Houston, We Have a Problem…

Dear Mr. Dad: How do you handle a 21-year-old male who’ dropped out of college, has no job, and has been living in our house for the past six months? My husband and I provide our son with a car, insurance, gas, clothes, and cover all his healthcare. But whenever we ask him to do anything around the house, he flat out refuses or does it poorly. And whenever we bring up the issue of his finding work and moving out, he gets angry and accuses us of not supporting him. What can we do?

A: My first reaction is to suggest that the next time your son leaves the house you call a locksmith and have all your locks changed. However, that would only work (to the extent that it would at all) if your son was responsible for the entire problem. He’s not. In fact, I’d say that you and your husband are making an already difficult situation even worse.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone in having an adult child move back in with you. Some studies have found that as many as a third of all young adults under 35 are living with ma and pa. The situation is so common that there’s actually a term for these adult children: “boomerang kids.” The bad news is that these arrangements are often extremely stressful on everyone involved, but especially on parents who had planned to downsize during their retirement years.

Okay, back to you. By providing your son with free room and board, transportation, and insurance, you’re undercutting any incentive he might have had to learn how to grow up and survive on his own. I’d actually go a step further and say that you’re encouraging your son to be a slacker—and the only way the situation is going to improve is if you change your behavior. Here’s what you’ll have to do:

  1. You and your husband need to get on the same page. Having one of you push for independence while the other slips your son wads of cash under the table will guarantee the status quo. What do you want to have happen, and over what period of time?
  2. Once you’ve come up with a plan, call a family meeting. Ask your son how he sees the current situation. Does he plan to finish college? Look for work? How long does he expect to be living with you? It’s possible that he’s feeling guilty and maybe even ashamed.
  3. Start charging. The value he places on his living arrangements is directly proportional to how much he has to pay. In other words, the less he pays—for rent, car, insurance, food, clothes—the more he’ll take them for granted. If he has income, put a dollar value on household chores and have him work off his debts.
  4. Get out your calendar. Your goal is to get your son ready to live in the real world. But it’s not going to happen overnight. So come up with a timetable that includes reasonable targets (enroll in college for the next semester, find a job within 12 weeks, move to your own place within six months, etc).
  5. Create rules and enforce them. Can he bring dates home to spend the night? Do you expect him to call if he’ll be spending the night elsewhere?

As the economy continues to stagnate, this is a bigger and bigger issue. We’ll go into more details in future columns.

Yours, Mine, and Ouch

Dear Mr. Dad: I have two kids from a previous marriage, ages 7 and 9. My new husband’s two children are almost the same age and spend every weekend and all holidays with us. Problem is, my kids and the step-kids don’t get along. In fact, it seems like they hate each other and they spend most of their time together fighting and bickering. My husband and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

A: Sounds like a really unpleasant situation for everyone involved—kids and adults. But before we can start looking at possible solutions, it’s important to try to understand why your home becomes a battlefield every weekend.

From your biological children’s point of view, their home (and possibly their rooms) aren’t theirs any longer. Their once-familiar and comfortable physical and emotional spaces have been invaded by strangers. Like dogs, children are creatures of habit and they may be feeling more than a little confused about roles, rules, and boundaries: who gets to set and enforce them, and do they apply to everyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license, or just to them?

The resentment they’re display towards the uninvited interlopers is at least in part a reflection of their uncertainty and fears that things they’ve taken for granted all their lives (like their toys, other belongings, and even your love) will be somehow taken away from them and given to their step-siblings. In a way, they—again, like dogs—are defending their territory and their rights.

On the other side of the equation, your step-kids, are being taken, albeit temporarily, from the security and comfort zone of their own home and dropped behind enemy lines, in the middle of uncharted and hostile territory. They aren’t sure of the prevailing family dynamics, where they fit in, and what they’re allowed to do or play with.

I’m not sure whether this is good or bad news, but this situation is pretty common. Many blended families, at least initially, go through a pretty lengthy adjustment period. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make the transition easier.
• You and your husband need to come to an agreement about how best to handle this situation and resolve conflicts. To start with, he should have the primary responsibility for disciplining his kids, and you for yours.
• If you haven’t already, have a friendly talk with all four children. Ask each of them why they fight. Whatever they say, take their grievances seriously and involve them in finding solutions they can all agree on.
• Write a new set of family rules, so that all four kids know what their rights and responsibilities are at your house. Make sure the rules are fair and don’t favor one set of kids over the other.
• Plan ahead of time the weekends and holidays when the step-children will be with you. Ask each child to come up with an activity that all the family members can participate in–trips to the zoo or a sporting event, family game night, and rotate so that each one can have a say in what you’ll be doing.
• Ease up on the pressure. You may mean well, but telling your kids (or your husband telling his) that they’re “really going to love” their new step-siblings is almost a guarantee that they won’t. They need to forge their own relationships.

It may take a while for things to calm down, so be patient, loving, and positive. Others have gone down this path before and have found (at least some) peace and harmony in the end.

No more No!

Dear Mr. Dad: I feel like when I spend time with my 2-year old, I’m constantly telling him “no!” Is there some way I can enforce boundaries without being so negative?

A: It’s no wonder that one of the first words kids learn to say is, No. After all, it’s the word they hear the most—even more than mommy, daddy, or their own name. Since two-year olds are on a mission to destroy everything in their path, hearing No is important. But the problem with No is that it eventually becomes background noise and our kids tune us out. And when it comes to health and safety issues, that’s the last thing we want.

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Taming the Savage Preschooler

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter and son-in-law are raising their 4-year-old child with no discipline or boundaries. The boy is a little brat, screaming and throwing temper tantrums whenever he doesn’t get what he wants. I’ve tried speaking to my daughter about this but she just laughs it off. What should I do?

A: Oh, boy, that’s a tough one. I totally agree that raising a child without any boundaries, or, for that matter, discipline, is just plain bad parenting. Your daughter and son-in-law aren’t doing your grandson any favors by giving in to all his whims. Sooner or later, their lenient, anything-goes approach will backfire. (He’s already an unmanageable little tyrant. Imagine how much worse it’ll be as he gets older).

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Who’s Your Daddy?

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband is 42 but often hangs out with our 13-year-old son and his friends, acting like a kid himself. Am I wrong to want my husband to act his age instead of trying to be our boy’s buddy?

A: There’s nothing wrong with expecting your husband to be a good role model–a mature, responsible, and trustworthy individual your son can look up to, respect, and admire.

But the fact that your husband spends time with your son and his friends doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not good role model material or that he’s shirking his responsibilities. There are a lot of factors to consider here. For example, what is he doing with the boys? If they’re occasionally hanging out in the garage and building a train set, or playing ball in the backyard, those are perfectly good bonding activities and your son can only benefit from this quality time he’s spending with his dad (and Dad will benefit too).

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