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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Vicki Milliken

‘You can’t send them to their room’: the tensions and challenges of parenting adult children

Luke and Lisa in their Williamstown home discuss the tensions and challenges of parenting adult children
‘A lot of times I walk away feeling, have I done enough? But I need to start thinking … I’ve done more than enough’: Lisa and husband Luke have welcomed two of their three adult children back home. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

Husband and wife Jock*, 57, and Bree*, 61, were empty-nesters for about two years before agreeing to their two sons, aged 27 and 29, moving home again. “We live in a tourist destination and rental costs and availability have become impossible for people on a basic wage,” says Bree. “I didn’t want my sons to live ‘rough’, couch surf or live in their cars, so they came home.”

She thought by negotiating boundaries upfront, it would alleviate any conflict. These included that her sons would pay weekly rent, make contributions to bills, maintain their bedroom space, clean their shared bathroom, do their own washing, clean up the kitchen after dinner and dog-sit when needed.

The reality has been quite different. “They often need reminding to do chores,” says Bree. “They [don’t] always agree that our concerns about hygiene, bad habits or behaviour [are] worth worrying about.” Bree adds family meetings to discuss issues aren’t honoured, check-ins on future plans cause offence and advice is rejected because “we don’t understand”.

“It’s not a share house, it’s my home, and when boundaries are broken, what are the consequences when they are adults? You can’t send them to their room or use deprivation as a punishment any more. So, what to do?”

Bree still believes they did the right thing as parents inviting their sons home and supporting them financially and emotionally and ensuring they have a safe roof over their heads, but she regrets that she and Jock don’t have much alone time together. Jock agrees. “I don’t feel as though we’ve put our lives on hold as such, but it would be nice to be empty-nesters again.”

Mellisa Bowers at her home near Canberra
‘It was actually a really good time for me to get to know my son as a young adult’: Mellisa welcomed the opportunity to fill her empty nest. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

According to a June report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the proportion of young adults living at home with their parents has shown the sharpest increase from 2006 to 2021. “Although more marked for the late teens and early 20s, the pattern of more young people living with their parents applies to every age until the early 30s,” says the report’s co-author, Dr Lixia Qu. The data shows adult children aged 20-24 had the most drastic shift in relation to living with their parents, with males in that age group increasing from 46% in 2006 to 51% in 2021 and females from 36% in 2006 to 43% in 2021.

Findings from the 2022 Hilda survey report, a longitudinal study of the changes in Australian households since 2001, support the trend. Prof Roger Wilkins, the deputy director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research and co-director of the survey, says additionally, each year, approximately 3% of young adults, aged 18-29, return home.

He points to higher housing costs, especially the barriers to home ownership, as a key factor for why more adult children are living at home. Longer time spent in full-time education and securing well-paid, full-time jobs and the decision to get married and start a family later are also drivers. Added to the mix is the growth in wealth of many of the parents of the young adults, compared with previous generations. “Meaning they are better able to house and otherwise support their children into adulthood,” he tells Guardian Australia.

With her husband away for work, 51-year-old Mellisa welcomed the opportunity to fill her empty nest when her then 25-year-old son asked to return home in early 2022 because of the rising cost of housing. While she didn’t charge board, he had chores to do, like taking out the garbage and gardening. She found it a positive experience. “It was actually a really good time for me to get to know my son as a young adult, you know, not just a teenager dragging his heels to the bus for school.”

Malaysian-born Shanti*, 59, and her husband have evolved their parenting as their three children moved from adolescence to adulthood. This included letting go of some practices common in Malaysia when they moved to Australia 11 years ago. As working professionals, their family was used to employing a live-in helper in Malaysia. “The kids [did] not do much. So, in a way, the kids grew up being overindulged, expecting somebody else to do everything. So, when we came here, we told them mum and dad are not live-in helpers. You also have to pull your weight.” She admits as teenagers they had difficulty adapting, but it was an important transition.

As adult children, working full-time, each was expected to share household water and electricity costs equally, pay a small amount towards food and lodgings and contribute to other household chores. Now aged 27, 26 and 23, Shanti and her husband have farewelled all their adult children but the eldest.

She considers her role as more consistent with a consultant to her adult children these days. Most weeknights, they will sit down to dinner together as a family, even those adult children living away from the home. “So everybody gets to say how their day went [and talk about] any issues.” Shanti and her husband share their career experiences, learnings and perspectives but they are careful to allow their adult children to make their own decisions. “Because we’ve come to realise if we have too much control, the relationship suffers.”

For Shanti, it’s also been important to leave behind the expectation of selflessness, an expectation of parents more prevalent in Malaysia. She sees that her responsibility for raising her children is over. “Now it’s time for me.”

“Us time” is rare for parents Luke and Lisa since welcoming two of their three children back home. A son aged 25 moved back home after the dynamics of his shared living arrangements changed and a daughter aged 22 returned home at the end of an international assignment. Luke’s plans of sailing to Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia have been put on hold. “It’s kind of harder to get away when they’ve got their issues and you’re trying to support them.”

Lisa and Luke in their Williamstown home
Lisa admits her children get a pretty good deal back home. ‘It’s cheaper, there’s no doubt about that,’ Luke says. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

“And we can’t have sex when we want at the moment,” adds Lisa. “It’s really difficult because we’re living in an open house with mezzanine levels and no doors.”

Having separate living areas is a better arrangement for avoiding conflict, says Dr Liz Allen, a demographer and social researcher at the Australian National University. “In that case, parents of adult offspring can maintain their independence and don’t get trapped into the old relationships and roles where say, for example, mum does the cooking and cleaning.”

She says it often comes down to whether the adult children are living at home out of choice or necessity. Where there’s no choice, the possibility for conflict is much greater. “That has potential adverse consequences for everybody involved – greater conflict, greater economic stresses, and loss of independence, particularly for the parents of adult offspring.”

Lisa admits the kids get a pretty good deal. While she didn’t expect them to pay rent, she asked for board, paid weekly, to cover food when they moved back. “More than just food,” chimes in Luke. “It’s washing, ironing, beds made.” Free internet is added to the list by Lisa. “I just think it’s convenient at the moment for them,” says Luke. “It’s cheaper, there’s no doubt about that.”

But more than falling back into the old parental roles that dominated their children’s adolescent years, the couple worry that by being at home, their children’s chances of making mistakes and decisions are being stymied. “That’s how you learn, isn’t it?” says Luke. “They’ve got to make decisions if they’re in their own household. It’s just too easy to ask us, to lean on us.” Lisa admits to “floundering” in her attempts to help her children get on with their lives away from home. “It’s really probably the most challenging period of our lives.”

Luke and Lisa in their Williamstown home
‘I’m starting to become a little bit better at saying no,’ Lisa says. She believes her children will respect her better for it. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

Many parents are frustrated and confused that the transition by their adult children to the responsibilities and roles associated with adulthood is occurring later and is taking longer. Allen is keen to dismiss any suggestion that there’s something wrong with adult children who remain at home. “I’m very concerned about the discourse that suggests that we are seeing a growing window of dependence.” Rather, she argues parents and adult children are adapting to the socio-demographic factors they’re confronted with. “Australia in 2023 is not the Australia that generations of the past experienced.”

Lisa has seen a profound change in her children’s outlook since the two years of pandemic restrictions in Melbourne, particularly her daughter’s. “I carried a lot of her anxiety and mental health throughout that period.” The restrictions and uncertainty amplified Lisa’s role as principal problem solver and chief optimist. “And I think, to some extent, she’s still reliant on us to solve her problems.” Lisa’s now looking for some balance. “I think a lot of times I walk away feeling ‘have I done enough?’ But I need to start thinking … I’ve done more than enough.”

When Julie’s* son returned home at age 20 to save for a place of his own, it was supposed to be for a few years. “Eventually, I told him at age 28 that he could not be with us by age 30.” He moved out at 29 into his own apartment. And while she and her husband didn’t put anything on hold while their son was living with them, once he left, they turned his living spaces into a yoga studio and a room for their grandson to nap in while visiting. “Both things I had really wanted,” she says.

Despite the fact that she and her son occupied separate living areas, he paid weekly rent and bought and cooked his own food, Julie, now 60, admits that tensions arose early after his return.

“He left home a teen and returned an adult.” She remembers once shouting through his bedroom door that he was “wasting his days” when he was still in bed at midday and the ensuing conversation when her son calmly explained “he was no longer a kid”.

Julie discovered treating him as a flatmate worked best. Sleepovers and long-term girlfriends were accommodated, but her son always told her when to expect them. “We advised him about savings, mortgages, cars, broken hearts … but only because the advice was sought.” Otherwise, she respected his privacy.

Lisa laments the lack of literature on how best to tread the tightrope between supporting and separating from her adult children. But she’s learning.

“I’m starting to become a little bit better at saying no.” She believes her adult children will respect her better for it. “I think they will,” she says. “I hope.”

*Name has been changed for privacy

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