PARENT: My son wants to move back home, with his tail between his legs. This is the second time he’s lost his job and his girlfriend under the same circumstance: saying he wants to get away from his friends who are pot-heads, again, and to come home awhile and “figure things out.” I’m embarrassed to tell you how old he is.
Situations like this require sacrifice on the parents’ part for plans to work out for the Adult Child (the “AC”). As a result of helping out, parents would be actively contributing to (“enabling”) any ongoing bad habits or relationships the adult child (AC) wants to keep pursuing. It is the same dilemma when the AC is already living at home, and wants his parents to give financial support to his current lifestyle or future plans.
Too often, it looks like you have a choice between two awful alternatives. On the one hand, you can say no to your child’s dreams or wishes. The risk is that the AC will go off on some wild self-destructive protest binge, or get used or misled by somebody, and then blame you. And the hooker is you might believe her troubles would be your fault.
Out of fear, the other alternative is usually chosen. You may keep providing, preaching, and swallowing your anger at everyone’s passivity, the AC’s and your own. The risks here are more subtle and long-term. You are likely to get exhausted, emotionally and financially. And maritally, you’d allow a wedge to come between you: the soft parent would be set against the tough one, and you’d be losing privacy as well. The whole deal would be like having a big dog start sleeping between you in the bed.
And the big loser is the dog, uh, the adult child. You would basically be insulting your AC in saying by your actions that they can’t make it on their own. By funding their lifestyle, you’d also be pouring fuel (your money, your home, your companionship, and your services) on the fires of their bad habits and relationships.
THERE IS ALWAYS A THIRD WAY. Tell them they can fill out an application for your support, and you’ll consider it. You make out the application, print it out, and they fill it out. This beats the old question-and-answer game. You put blanks after each italicized item for them to fill in the blanks. They can read this article and take it to others for help in deciding how to fill out each item. But they can’t move back in until the application has become a signed contract. Here are six items to put into a contract:
Goals – specific goals for their own behavior. Then for each goal,
Steps required – each action the AC needs to take. The AC says how and where they will look for a job, lover or roommate, and what would be the major qualifications and disqualifications for one to be chosen. Time frames are good, like how many hours per week they will look. You may ask what evidence they’d give to document their looking.
External threats – people, circumstances, developments that would threaten the goals. You can include this question: “How would you ever know if (friends, lovers) were doing more harm than good for your goals? They need to be put to a test.”
Internal threats – what habits, choices and attitudes of the AC would undermine each goal? How will the AC avoid these?
Internal assets – skills, knowledge, qualities, resumes, job and character references required, and how these will be obtained.
Budget of expenses – check to see if each item has been verified. If these are in error, the AC forfeits the right to ask for more money from you later if it becomes needed. I recommend charging rent for a developmentally delayed adult child who stays at home. It can be adjusted depending on attitude and chores done. Save the rent to give to the child upon their successful graduation from home. It is best to spread this financial support out over time, and it may include matching funds from parents to speed up the exit.
One key is offering no help – no financial, logistical, or emotional support, no roof over the head – until the application is completed and reviewed. Whatever help they need filling it out, they need to get it themselves so they can feel ownership of their plan. Your feedback (maybe a counterproposal) only comes after all parents, step-parents and grandparents involved have spoken, and the custodial parents have reached consensus on how to respond. (Before you commit any further, you might need testing, counseling or medication to be provided to the AC, and to see the AC’s compliance.)
Finally treat the final agreement as terms of a contract. It will need signatures, witnesses, and a copy for both parties. This goes a long way to inspiring the right attitude in all parties concerned, and it teaches that contracts are binding.
One more key: don’t let the adult child see you sweat when they complain. Here is a good line to practice and use: “Well, apparently you don’t want it enough to fill out the application.” This keeps all the pressure where it belongs, on the adult child to grow up.