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When the Nest Doesn’t Empty

For lots of us baby boomer parents, it’s a surprise. Having done our best to move out of our own parents’ homes as soon as we could to assert our independence and get on with adult life, we never expected that our own children would return home after high school or college graduation. We thought the kids would be off the payroll and that just maybe there’d be a little extra money to go out to dinner, indulge in a movie, or even take a trip or two. We didn’t think we’d still be buying milk by the gallon and “family size” packs of hamburger. Yes, we love our children to death. Yes, we do want to help them out. But when does the nest finally “empty”?

They’re called the “boomerang generation”, young people who come back to the family home after being out (usually to university, the military, or a post high school service program). An additional group is made up of those who stay home following high school and commute to a local college or trade school or work to save money in order to eventually support an apartment and a car. Why is this happening?’

Largely, it’s economic. The average college graduate has school loans of $18 – 20,000 that start coming due soon after graduation. With the downturn of American economy, with college degrees no longer a guarantee of a well-paying job, with expenses for housing, transportation, and health insurance so high, it’s simply too hard to make ends meet on the salary of many entry level jobs. Contrary to the idea that kids who live at home just want to be able to buy a better sound system or a higher priced car, most would gladly trade some of those luxuries for more independence and the ability to have a more adult to adult relationship with their parents.

Baby boomer parents recognize the economic realities and want to be supportive. Having assumed that their kids would have an easier time of it starting out than we did, we are dismayed to find that the only place their kid can afford on what they make is one room in a wet basement in an unsafe part of town. Yes, we want to stop active parenting. But we also want tour children to be safe and to have an opportunity to get on their feet. Parental feelings can become quite a complicated mix of being glad to help, weary of accommodating, happy to be in a position to lend a hand, resentful for feeling like they have to do so, guilty for feeling resentful.

Because almost 50% of young people ages 18 – 25 now live at home for periods of time, there is less of a stigma for doing so. But the kids too may find that the feelings surrounding it are a complicated mix. Sometimes they do feel like “losers” for needing or wanting to return home for awhile. Usually they are grateful for the chance to get a jump on student loans and to save up for their own apartment or a more reliable car. Sometimes they feel guilty for needing it and then resentful that they feel guilty.

Put all these complicated feelings into one family household and some confusion and tension is inevitable. When the kids boomerang, the most important, over-arching goal in the situation is to preserve the relationships. Sometimes the best way for young people to do that is to move on by moving out – even if it means severely reduced circumstances. But sometimes, everyone can manage a multi-generation household (at least for short periods of time) and still end up liking each other. Only the people involved can decide.

Making it Work: Take Time for a Plan

Not every older person can accommodate to younger people’s lifestyles or can continue providing financial support. Not every young person is willing and able to make the compromises required to live again under their parents’ roof. When young adult children come back to the parental home, the best way to keep most of the people happy most of the time is to create a plan and stick to it as best we can.

  • Set a clear goal. Is the point of moving home to help a young person save up for an apartment? Is it to pay off half of the school loan? Is it to provide time to explore a particular job or interest without the pressure of having to pay bills? Having a clear rationale helps everyone have a focus.
  • Build in reciprocity. Parents may be giving an adult child a financial leg up by not asking for all or part of a room rent or food money but it helps everyone feel on more respectful and equal footing if there are expectations for the privilege of being financially supported. Adult children can do their part by taking on chores that their parents are beginning to find challenging. Doing things like yard work, a household project, the grocery shopping, housecleaning, making a few meals for everyone each week, etc. (and doing them willingly) is a reasonable exchange for not yet having to face the realities of supporting ones own home.
  • Set a move out date or at least a re-evaluation date. It helps everyone stay focused on the eventual goal if an end point is set. If that feels impossible, at least set a date where you will all sit down together to talk about how things are going and to look at whether there is progress toward meeting the eventual goal. If you don’t set a date ahead of time, chances are that there will be a meeting only when there is conflict. A pre-scheduled meeting provides space for re-negotiation without the guilt and anger.
  • Avoid regression to old roles. Have a clear, honest, discussion about expectations including house rules, chores, financial responsibilities and standards for behavior regarding visitors and dates, and use of alcohol, drugs, and smoking. Old roles and relationships are difficult to change. The young person who was beginning to have a mature relationship with parents can revert to the prickly, unpleasant teen when he returns to his old bedroom. “Who are you and where did you put my grown up son?” is a phrase that occurs to many a parent who thought that they were long past arguments about dirty dishes in the sink, towels on the bathroom floor, or finding the fridge empty because the gang came over for a late night movie and snacks.
  • Develop a system of financial accountability. If the goal is for the young person to save, arrange to have a monthly check-in on the savings account balance. Too intrusive, you say? Maybe. But too often, a young person’s good intentions are sabotaged by impulsive decisions. They often need help reaching long term goals. In addition, make it clear who pays for what. Will parents pay for food as well as housing? How about feeding guests? Who pays for cable, car insurance, health insurance, etc? If parents don’t watch TV, should they be paying the cable bill? If the young adult is trying to save, does it make sense to pay for cable at all? You will avoid a lot of tension and uncomfortable conversations if you reach a clear understanding about such things ahead of time.
  • Write it down. Work together on making a clear contract and write it down. People tend to hear what they want to hear, not what is said. Writing it all down helps everyone be clear about exactly what is expected and when the contract runs out. When the inevitable conflicts happen, you all will have the contract to refer to. That doesn’t mean that the contract can’t be changed. Of course it can. But you will be grateful to have a written reminder of the original agreement if there is trouble.
  • Decide ahead of time what you will do if there are conflicts. If every little thing becomes a big negotiation, if people are always walking around on eggshells, if people find themselves feeling like prisoners in their own rooms, it isn’t working! Disagreements or failures to live up to the initial contract don’t have to be a reason to end the arrangement. They absolutely do need to be a reason to talk it out.
    It’s a good idea to decide from the outset, when no one is upset or angry, just how differences of opinion will be settled and how everyone will know if and when it is just better to end the project. Will you call a meeting? Is there a third party you all agree is a fair arbitrator? Or will the parents be the ones to judge whether they can continue?

  • Most important – make sure that you build in some relaxed and friendly times together. Complicated arrangements work best when grounded in positive relationships. It’s important to give the relationships the time and attention they deserve. Talk a little over coffee before heading out for the day. Share a group meal a couple of times a week. Hang out and watch a little TV together. Maintain some friendly involvement in each other’s lives and it will be easier to smooth out the inevitable bumps in the road.
When the Nest Doesn’t Empty

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). When the Nest Doesn’t Empty. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.