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When a millennial returns home

A Marital and Family Therapy expert from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology shares advice from more than a decade in private practice about how Millennials can return home in harmony.

My husband and I officially became empty-nesters two years ago as our youngest child left for college in a distant state. It was one of those bittersweet life events—both a celebration of our children’s brave steps into their future, and sadness for the life we had known for more than 20 years as parents of two active children. If either one of our children ever wanted to move back home, I would welcome them with open arms—seeing it not as “delayed adulthood” but as a return to the way families have lived for most of human history.

However, I know not everyone shares my positive view of this Millennial trend, as mentioned in the recent INSIGHT magazine feature, “The Millennial Effect.”

As a clinical psychologist specializing in relational issues, I have worked with many clients over the years who have traversed a similar pathway, often with difficulties. Most of my Baby Boomer friends and colleagues are also moving into this stage of life—with Millennial children either fleeing the nest to far flung places or, as Pew Research Center statistics suggest, being forced to move home for economic reasons.

In fact, living with parents now edges out all other living arrangements for Millennials aged 18-13 for the first time in this modern era, Pew Research has reported. And while many are quick to criticize these returning Millennials for a “failure to launch,” I believe it as an important and necessary correction in our culture.

Millennial reboot: Before the baby boom

It is really only since the post-World War II era (which ironically gave birth to the Baby Boom) that Americans have held the single nuclear family household as the criteria for successful adulthood. But at what cost?

As the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, has noted, we are the first society to have asked the nuclear family to live “all by itself in a box … with no relatives, no support.” And, as she also correctly stated, we’ve put the nuclear family “in an impossible situation.”

While families became more scattered across the country than ever before over the last six decades, research continues to show that individuals who are in regular, meaningful contact with their extended families fare much better across many measures of emotional and mental health. These individuals are more resilient and better able to weather the daily rigors of life, particular those who struggle with addiction or other mental health issues.

The reasons for this phenomenon among Millennials are multi-faceted (ranging from the fact that they are marrying later to the mounting cost of student debt), but I do see the revival of living arrangements that have served humankind for thousands of years as beneficial on many levels.

As I tell my clients, the key to making multigenerational living work is to plan ahead and establish a set of mutually agreed upon guidelines. All it takes is open communication, the ability to be flexible, and the willingness to embrace any bumps in the road.

Here are some things to keep top of mind:

1. Set expectations for success

One idea my husband floated when one of our children was considering moving back home was to charge a reasonable rent based on their income and put it away in a savings account—either to help them with first and last month’s rent or a down payment on a mortgage when they move out. Paying rent, no matter how nominal, establishes your child as a fully competent adult. Whether it’s actual rent or just a contribution to groceries and living expenses, it’s important to at least have the conversation so parents don’t get upset if the Millennial is spending the money they save on rent on going out with friends or frivolous purchases.

2. Be realistic about how it will work

As I tell my clients, the way things should be and the way they actually are is often very different. It’s easy for everyone to slip into old, worn out, relationship patterns. The child who routinely left their clothes strewn around the house is likely to do so when they move back. Likewise, the parent who picked up those clothes, while nagging the child to start picking up, will revert to their patterns. Working out ahead of time who will clean the kitchen, bathrooms, run the vacuum, cook meals, (and on what schedule) is the key to finding harmony and balance. Also be sure to set consequences to what will happen if these house rules are not respected. Figuring out ahead of time what you will do if this occurs can help both of you.

3. Enjoy your time together

Even though multigenerational households may be increasing in number, it is likely that this will not be a lifetime arrangement. Be sure to savor and enjoy this important family bonding time. In my own personal life and my practice, I have found that adult children, particularly after having navigated the adolescent years, can offer unique and rewarding relationships. And in those first early years when their income is generally at its lowest and they are working to establish themselves in careers and relationships, living at home can be tremendous benefit to all concerned.

My hope is that this trend will reinvigorate the strength of the family system and give our Millennials the platform they need to build a better life for the next generation.

Dr. Melody Bacon

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