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Parenting boomerang kids is even harder in a recession

Economic pressures and 'no end in sight' fears create stress

June 20, 2009|Dawn Bonker

College commencement speeches are over, so it must be time for parents to start their speeches, right? Lectures about how groceries don't grow on trees. Harangues regarding where that extra car in the driveway should be parked. Sermons about how in this economy, you can't be picky when it comes to a job.

It wasn't always this way. Just a few years ago, college grads could come back home to patient parents who considered the return to the nest as merely a transitional pit stop. These boomerang kids were holding out for just the right job offers or were saving for a down payment on their own places. Mom and Dad could feel good knowing that their kid was doing the right thing -- the responsible thing. Today, that move back home often is not a choice but a necessity, with consequences on family dynamics as two generations learn to live together again under one roof, often for more than a brief stint.

Should Mom and Dad bite their parental tongues? It's complicated, said David J. Palmiter Jr., professor and director of the Psychological Services Center at Marywood University in Pennsylvania and a contributor to the American Psychological Assn.'s Help Center, an online parenting resource. You thought the terrible 2s and the sulky teens were bad? "Parenting emerging adults, I think, is even trickier," he said.

Because the relationship is neither parent-child nor yet adult-to-adult, both sides can feel as if they are walking an emotional tightrope. And though there's nothing new about young adults boomeranging home for a spell, this crop of graduates faces a brutal job market and may stick around longer, possibly creating more tension and posing new challenges for families, Palmiter said.

There is no handy list of 10 steps to get a kid out of the nest. But Palmiter did have suggestions to get young adults moving toward a happy life and, yes, toward the door.

Perhaps most important: Know which problems to tackle and which ones to ignore. If a son or daughter is struggling to find a job, then yes, consider exploring plans for graduate school or perhaps find serious volunteer work to fill the gap after graduation. It's not the time to nag about dirty dishes in the family room or wet towels on the bathroom floor.

"The more an emerging adult is struggling to hit some core responsibilities well, the more I might keep my thoughts about sloppiness between myself and my guardian angel, knowing that I can tilt at that dragon once some of the bigger monsters have been slain," Palmiter said.

What follows is an edited conversation with the psychologist about tackling some of those larger issues:

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Question: Children are back, living adult lives under their parents' roof. Some parents struggle with the change. How should they handle behavior they don't like?

Answer: Is what the children want to do psychologically damaging? Is it potentially physically damaging, or is it a hurtful challenge to your moral standards? If the answer is no, then maybe it's something the parent would want to allow. Part of becoming adults is sometimes making the wrong call. Emerging adults need to learn to think and make decisions. We deal with this at the university all the time with freshmen who haven't made a significant decision in their life. Ever.

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Are there rules for charging rent, expecting grocery money or setting a move-out deadline?

No. But those conversations need to happen.

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What if they can't find a job, don't know what they want to do or worry they chose the wrong major? Should parents help or back off?

Some of today's emerging adults are really struggling with that. It depends on the family. Sometimes it's easier to have a third party, such as a counselor, to talk through that. Some families can start conversations. Parents can ask, "What do you see for yourself in the next five years," so it doesn't feel like the parent is trying to run the young adult's life.

Ask them to think about their strengths. Do they know what they are? Everyone has a top strength. The main thing that gives peace is a viable vocation plan in place. When that happens, a lot of the other noise eases off.

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Discovering strengths can be tough for anyone.

It's really daunting. I like to have people read "StrengthsFinder 2.0" by Tom Rath. And there's a strengths survey at authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu (a project of the University of Pennsylvania), which sounds like a website where you sing "Kumbaya" and light incense, but it's a scientifically driven effort on how to accomplish happiness in our contemporary life.

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No lectures?

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