Originally published in Psychology Today magazine
FAMILY HAS ALWAYS been a lifeline, and the coronavirus has led thousands of young adults to grab on tight. Whether just out of college, newly furloughed or laid off, or a few years into their first jobs, sons and daughters have returned to their parents’ home to wait out the spread of the virus and its damage to the economy. For most, this wasn’t their first choice, but their parents—even those who have lost jobs themselves—have few reservations about offering adult children the comfort and emotional security of home. They see this time together, while it comes with enormous uncertainty and challenge, as a rare opportunity to fast-forward their parent-child relationship.
“My parents are psyched to have me back; they didn’t expect it to ever happen,” says Jenna*, 24, now working full time from her childhood bedroom for a nonprofit organization. “The pandemic has delivered them a gift, although under unfortunate circumstances, of more time together.”
Security and Support
The crisis has frozen the dreams of young workers across the world. “It hit me when I was unpacking my belongings from college,” says Lawrence*, who graduated in May without pomp or circumstance. “I don’t know when I will be able to leave my parents’ house. My plans to find a job have been put on hold, and nobody knows for how long.”
Disheartening prospects can make young adults feel like failures before they have even had a chance to show what they can do. But living with parents early in one’s career is not new; in fact, even before the pandemic struck, it had become the most common living arrangement for 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States, according to data from the Pew Research Center. It’s an arrangement that seems to work better for families today than it did in earlier generations, experts suggest, because parenting styles have changed. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, has identified the shift: Parents have become less autocratic than their predecessors, they have more frequent contact with children because of communications technology, and, in general, they have developed closer ties that make them more appealing roommates. Living together doesn’t appear to jeopardize family relationships, either, she found: “Intergenerational co-residence does not undermine the grown children’s ties to parents or their daily mood.”
Getting to Know You Better
“When I was furloughed from my first job, I chose to go home even though my apartment is only a 40-minute drive from their house,” says Willa*, 25. “I wanted to be with my parents. I felt that if I were home, I could serve a purpose: I’m company for my mom during the day while my dad is at work, and I help out around the house—and yes, there’s more space inside and out at home than in my apartment. When I look beyond the ordeal that is the virus, being home is gratifying.”
Many who have returned home are consciously using the idle time to deepen their connection with the people who, along with siblings, represent their closest and longest relationships. “I can talk to them more as a friend would and less like their child,” Willa says. “I ask them questions and expect their answers to be advice rather than telling me what to do. And they see me more clearly as an adult and better understand my choices. There’s more respect on both sides.”
Alexandra*, 23, is the only one of the four children in her family who has returned home, from which she now works remotely. She’s taking advantage of the time to ask her parents questions about their early jobs and their lives before they met and before they had kids. “I’ve learned so much about them—things I never knew. They have been very forthcoming.”
And yet, there are glitches and conflicts, as one always encounters in close quarters. In the two years she lived on her own, Alexandra became quite strict about her diet and exercise routines, which her parents didn’t understand at all. “In the beginning, it was a struggle,” she says. “My regimen drove them up the wall; it was a learning curve for them. It took a month or so for them to catch on. Now when we’re having dinner, my mom knows what I need, and she’ll notice and admit that there aren’t enough greens in the meal.”
The Ground Rules
Families that have made this new arrangement work credit the understanding of some core concepts. First, simply living together doesn’t mean you can read one another’s mind. Both parents and adult children need to put what they want into words, whether it’s help around the house or more emotional support. Parents need to be understanding of the pressures and fears their adult children are experiencing—and children are equally obligated to acknowledge their parents’ real anxiety about the crisis.
Sharing chores and perhaps expenses is important, but so is respecting one another’s boundaries, especially involving potentially sensitive topics of conversation. Issues like these are compounded when parents and children revert to earlier dynamics. Parents must resist returning to default supervising behavior, and children can’t go back to their teen habits and start leaving clothes and dishes all over the house for mom and dad to pick up. Still, some habits are hard to break, and twentysomethings who’ve been living on their own for years should allow themselves to appreciate the humor of parents telling them how to measure flour or clean a bathroom.
It’s a difficult time. But young adults who have returned home and made it work have been surprised at how smoothly it has gone and how grateful they are for people they long took for granted: “I love my parents,” Lawrence says, “and we’re telling each other that a weird amount.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily.
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