A marital and family therapy expert from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology shares advice from over fifteen years in private practice about how several generations can live together in harmony.
Melody Bacon, Ph.D.
Dr. Melody Bacon is an author and licensed clinical psychologist. She oversees Marital and Family Therapy programs at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Dr. Bacon has been in private practice for 15 years, specializing in relational issues. She is the author of The Grace Filled Divorce (2012) and the mother of two young adult children.
Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do.
With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.
In August 2014, my husband and I became empty-nesters as our youngest child left for college in a distant state. It was one of those bittersweet life events both a celebration of our children’s brave steps into their future, and sadness for the life we had known for over 20 years as parents of two active children. While we see our children on holidays and have set aside a budget for travel, the day-to-day intermingling of our lives is a thing of the past. Now we catch each other on text messages, and weekly phone calls (thank goodness for Face Time!).
As a clinical psychologist specializing in relational issues, I have worked with many clients over the years who have traversed this pathway. Moreover, most of my friends and colleagues are moving into this stage of life. I also know that this is, for the most part, a modern phenomenon, in that for most of human history, families lived together in various configurations all their lives. Indeed, one might argue that it is really only since the post-World War II era that Americans have held the single nuclear family household as the criteria for successful adulthood. As the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, has noted, we are the first society to have asked the nuclear family to live “all by itself in a box.” And, as she also correctly stated, we’ve put the nuclear family “in an impossible situation.”
Family systems research has revealed that individuals who are in regular, meaningful contact with their extended families fare much better across many measures of emotional and mental health. These individuals are more resilient and better able to weather the challenges of life. This is true even for those families that might be termed “dysfunctional” with members who are struggling with addictions, unemployment and divorce.
When the Pew Foundation published research that the number of Americans living in multigenerational households has doubled since 1980, I saw this as a trend with positive implications. I realize this view is somewhat counter-cultural. In fact, the Pew researchers themselves see this as possible evidence of “delayed entry into adulthood.” While the reasons for this phenomenon among millennials are multi-faceted, I believe this trend could be viewed as a return to living arrangements that have served humankind for thousands of years.
In the movie Indiana Jones the Quest for the Holy Grail, Indy is having a heartfelt conversation with his father, Dr. Henry Jones, about what he believed was a neglectful childhood. At one point he says, “What you taught me was that I was less important to you than people who had been dead for five hundred years in another country. And I learned it so well that we’ve hardly spoken for twenty years.” His father retorts, “You left just when you were becoming interesting”! This is one of my favorite lines in that movie as it sums up the irony of the empty nest experience. This is not to say that I don’t think young children are fascinating, but adult children, particularly after having navigated the adolescent years, can offer uniquely rewarding relationships.
Over the years, I have worked with many parents, children and families and have seen firsthand the tumultuous relationships that parents and young adult children can experience, particularly those in which addiction is a factor but also those in which the adult child faces a variety of developmental, emotional and mental issues. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” However, it has also been my experience that most families reside in the “happy” category that is to say firmly within the bell curve of normalcy. For these families, a young adult who decides to either remain at home, to work and/or attend the local college or university or decides to move back home after graduation, can benefit all concerned.
The key is to plan ahead and establish a set of mutually agreed upon guidelines. Some questions to keep in mind are as follows:
1. Are we going to charge our children rent? If so, how much? One idea my husband floated when one of our children was considering moving back home was to charge a reasonable rent based on their income and put it away in a savings account to give to them once they decided to move out to help them with first and last month’s rent. Paying rent, no matter how nominal, establishes your child as a fully competent adult. Some people, on the other hand, don’t want to charge rent for a variety of reasons. The conversation should still be had as to what your child is planning to do in terms of savings, etc. I’ve known of parents who are very frustrated with the fact that they are paying for their children’s living expenses while their children are spending all their disposable income on partying, clothes, expensive cars and travel. It’s hard, however, to necessarily see the children as being at fault when the expectations for contributing to the household expenses have never been made explicit. The refrain from the parents is often “they should appreciate all we are doing for them and save their money” or “they should offer to help pay for groceries.” As I tell my clients, the way things should be and the way they actually are is often very different. While it would be very nice if your child voluntarily contributed, making your expectations known and working out the details in advance will make sure everyone is clear.
2. Will they be living as guests, boarders or family? Remember, your adult child is not just coming home for a visit, so you need to be sure you work out how to manage the household requirements. It’s easy for everyone to slip into old, worn out, relationship patterns. The child who routinely left their clothes strewn around the house is likely to do so when they move back. Likewise, the parent who picked up those clothes, while nagging the child to start picking up, will revert to their patterns. Working out ahead of time who will clean the kitchen, bathrooms, run the vacuum, cook meals, and on what schedule is a step in the right direction. When one of our children was home one summer from college, he quickly got a job and proceeded to work and hang out with his friends, while also neglecting to contribute in the form of chores to the family. My husband informed him that he was acting more like a boarder than a family member and as such he should pay rent. If he decided, however, that he’d prefer to be a family member and thus contribute with chores, he would not be asked to pay rent. My husband then asked him to write out a check for rent which my husband would cash if it turned out our son preferred the role of the boarder. Despite much grumbling and complaining, our son wrote out the check and then proceeded to help with the household chores for the rest of the summer.
3. How will we handle boyfriends/girlfriends? Will you be comfortable with your adult child having someone stay in their room? For how long? What if they want to live together and remain in the family home? A corollary to this is what kind of communication would you like if your adult child decides to spend the night elsewhere? Adults are free to come and go but even roommates can courteously inform everyone if they won’t be coming home that night.
4. What are you willing to do to make sure that your mutually agreed upon guidelines are met? This is really where the rubber meets the road. It’s one thing to agree that the child should be responsible for cleaning his or her bathroom, contributing a certain amount to the household grocery bill and paying an agreed upon rent, it’s another, however, when your child doesn’t follow through on this agreement. Figuring out ahead of time what you will do if this occurs can help both of you. If you are not willing to ask your child to leave then you will not be in a position to insist on compliance. Hopefully it won’t come to this, but being prepared for the worst case scenario always allows you to lead from a position of strength. If you child really wants to live with you, he or she will follow through on the agreement. But if they know that you have a tendency to threaten and not follow through, this is likely to result in non-compliance with your agreement.
My experience is that families, parents in particular, do not want to be this specific about their expectations (frankly, couples are equally reluctant but that’s a different topic!). They’d prefer to just assume that everyone will work together harmoniously and do their part. While this is a wonderful wish, the way to insure that you actually have this experience is to work out with your adult child how you both want things to go. A good example of this is a typical rental agreement which spells out when the rent will be paid each month, who is responsible for repairs, etc. This type of clarity benefits everyone. Keep in mind that these guidelines and expectations can always be revised later on.
While multi-generational households may be increasing in number, it is likely that this will not be a lifetime arrangement for young adults. But for those first few years when their income is generally at its lowest and they are working to establish themselves in careers and relationships, living at home can be tremendous benefit to all concerned. The key is to be intentional with the process, maintain open lines of communications and revise as situations change.