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Family May Be at Fault When Adult Child Won't Leave Home

February 13, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Jeff, 25, says he doesn't let the weird looks get to him anymore.

"People do look at me funny when I tell them I still live with my parents. They're like, 'Gosh, you must be really immature or something.' But I'm not immature. It's just a situation where I can't afford to move out."

As reported in last Saturday's column, the number of adult children living with their parents has increased 50% since 1970, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Some are so-called "boomerang kids," young adults who've tried and failed to make it on their own. Others, like Jeff, have never left.

Jeff, who lives in Fullerton, says his departure from the nest was delayed when he decided to change careers. "I was going to a community college for seven years, training to be a machinist. But then I decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing that. Right now I'm not really sure what I do want to do. I'm kind of reassessing things.

"When I made that decision, that's when I realized I was an adult. I thought, I'm making decisions that will affect the rest of my life."

Jeff works full time now at a printing company and is planning to move out "probably in about a year." In the meantime, he's comfortable where he is.

"I'm gone from home quite a bit, so it's not a problem. It's convenient, and the price is right," he says. Jeff says he doesn't pay his parents rent. "I guess maybe I should. But they've never mentioned it; they're financially secure. I do buy my own food, though."

Jeff says he tries to be unobtrusive at home. "My parents are on the older side--I have a sister who's 16 years older than me--so in consideration, I don't have any friends over. There's no loud music, and I don't cook. All I do is tie up a room and a spot in the driveway."

Social worker Marge Vinolus of the Tustin Psychotherapy Group, who specializes in helping families with adult children who keep coming back or won't leave, says career changers such as Jeff often legitimately need to depend on their parents for an extended time.

"It's extremely difficult for a young person to get out into the world," she says. "You need thousands of dollars just to get going. But in most cases, by the time they're 25, 26 or 27, the parents realize that this is no longer normal. By then the kid and the parents realize the fun and games are over, and it's no longer just a passing phase."

In many of the cases Vinolus deals with, there is some underlying problem that contributes to the adult child's inability to make it on his own. "It may be that the parents have inadvertently lost control and are unable to function in an executive position. It may be the empty nest syndrome. I've had kids say to me, 'I'm very worried that if I leave, my parents will get a divorce.' Sometimes, especially in Southern California, it's socioeconomic.

"Sometimes it's an insidious, undiagnosed mental illness," she says. "But it's always a family systems problem."

For that reason, Vinolus insists on seeing the whole family when she takes a case. "The parents often will identify the kid as the problem, 'Not me!' It's very ineffective to do that."

No matter what the situation, Vinolus says, for any young person to leave home "they have to have something to push against, a set of rules. That's how kids get stronger; that's how they leave. If you don't like the rules, you have a choice. A lot of parents, when their children reach this age, they lean over backward to treat them as adults. They don't have a lot of rules and restrictions on them. They're usually stunned to discover that their kids need structure, they need limits in order to grow up. You may be making it too agreeable for them, and they'll never leave."

Sometimes, parents do need to show their lingering children the door. "But the worst thing you can do is kick a kid out in anger. You set up a contract with them: 'If you want to live in our home, you have to agree to these things.' Then it becomes their choice and their responsibility."

Vinolus, a mother of six, admits she should have followed her own advice more often than she has. "Just because you can teach it doesn't mean you know to do it yourself," she says. "When adult kids move back home they revert into children--and we into parents--so fast it's astounding. I know I wasn't smart enough to pick it up in my family when it happened to me. One of my daughters moved back during a transition period, and I was thrilled to have her. She's a great kid. But I started becoming more and more irritated with her, telling her what to do. I was overstepping the line, becoming too much of a mother. I made the mistake of not having a contract with her."

Professional help isn't always necessary to get a grown child to move out, Vinolus says. "But there are situations when it is. If you're uncomfortable with it, if you've tried a variety of things that haven't worked, if it's taking over 100% of your life, then it can help."

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