When Adult Children Return Home

Things didn't quite work out the way Bill Ballou thought they would.

His oldest daughter left for college two years ago, and Ballou figured it was the beginning of the "empty nest" stage of his life, when the house would grow quiet and he would begin to look down the road toward retirement.

But now, his 20-year-old daughter has come back to live in her old bedroom and Ballou's nest isn't quite as empty as he thought it would be. There's one more person in the bathroom in the mornings, one more person with a claim on the family car and -- once again -- inter-sibling squabbles to mediate. Not to mention lots of late-night calls to the boyfriend.

The arrangement has occasionally tried his patience and forced him into a new, unfamiliar relationship with his daughter. He's now less of a traditional father-figure and more a benevolent landlord.

"We have to take into account that she's not the same person she was when she left," said the 53-year-old construction manager from Nova Scotia. "She's a mature adult who's had her own experiences."

Children who come back to live with their parents are what New Jersey psychologist Judith Bernstein calls "returning fledglings." And there are more than ever before.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today nearly three million men between the ages of 25 and 34 live with one or more of their parents. That's almost 15 percent of the total men in that age category. By comparison, in 1970, only nine percent of American men in that age group were living with Mom or Dad.Adult children return home for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with a personal crisis such as divorce, failure at school, financial problems or unemployment."Many come home already defeated. Their illusions are shattered. They are, more often that not, in a down place," said Bernstein. This tends to put stress on an already thorny domestic situation and may cause the parents to ask themselves, "what did I do wrong?" she said.The time when children leave the house is also when long-married couples begin to reevaluate their relationship as husband and wife, said Bernstein. Children who return can throw this process off-track. "It gets triangulated by a third party coming into the house," she said.But the not-so-empty-nest may not necessarily be a bad thing. Parents who are widowed or divorced tend to be more accepting of the arrangement because of the love, companionship, financial support and household help that children can bring.
Bernstein says it's impossible to give parents one hard-and-fast piece of advice on how they should handle a returning fledgling. Each situation is different, as is the length of time the child plans to stay. There is a big difference, for example, between a child who plans a temporary stay and one who seems to be a chronic resident with no expectation of leaving.For his part, Ballou is planning to set up a rent-payment plan if his daughter winds up staying longer than the summer. She already reimburses the family for the use of the car, which she uses to get to her job and back each day.Ballou's attitude may be tempered somewhat by the knowledge that he, too, went back to live with his parents in Sacramento for a short time after he finished college. And he understands that, although she's back under his roof, his daughter is no longer a child and can no longer be treated as such."In spite of the fact that it's your house, if you decide to share it with them, you better give them some space," he says. "They have their own ideas and agendas. But you also have to set some limits. You can't let them walk all over you."
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