children may tend to act a bit less like adults and more like children when they first move home…

Wake Up Call: You both have adult children. Have any of them moved back in?

Mary Dell: I have two young adults who have moved back home with us, and my nephew, who’s in college and who we are guardians for, is also with us. It’s five people… so that means it’s 15 meals a day. It’s shocking! I don’t actually have to cook 15 meals a day but I am cooking a big huge dinner every night, and it’s something I am so out of practice with. It’s a really full house.

Lisa Heffernan: We’ve actually done the reverse. I had my mother move in, because I was so worried about where she was living, and the chance of infection. Since older people are much more susceptible to this, our kids have had to stay away. But they will come over and sit at the end of the garden, about 20 feet from us, to say hello.

What advice do you have for parents hoping to set boundaries and establish rules with their adult children?

Lisa Heffernan: Our natural inclination as parents may be to go back to “our house our rules,” because last time your child lived with you they were a child, both in maturity and in the eyes of the law. It’s really important in this moment that we come to agreements with our kids about what the rules are going to be and how we’re going to do things, as opposed to flipping back in time to the moment when we made the rules.

So instead of laying down the rules like you may have done with a 15 year old, try to present it as: How can we solve this problem together? For example: “I need quiet in the house between 2 and 4 p.m. because I am doing Zoom calls, and no matter where you are, when you’re blaring YouTube, I can hear it. So how are we going to make this work so I can do my work and you can do what you want to do?”

It’s almost like your kids are now your roommates, but more importantly, they’re other adults. It’s hard for a lot of parents to come to grips with this, but it’s also incredibly important to remind kids of how they’re going to fulfill responsibilities as adults in the household. Those can be things like, cleaning, shopping, and cooking. Or with my kids, I’ve said, “Here’s something you need to do for us: Grandpa is quarantined alone, so you each need to call him once a day.”

It’s about figuring out what the most important tasks are, putting those in front of your kids, and talking to them like the adults you want them to be.

Your friend and Grown and Flown contributor, psychologist Lisa Damour, also had some interesting thoughts to share with us on why our adult children might not always act their age when they move back into the house. Let’s check in with her on this…

Lisa Damour: It’s not at all unusual for young adults (and even middle-aged adults!) to regress a bit when they are around their parents. We all have well-worn patterns for how we interact with our parents, and those patterns took the form of a parent-child relationship for a long time. Put simply, it’s pretty easy for high-functioning, self-sufficient young adults to slip into acting like teenagers when they’re with their folks.

The challenge here is for the parent to not regress back to old patterns along with the young adult — especially if doing so takes the form of slipping into unhelpful interactions, such as coming down on an adult child for not helping out around the house. To do this, we should remember that all young people have two sides: a mature, thoughtful, and altruistic side… and an immature, impulsive, and self-preoccupied side.

In my experience, the side the parent addresses will be the side that shows up for the conversation. If the parent launches in with a lecture, they’re likely to get a snarky adolescent response. If the parent says, “I know you were doing a great job of splitting dorm/apartment responsibilities with your roommate before you had to come home. Now I need you to do the same thing here with us,” they’re likely to get a mature and helpful response.

Lisa Heffernan: Exactly! Children will rise to the level that we speak to them. So if you speak to your 23 year old like they’re 13, they will act like they’re 13. If you speak to your 18 year old like they’re 28, they will act like they’re 28. You as the parent can set the tone for the desired outcome.

Although this is obviously a stressful time for all of us, are you seeing any positive relationship changes happening within families?

Lisa Heffernan: The big relationship that is having a shining moment in all of this is the sibling relationship. Most people haven’t spent this amount of time with their siblings since before middle school. Suddenly this relationship is being rekindled, and there are parents talking about the fact that this is one of the most special things about this experience. Kids have become playmates again, in a way they haven’t been since young childhood.

This, in my mind, is the most unprecedented thing — when in early adulthood would you get to live with your sibling, except those rare cases where you room together? Now you’re getting to know each other in a way you wouldn’t normally get to, and that seems pretty special.

Mary Dell: Parents are loving that. My kids are just hanging out with each other, because there’s no other peer in their lives right now besides their sibling. My son and daughter are five years apart, and every Friday they do a workout class together. It’s part of the structure that they’ve created in their lives that they never had before. So that’s really unique.

For siblings that are that far apart in age, anything more than two years or so, your older sibling left while you were still a child. You have not lived with this person since you were a kid. And now here you are, an adult, living with your sibling, and you’re different people. They can see each other on the same plane — as adults — even with the age gap.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about your own families during this time?

Mary Dell: My daughter is working from home, and she’s got a monitor set up in the house and she’s working here, and it gives me a perspective of what life is like her for. I’ve always known she works long hours, but I never really saw how hard she worked, or had more than a basic sense of what her job entails. She can’t even join us for dinner many nights because she’s still working.

We’ve talked with a couple of moms whose kids are in theater in college, and they can hear their kids rehearsing their Shakespeare monologues, or practicing for dance classes, and it’s this fly on the wall moment that parents never have. You don’t really ever get to see your kids in class, or at work. So this is really an eye opening experience for many of us who have never seen our kids doing what they do in an unvarnished way.

Lisa Heffernan: People have also said that about their spouses. That they had an idea of what their spouse’s job was, but not really how they did it, or what their day-to-day life was like at work. So even people who have been married for decades, and even if the spouse has been in the job for decades, they have really come to appreciate what their spouse’s job is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This appeared on