Young adults are returning to their parents' homes at record rates thanks to disruptions in their jobs, living arrangements and health brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, more young adults are living at home than at any time since such statistics have been gathered.
Most parents, however, don't need to worry that their returning sons and daughters will take permanent root in their former homes, said a Twin Cities psychologist who works with families of young adults.
Shoreview psychologist Jack Stoltzfus says that young adults who had moved out and gotten jobs before the pandemic will resume those lives once the threat of COVID has passed.
More concerning are the ones who never achieved independence in the first place.
Trained as a marriage and family therapist, Stoltzfus did his doctoral dissertation on how adolescents separate from parents. He went on to work with teens and young adults in a chemical dependency treatment center, an inpatient mental health facility and a youth service agency.
Fifteen years ago, Stoltzfus began seeing more parents seeking help with sons and daughters who struggled to move on. Today, most of his private practice is devoted to what he calls "failure to launch," something he considers a family issue.
He and his wife are themselves parents of three adults, none of whom live in their basement. We talked with Stoltzfus about reasonable independence, accountability and unconditional love.
Q: How did you end up focusing on adult children?
A: Working with couples, I saw many at odds about how to handle their concerns with their adult children. If there's a fault line in the marriage, this situation will expose it. I wanted to refer them to someone with expertise in this area, but I couldn't find anyone. It seemed to be an overlooked parent subset.
I started doing workshops, then built a website with material and wrote a series of six books about letting go. Now I see it as my mission.
Q: Why had this become a problem in so many families, even before COVID-19?
A: As a society, we've stretched out this time of young adulthood and the letting go is a problem from both ends. It's my observation that Boomers and Gen X parents invested heavily in the success and happiness of their children. Their families are smaller; with larger families of previous generations, parents didn't have the capacity to give so much energy to each child.
Parents today are more emotionally connected than I was to my parents. That's part of what makes it harder to let go and harder to acknowledge the kids are having trouble.
Q: What kind of trouble?
A: These young adults are struggling with the process of getting to what I call responsible independence. They're emotionally immature. They bounce around, they're in and out of school. Whether they live at home or not, they're still on the family payroll; they change jobs or don't have one so they sleep erratically or are up all night. They're out of sync with how their peers are progressing. Everyone in the family sees they are not getting the traction that's expected at this age.
The young adult may feel embarrassed and so do the parents. These families have fallen into roles. They come to therapy to get out of them and get pointed in a direction that's more positive.
Q: So what's behind it?
A: These young adults are failing in at least one of three major areas — identity, independence and intimacy. Identity is about the personal qualities and traits that make them unique. If they don't know what they want and haven't achieved some independence, they won't do well with intimacy. It's more than having a significant other; intimacy also includes friends and social support. When they don't know who they are, they might lock into someone who gives them an identity.
Q: What can parents do?
A: I work with parents to create an environment at home similar to what their kid would experience if they left. Create private space that they have to keep up and pay for. Don't stretch out the maturation process by providing too many comforts. If your laundry is done, your room vacuumed, your meals cooked, why would you want to move out?
Q: How do you work with these families?
A: I position myself as a parent therapist. My preference is that the young adult comes in, too. I ask them, "What's your five-year plan? Where do you think you'll be living?" No one says, "With Mom and Dad." They always say, "I want to live in an apartment or with a friend. I'll have a job, a car."
Then I can get us all working together to actualize it. We look at what support they need to transition. It gets them away from arguments about the present; we look at how to work together in a partnership to get to that future.
Q: What if the young adult won't participate?
A: I coach the parents about how to have that conversation, to say, "Let's talk about your future, how do we get to the future you want?" When they take some steps, their self-esteem improves and the relationship improves. They are not so frustrated and angry with each other.
Q: Are these struggles connected to past issues?
A: One of the healing practices I advise is the parent writing a letter. Parents often feel guilty. Their job took them away from home, maybe there was a divorce or the parent was alcoholic. They feel they weren't there for their children at a critical time and failed them, damaged them. As a result they may not hold their child accountable. This keeps both parties enmeshed.
Q: How do they move forward?
A: Parents have to apologize, take responsibility and forgive themselves. Then they have to say to their child, "You have to be responsible for your behavior, too. I will not excuse your actions or mine moving forward."
When launching young adults, parents must understand that they cannot control them. You can influence, but you can't control. Parents need to be both loving and firm.
Q: How can parents with younger kids lay the groundwork for independence?
A: Parents invest time and effort to build that positive attachment that makes the child feel secure. As they start hitting teen years, we see the changes and the self-absorption. When my kids were this age, I took them out for breakfast once a month for one-to-one time and I wrote them letters that spoke in a heartfelt way. I communicated my emotional attachment.
Parents all feel that love, but they don't necessarily say it, they don't reinforce the bond that can never be broken. They run their kids to their activities, work hard to be good providers and they think their actions demonstrate that feeling. It's so important that young adults believe their parents love them unconditionally. However they act, whatever their problems, they want to be loved for who they are. That lets them take risks.
Q: How is the pandemic affecting young adults?
A: It's creating all kinds of havoc for young adults. When they can't get out there and experiment and explore, the normal launching process is delayed. This can be contentious and a tremendous strain on families.
Returning home runs counter to forming that separate identity; they are moving back when they want to be moving out. It's easy to regress into old behaviors and the unresolved conflicts come right back.
Q: Are you seeing a lot of families in conflict over COVID?
A: I see one set of young adults who are insensitive to parental concerns about infection and this leads to antagonism. But with another group, the family gets closer. An existing positive relationship is a good foundation for getting through this, not that it isn't stressful.
Q: Should parents discourage young adults from returning home?
A: Some research I saw said that 60% of parents like having adult kids home. These are kids who are back through no fault of their own. They left with good relationships and everyone understands this is a transition. They agree that the young person will have a job or be looking for one, pay rent or take on household responsibilities, keep their space clean.
You can live at home and be responsible and independent. Parents often enjoy this; they have let go and don't feel like they have to parent. It's a healthy adult relationship.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.