Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Best Way To Handle A Boomerang Child

July 2, 2001

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there. They have to take you in." - Robert Frost

The unexpected happens. A son or daughter away from home has a crisis of confidence. He or she is temporarily derailed and is plainly not coping.

It could be a school failure or financial setback, roommate problems, a devastating romantic breakup, an incapacitating illness or injury or loss of employment. It could be a premarital pregnancy, a divorce, or a crisis precipitated by drug or alcohol abuse. The problem might be a failure to find employment after college. Bad things happen. One answer could be, "Come home, this is where you need to be."

The decision to have the child come home should not be made lightly. Any emotional support or resources that can help a young adult son or daughter work it out on their own is preferable to the major step of coming home to live. Working out the problem away from home may be a significant development step and confidence builder - a final step on the way to financial and emotional independence. One man confided in me that coming home after a college crisis was the worst mistake he had ever made.

When home is the best choice. Still, there are times when the choice is clear - home is the best place for the child to be. When they have to be there, you have to take them in. That is family.

Now what? What rules and guidelines are helpful to ensure that the experience is positive and growth-promoting?

The last thing parents want is for their helpful efforts to backfire into promoting fear, irresponsibility and escape from adult life. This is quite a tightrope to walk - temporarily allowing dependency on the one hand and respecting the need for the child to become independent as quickly as feasible.

Adult children can be expected to function as close to adult responsibility as they are capable. It is a mistake to let them slip back into adolescent rebellion or laziness.

The essence of adult life is an understanding of reciprocity, of "give" as well as "take." They should contribute to the well-being of the family while they are there. In offering their home and financial resources, parents have a right to expect certain things. The goals for having the child come home should be clear.

Time spent at home is meant to be productive and goal-oriented. It should be limited, temporary and specified as much as possible. How much time spent at home varies with the goal. Usually, a year should be the maximum.

Anticipate issues and discuss them in advance. Parents have a right to expect responsible action such as job hunting and going for professional counseling as a condition of coming home.

Get agreements before they come. Here are some typical issues best discussed in advance instead of after the fact.

- Language in the home should be respectful and polite. Younger siblings should not be subjected to put downs and other disrespectful treatment. This includes respect for property and privacy. Obviously, this goes both ways. Parenting younger siblings should be left to the parents.

- Guidelines for curfews should be negotiated and followed. Parents have a right to restful sleep.

- Mutual expectations around alcohol use need to be discussed and clarified. Rules and expectations about guests in the home, opposite sex guests, and overnight stays need to be specified.

- Expectations need to be clarified about using the food in the refrigerator, performing regular chores, caring for personal laundry, using family vehicles, gas money, Internet use and picking up after oneself.

- Agreements need to be made on financial issues such as long distance phone calls, gasoline expenses, board and room, and other financial support.

- If a daughter comes home with a child, the responsibilities of mothering and childcare should be clarified. There can be confusion and tension if these roles aren’t specified and honored.

Rules and consequences. The TV commercial about a disheveled and demanding young adult expecting royal treatment at home and being told, "What do you think this is, a Holiday Express?" is painful and hauntingly real. Some young people don’t "get it."

What do you do if the adult child refuses to live up to the basics? If you have rules, you need consequences.

The most obvious consequence is that a son or daughter will have to move out if he or she can't measure up to the minimum standards of the home.

Perhaps the best growth experience they will have is learning that their behavior has consequences. Parents may have to take their children in but they don't have to keep them. Beyond the temporary respite, an adult child does best when they assume responsibility for living and surviving away from home.

The boomerang experience can be a good one. The emotional support of family during a crisis may be the final step in successfully launching a child in life. It will be a memory of love and sacrifice - a time when parents went the extra mile to get their child back on sound footing. But it can be a trap if the parents enable their adult child to avoid meeting the real responsibilities of his or her life.