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.