As caring parents, we want our children to begin adulthood with self-confidence and the skills they need to support both themselves and their own families.
While we have considerable influence over our children’s emotional wellbeing and education, we can’t control the world they enter. Variables like stagnant wages, expensive rent and mortgages, and even changes in the “official age” of adulthood — remember, children used to labor in factories — are all factors that often lead young adults to return to living with their parents for periods of time.
The term “boomerang children” has made a resurgence, possibly due to the economic stressors of Covid-19. But the idea of young adults “failing” to launch into adulthood at the ripe age of 18 is nothing new.
Nearly a decade ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on boomerang kids. At that time, 53% of young adults aged 18-24 reported they had moved back home on either a short- or long-term basis.
“If we look at the trend of development in children,” Odette Tomlinson said, “we see prolonged childhood being pushed further and further.”
Tomlinson, a Fort Worth-based licensed professional counselor, works with teenagers and young adults. Her counseling work focuses on attachment, developmental trauma, and semantic attachment work.
“There are many factors at play,” she continued. “The lack of middle-class wage growth and the disparity between the cost of living and minimum wage is one factor that causes children to move back in with parents. You have kiddos who have a college education and still can’t support themselves.”
The trend is a mixed blessing, Tomlinson said. On one hand, a delay of a few years before entering the workforce allows young adults to continue growing emotionally before absorbing 50-hour workweeks and the stresses of childrearing. Younger generations are more socially conscious and critical of systemic barriers to civic and environmental injustices, and those extra years living at home may be playing some role in the social awakening.
Still, many 19- and 20-year-olds feel the weight of the pervasive stigma of living at home after high school, and those stresses can cause rifts in family relationships.
“I see a lot of young kids having increased anxiety and difficulty over not being able to fulfill what the generation before them was able to fulfill,” Tomlinson said. “They know by their age, their parents were doing this or that. They have an awareness that they don’t have the same mobility. They are starting at a much bigger disadvantage.”
Millennials (ages 25-40) own less than 5% of wealth in the United States despite being the largest portion of the workforce, according to the Federal Reserve. Younger adults have had less time to accrue wealth, but government data also finds that previous generations were better positioned, financially speaking, in early adulthood than Millennials.
Today, no one pictures a boomerang child as the 30-year-old playing video games for hours on end in their grandmother’s basement, Tomlinson said, referring to a stereotype that was prevalent just one to two decades ago.
For parents and their adult-age children, Tomlinson offers advice for navigating temporary or prolonged returns to living at home.
First, she said, establish expectations—preferably during a time that is set aside for undistracted conversations on the topic.
“The child is now legally an adult,” Tomlinson said. “Have clear expectations of what that looks like at home. Is financial contribution expected? Is checking in when going out expected?”
Tomlinson continued: “Having rules that may have been unwritten when the child was a teenager is important when they are an adult. But parents should recognize their child is an adult. That can be difficult for the parent too.”
And both sides of the family must be willing to compromise.
“It is important the young adult understands they are moving in with their parents” and that some old rules may still apply, Tomlinson said. “Their parents have to be a little graceful in understanding their young adult is moving back, and is no longer their teenager.”
Unlike past generations, today’s parents, for the most part, teach their children to pursue happiness over material gain. If our children stumble on that journey, Tomlinson said we should support them along the way.
“We want our children to have the values and morals we have instilled in them, so they take us with them when they go,” she said. “We also want the rope connecting them back to us to be intact. As parents, we are always supporting our children’s ability to go out and explore independently, and we support them feeling safe to return to the home base.”