Adult Children With Extenuating Circumstances: Some Plan B’s

Sometimes all the setting of boundaries, the just-say-no-ing, and the financial tough love can’t keep your adult children afloat in the outside world, and it’s time to let them come and rest their battered and weary heads in your home, under your protection, until they have the strength and wherewithal to head out again.

If your child has such severe learning disabilities, like Brian,* that he cannot make it through even the least academic of programs or apprenticeships, you might be living with your son a lot longer than you had hoped while you and he figure out a plan for his life. If you have a child with a chronic or acute physical or mental illness, like Rene,* you may find your high-falutin’ expectations for your daughter’s achievement reduced to hopes that she’ll make it out of bed and into the shower on a given day. And if your daughter–or son–turns out to have had a stinker of a spouse and no financial plan for the future, you’ll soon find yourself with your child back–in multiples!–as she returns with her own brood.

There are times when it’s just the right thing to do to have your adult child live with you, no matter what the magazines or financial planners might holler, and when you have little ability to set an end date for her presence in your home.

The question becomes how to not infantilize these children, how to best have them keep their independence and self-respect, by having the parents refrain from doing all they might want to heal and protect their hurting offspring.

Of course, all adult children living at home should take the time they need to invest in improving their situation, whether it’s socializing with others, taking classes to improve employability, taking odd jobs that present themselves, attending requisite treatments.

But at the same time there need to be expectations that the child will contribute to the functioning of the home, and not be a passive taker. There are a number of ways in which this can play out.

If you think of the multiplicity of tasks that go into running a household, and begin to assign some that are appropriate to the child at home, the home will run better, the child’s self-esteem will improve, and you as a parent will be less likely to feel resentment.

For Brian and others who can’t attend school or work, there are options galore for helping out the family. Think of all the nudgey things that require a working parent to stay home to deal with: letting in workmen, taking in the cars to be serviced, sitting on the phone for hours while you once again try to get your insurance company to pay for your gall-bladder surgery, as they assured you they would. Brian is your man.

And, of course, he’s your milk-getter, walking down to the corner store every few days when your husband–yet again–leaves you with two sips of milk in the container and you’re rushing to eat your cereal.  As he is when it comes to caring for your aging mutt. He’s your walker, your feeder, your pill-giver.

And that doesn’t touch upon his shoveling and mowing abilities.

Really, before we’re done, you won’t know how you ever thought you could manage without Brian. And Brian knows he helps make this household run.



Renee is ill. She has a debilitating depression that can keep her in her bed for days, staring at the ceiling–when she’s not in the hospital. She will not be shoveling your snow.

But without expectations no one thrives, and that goes for Rene, as well. You need to work within her limits to create situations that will give her a sense of achievement. For example, one of the rules is that she must be out of her bed by ‘X’ time–even if that means she just moves herself downstairs to the couch.

She needs to be responsible for dutifully taking all of her medications. She should leave no food trash around–and must attend her treatment appointments, even if someone else has to drive her

She needs to shower every other day, and brush her teeth and change her clothes daily.

The more Renee can manage on her own, the more quickly her recovery can begin–and thus, for now, her contribution is just that–and it’s a major one–recovery.

Joan.* To be honest you’re ready to have her head. You told her at the get-go that Jerry was a loser and an abuser, and you even attended her wedding in a full-blown snit. And now, here she is, back with you, with her six (Lord help us!) children. This was not part of your plan for how to spend your golden years.

You could ask Joan to go back to work at her secretarial job, and she’d gladly do it, but that leaves, if we do the math right, six (Lord help us) children unsupervised for all or part of a day, and heaven knows you’re not taking off work to watch them.

You might say it looks totally grim.

But really there’s a lot Joan–and her brood–can contribute to the running of the house, to make it more of a partnership with Joan and less of a return to the womb.

In fact, it’s best for Joan’s kids if they contribute also. The oldest kids can take a night a week that they prepare or help prepare dinner. Gina, the five-year-old, can make her (supervised) special: beans and franks. Adept and shopping, cooking, and cleaning, Joan can be the “new you”–only actually good at these things (and your husband can finally give a rest to his bellyaching about your cooking abilities). You fantasize about never entering your kitchen again.

Each of the children from five and up (you’ll let the three and one-year-old off, just for now) can be in charge of preparing their own lunches, as well. Children rise to the task; we all-too-often under-sell our kids starting at a young age.

If you’re amenable, Joan can take in babysitting to help put herself back on her feet, and to pay for small incidentals, if you’d like. This eliminates the need to pay for any babysitting for Joan’s children themselves were she to go out to work. If it’s a “go,” and she becomes the talk of the tot-town, Joan can use her earnings to remodel the part of the house you’ve dedicated to this purpose, and make it more kid-friendly.

She’s also, like most young people (or people younger than you, if you’re honest) good with the computer, so she can ‘fix’ it when you ‘break’ it multiple times a day, can install new programs, can put in the ink cartridges since you’ll never learn how, can even teach you a few things you’d like to know, like how to stop sending e-mails to the wrong people and embarrassing yourself, and how to stop wasting reams of paper when you’ve hit the “print” button 13 times because you thought the computer wasn’t ‘listening.’

Remember Marx? No, I’m not a fan–although, as a party trick, I can remember back to the days in this country when it was dangerous to be one.

But he had something there in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. It’s really showy to say it in German–just give it a try: “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen!”

Ok, enough showing off. In English it means exactly what should happen in a household with adult children in it, getting back on their feet. It should be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Those communists must have had adult children back at home in mind.



***As with all characters in this blog, there is no actual Brian, Renee, or Joan, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  Rather, these are teaching stores, compiled of bits and pieces from real lives, books or movies, and altered to make my points more interesting and educational.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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