When College Students Return Home

By Karen L. Coburn and Madge Treeger, Special to StudentAdvisor.com

“Hi Mom; I’m back!” These four simple words can signal a major disruption in your household’s familiar rhythms if your adult child is returning to live at home. Although it may seem like the best solution when your child is undergoing a major transition or has experienced a setback, living under the same roof can pose tremendous challenges for “housemates” of both generations.

Parents, bent on helping their kids become successful adults, can quickly fall into the trap of becoming a hovering “helicopter parent.” And the kids? They’re happy to have dinner magically appear on the table but bristle when you ask, “What time will you be home?” They are torn between the comforts of home and a desire to strike out on their own. The result: conflict.

Nonetheless, with some thoughtful planning, adult children and parents can enter a whole new phase of relating to each other, free of past roles.

Why do they come back?

Sociologists remind us that 75 to 100 years ago, an adult child living at home was acceptable and often an economic necessity. That changed in the 1950s, when it became the norm for young adults to leave the nest by their early twenties. However, current statistics show growing numbers of young adults living at home with their parents.

In contrast to young people of the ’70s, who often rebelled and didn’t trust people over thirty, today’s twenty-somethings are closely connected to their families. What once seemed out of sync is becoming the norm for this “boomerang generation.”

There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon:

  • Women and men are marrying later.
  • Housing costs have risen far faster than salaries.
  • Students leave college with large amounts of debt.
  • The job market is uncertain in many fields.
  • The divorce rate is high, as is the rate of failed relationships in general.
  • Some kids have medical and emotional problems that they can’t handle on their own.
  • We allow our children to defer adulthood; many become ADULTescents or KIDults who are caught in between.

Adult child—is this an oxymoron? Not really. He or she is an adult but will always be your child. And you will always be the parent. Whatever the reason your son or daughter returns home, keep in mind that a parent’s job is always to support and encourage a child on the journey towards self reliance.

You can do it!

To do this successfully, you will have to move beyond the way you related to your child when he or she was a teenager. Below are some guidelines that can help you find your way.

Acknowledge that you are all entering a new stage of your relationship. Make a commitment to ongoing communication and mutual respect. It may be helpful to put some basic commitments in writing or to set regular times each week to talk. Agree to discuss conflicts as they arise, and to resolve them before they start to fester.

Set boundaries and define responsibilities. Discuss which spaces are family spaces and which are private. If you decide that your son’s room is off limits for you, then you shouldn’t clean it, complain about the way it looks, or even enter it without being asked. However, the kitchen—or living room or shared bathroom—may be an entirely different story. It is reasonable to ask your child to help out with cleaning and chores for shared areas as well as tasks like laundry, dishes, and caring for younger children and/or pets. Set clear expectations. Don’t fall into the trap of cleaning up after him or doing chores he promised to do and then feeling resentful later. And if do you find your normally clean house sinking into squalor? Remember those weekly talks. Have him make a plan that you can live with. If he can’t, it’s time for him to live on his own.

Set expectations about behavior. Forget the “Where are you going? And with whom?” questions that came tripping off your tongue during your child’s high school years. Instead, work out a mutual agreement about comings and goings. Do you expect her to come home for dinner unless she tells you otherwise? Can she expect you to be there unless you tell her? What about guests? Music? Use of the car? Spending the night someplace else without calling? Is your house smoke free? Drug free? What about socializing–including sleeping arrangements for romantic partners? You won’t think of everything at first, but you’ll be setting the stage for a reasonable way to deal with potential conflicts before they blow up.

Clarify financial arrangements. Spell out money-related issues right up front. Will your child pay rent? If so, what is a reasonable amount? Some parents collect rent and promise to return it when the child finds a job and moves out. Who will shop for groceries and pay for food? Utilities? Phone bill? If you are footing all the bills, agree on a few projects your child can take on as work-in-kind. It doesn’t all have to be drudgery. If she’s artistically talented, maybe she can hang those pictures you’ve had sitting in the corner – or choose paint colors for a room you’ve been wanting to redecorate. If he likes to cook, perhaps he can prepare large batches of soup and other foods to freeze and eat on busy nights.

Agree on a time limit. If you think this a temporary arrangement, make sure your child thinks so, too. Set a time limit and remind her that you expect her to become self-supporting. If your child is unemployed, work out an understanding about the efforts she will make to find a job and how much of her paycheck she will put aside for future expenses.

The real keys are to make a commitment to the relationship with the goal of helping your child move on—and out—and to keep your sense of humor. If you can do this successfully, then you may actually find yourself enjoying your new—and hopefully temporary—parenting phase.


Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger are co-authors of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years. Coburn is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Students at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and co-author of three books. Madge Lawrence Treeger, a psychotherapist in private practice in St. Louis, gives workshops and has appeared on national TV and radio to speak about the transition from high school to college and the ongoing relationship between parents and students throughout the college years.