Wilson is one of millions of Americans, mostly in their 20s, who have moved back in with one or both parents. Per the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of young adults — more than during the end of the Great Depression — live in their parents’ homes. Although Wilson considers herself lucky to have a safe harbor, it’s not exactly smooth sailing for her or many others in the same boat. “The situation is full of stress, even when you’re the most fortunate person in the world,” she says. The biggest challenge “is just the fact that they are my parents. They are always going to be parenting, no matter how old I am.”
“There’s a sense that ‘going back’ should not be happening,” says Donna San Antonio, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. Emerging adults, as 18- to 29-year-olds are known in psychological terms, are generally on a trajectory toward living their lives in what San Antonio calls “a broader context.” This means constructing identities that are “independent from their families, schools and neighborhoods of their childhood.”
Enter the pandemic, and those trajectories suddenly shifted to reverse for many young people. If they’re also feeling a sense of failure related to job loss, these emerging adults might experience a “feeling of betweenness,” San Antonio says. “They’re connected to their parents, yet they’re trying to be independent.” This can be very difficult to accomplish when you’re all under the same roof.
“Even in the best of situations, it’s probably going to be kind of horrible,” says Molly Barrow, a Naples, Fla.-based mental health counselor. Pile on the traumas of income and housing loss, combined with the complicated relationships most of us have with our parents, and the time adults spend in their parents’ homes may feel like one more catastrophe of the pandemic. “It’s hard work,” Barrow says, “but you’re doing this to survive, to keep yourself, and possibly your family, fed and housed in what amounts to a time of war.”
And, she and others agree, there are ways to not simply survive, but also to thrive in this challenging living situation.
Change your mind-set
Sheena Shah, a rapid transformational therapy practitioner in Northampton, England, challenges her clients who have had to move home to flip the script on the idea that they are “stuck” living with their parents. “Of course, it feels like a step back in time, like a failure,” she says. But in a period of such great uncertainty, the security of a steady roof over your head can give you the time and space to figure out your next move. “It’s a diversion from the path you’d set out for yourself,” Shah says, “but it can be a steppingstone to a better future.”
San Antonio agrees that the forced break brought on by the pandemic can be a blessing in disguise, particularly in a culture where adolescents typically hurtle toward adulthood and its inherent responsibilities. “We race from middle school to high school to college to work,” she says, “with the idea that, by 25, we should have found professional jobs.” Living with one’s parents, presumably unemployed or underemployed, is a “forced moratorium,” she says, “an ideal opportunity to step back, assess the situation and, maybe for the first time, ask, ‘What do I want to do?’ instead of chasing after what someone else told you to do.”
Wilson says she has been using her career pause to partake in soul-searching. “I’m in therapy, and I’m doing a lot of self-reflection on my personal goals and life choices,” she says. “I’m taking this time to sort of try to go in a different direction in my career, since it didn’t pan out the way I envisioned.”
Therapy isn’t the only path to self-exploration and development, San Antonio points out. “Whether it’s journaling, art, photography, whatever methods appeal as a way of exploring and documenting,” she says, “a self-focused activity can help you look at what your life is right now and where you want to go with it.”
Establish ground rules
Practically speaking, it makes sense to establish house rules and personal routines as early as possible. San Antonio says these should be “explicit, stated agreements, maybe even in writing, which include rules on things like privacy, chores and responsibilities, and even mealtimes.” Does everyone eat together? When do you eat? Who cooks, and who cleans up? And another biggie: Can a significant other — either yours or a parent’s — spend the night?
Wilson and her parents have game nights, take turns cooking dinner and schedule other non-stressful ways to spend time together. They also intentionally give each other alone time — Wilson by sleeping late and staying up late, her parents by being early risers and turning in early. “I also take really, really long showers,” Wilson adds.
Another agreement between Wilson and her parents is that she pays rent. Apart from the desire to help cover personal expenses, offering to pay at least some of their way can give adult children a self-esteem boost, San Antonio says. If their financial situations don’t allow them to chip in with money, adults and their parents can work out an in-kind arrangement, be it lawn care, home improvements or helping Dad edit his memoir.
Set emotional boundaries
“I moved out ages ago,” Wilson says, “so it’s difficult to come back and have someone judge my every move and everything I do, and offer advice on every aspect of my life.” At the beginning of her tenure with her parents, there were a lot of seemingly benign, little spats, and then, she says, “it just exploded.”
Some of these explosions of tension may be inevitable, but Barrow says that as adults, we can all walk away from fights we don’t want to have. “Often there’s just no point in having the argument,” Barrow says, whether it’s about careers, relationships or politics. “Recognize your triggers,” she says, “and choose not to participate when a parent tries to reel you into a conflict.”
This is especially true when it comes to what might be well-intended advice. “Thank them for their concern, and then do what you know is right for you,” Barrow says. “There’s no need to convince people with completely different points of view that your view is right.”
Shah agrees. “You have control, power and opinions, and you can make decisions.” You may not have a choice in your living situation, she adds, “but you can still stand up for yourself and remove yourself from difficult, contentious situations.”
We’re living through an extraordinary period of history, one that’s sure to be cemented into most of our memories. It’s a good opportunity to create positive experiences with your parents, such as through shared interests including hiking, cooking or completing home projects.
Wilson has started a basement renovation with her newly retired parents, a project she says has been “half-and-half” — half-fun and half-frustrating. It has given everyone a way to stay busy and will double the living space of the 1,500-square-foot home. “We’re making fun decisions together,” she says, “and it’s brought us closer together, even if there’ve been some arguments along the way.”
You can also use the time to learn more about your parents, their past and your family’s ancestry, San Antonio says, by asking questions and plumbing memories. “Even in circumstances where a parent is reticent or bitter,” she says, “these projects and conversations can create openings for better communication and lasting, positive memories.”
The new family dynamic can also help you appreciate your parents in a different way. “As we get older, most of us don’t spend enough quality time with our parents,” Shah says. “To truly get to know them as an adult is a wonderful opportunity.”
Barrow concurs. “Most people,” she says, “including myself, would love to see their parents again. Knowing that the time left with your parents is finite doesn’t take away the fact that they can be annoying. But it’s about finding that gratitude in your heart; you’ve got parents who love you enough to take you in, to not let their children live on the street. That alone is reason to be grateful.”
Overall, Wilson says, her new living arrangement has come with a “ton of positives.” She says the experience of being home, rather than alone in a studio apartment, has changed her mind about racing back to independence. “It’s just good to be around people,” she says. “Being with my parents encourages me to follow better routines.” She’s planning to stay put until she can get the coronavirus vaccine, “or maybe longer.”
The last thing to remember, even amid an ongoing pandemic and economic crisis, is that your situation is not permanent. “Tell yourself every day that it’s just temporary,” Barrow says, “especially now that vaccines are on the way.”
Even post-vaccine, though, some adults who have returned to the nest might not be so eager to take flight. If you consider the companionship and familiarity — plus the financial windfall — of being back at home, that finished basement at Mom and Dad’s place might start to look pretty cozy. “The world has completely changed,” Wilson says, “and we have to change with it.”
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