“Saying Goodbye to Adult Children….Or Not”

Anticipating and negotiating adult children exiting the home can be a huge challenge to family dynamics. As previous models considered acceptable evaporate to changing cultural trends, families of exiting adult children can experience greater distress and loss than anticipated. The unanticipated, the unknown, the uncertainty fosters anxiety. Understanding some of the dynamics can bolster confidence and provide guidance to avoid relational mistakes during this crucial stage of life and family that can take years to mend. The following are some excellent insights on the subject of “adult children exiting the family” by Michael Nichols, Inside Family Therapy.


“Saying goodbye is a big step, more difficult for many parents than they imagine. Thinking and talking about it ahead of time allows the loss to be absorbed in small doses. Psychoanalysts say that the ego deals best with traumatic events by having time to prepare for them, so that defenses are in place. Family therapist say that the trauma of a child’s leaving is an interpersonal event; share it.

……..It’s easier for parents to take pleasure in their children’s autonomy if their own lives are full. A reciprocal rearrangement of boundaries is necessary: In order for parents to be comfortable allowing their children greater distance, the parents must move closer to each other and to other interests outside the family. This boundary-making can put a certain amount of pressure on a marriage.

Even in a good marriage, the partners will feel renewed strain when their children leave them alone together. This is a time of increased self-examination and an opportunity for redefining the marital relationship. Veteran partners may be better able to say what they want from each other than they were when they were young and in love and afraid.


If children are their parents’ report cards, more and more parents are getting incompletes. According to the U.S. Bureau of the census, 22 million young adults are now living under their parents’ roof, an almost 50 percent increase since 1970. By the turn of the century more than half of all young adults aged twenty to twenty-four were living at home.

There are a variety of reasons for this increasing return to the nest. The sexual revolution. The economy has also contributed to the number of children who return to live with their parents. Education and housing costs are so high that many twenty-somethings can’t afford not to live at home.


When adult children ask if they can move back home, parents would be well-advised to say, “Yes—under certain conditions.” The ambiguity over who’s in charge of what occurs when children reach adolescence is even greater when adult children return home. For this reason, it’s important to negotiate agreements about what’s expected.

Among the expectations that parents may want to spell out—before an adult child returns home–are: how much rent to expect, when and how it should be paid, what services will be expected of the child, and how transportation will be arranged. Perhaps the most important subject to discuss is how long the boomerang child expects to stay. It isn’t necessary to be inflexible, but raising the issue makes it clear that the arrangement is limited.

Most young people are disappointed in themselves for having to return home. Having stumbled, they’re apt to be sensitive to any form of criticism, advice, or regulation. They need empathy. Leaving home isn’t necessarily accomplished in one single step. One-year-olds learning to walk stumble; two-year-olds learning to talk mispronounce words; young adults may achieve their independence only after one or two false starts……..

Guilt makes it hard for some parents to refuse to pay the bills and clean up after their adult children. Parents are forever worrying that they didn’t do enough. Perhaps if they’d been better parents, spent more time, given more, given less, the children would have become self-sufficient—would have turned out all right. Few parents are perfect, but most do the best they can. Besides, suppose you weren’t a perfect parent, will overindulging a twenty-three-year-old adolescent make up for that?……..

Many parents are so busy telling their kids what they should do that the children rarely hear what they so badly long to hear: that their parents love them, that they’re proud of them, and that they should be good to themselves. If parents can tell their children that they’re proud of them, that will help complete the relationship….”complete” meaning make whole or consummate, not end. It releases children from the frustrated longing that keeps them tied to their parents. Of course, some children make it hard to say these things. They screw up so often and create such headaches for their parents that it seems impossible to tell them that they love them and they’re terrific. It’s precisely the ones who screw up so much who probably need to hear this the most.

When other people make life difficult for us, we wish to God they’d change. If only they’d be a little more cooperative, we could relax and be nicer. If our children would straighten out and be responsible, then we could praise them. If our partners would be a little more considerate, then we’d be appreciative–and probably reciprocate. Stop waiting. Reach out.”

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