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Your boomerang children

When adult kids move back home, all the rules change. Here’s how to cope with a household of grown-ups.

By Karen Stiller

Leaving home doesn’t mean what it used to mean. And neither does the word “boomerang.” Boomerang, the name of the traditional projectile weapon used mostly by Australian Aborigines to hunt birds, now describes human offspring that, once launched into the great blue yonder, come circling back toward home.

In the ominously titled “Junior Comes Back Home: Trends and Predictors of Returning to the Parental Home,” a Statistics Canada report, the writers say what we are all probably observing: “an adult child returning home has become a fairly common, predictable event in family life.” Leaving home, according to Statistics Canada, may not be a one-time event anymore, but it is a “continuing process in which close ties with the family home are unravelled slowly rather than being cut quickly.” So, the nest might be empty for a time, but then, lo and behold, who’s that coming up the front walk with their suitcase?

According to another Statistics Canada report (“Parents with Adult Children Living at Home,” 2006), most parents actually like having their adult kids at home with them. Parents feel they have a duty to help their offspring, no matter their age, and they don’t resent doing it. In fact, they prefer having too much time with their adult kids. The trick is making the time positive.

The reasons for adult kids returning home may be many: university breaks, cost of education, debt, heartbreak or job loss. But the ways to make it work are few but effective.

They’re not teenagers

Gail McGilvery and her husband, Bob, of St. Luke’s United in Etobicoke, Ont., had both her sons move back into the basement of their home. With their wives! On the same weekend! “It was quite all right,” remembers Gail of that rather intense period in 1990. “I told them quite firmly, ‘We now have six adults living in this house, and I expect you all to act like adults.’” And they did. Gail confesses that she wouldn’t want to do it again — now — but “if I could go back in time I would do it again.” Her top advice is treat them like adults, because that’s what they are.

Rose Brandon of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., had her two oldest adult children move back home at the peak of their social lives. “We were exhausted. They were going out when we were going to bed. It’s not the same as having kids and worrying about them. We had to get used to the interruptions.” So, although it may indeed be a household of adults, when some of them are going out dancing all night, and the others just want to watch CSI and hit the sack by 10, things need to be worked out.

Clarence Lochhead, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, says that this tension is “an interesting dynamic of the new relationship. You’re not talking to a 17-year-old, but a 25-year-old.”

Talk it out

Rev. Alex McGilvery, now minister of Monkton (Ont.) United, is one of the sons who moved into Gail and Bob’s basement. He agrees with his mom, that it worked because there was recognition that roles had changed. It was no longer children and parents, but more like peers (with a long history) living together. They were on the same page because they talked about it — a lot.

“You sit down and talk about how this is going to work, and who has responsibility for what,” says Alex. “It’s understood that your parent might give you advice, and that you might not take it. Lay out as much stuff as possible beforehand, then revisit it. Talk about what time you go to bed, what time you expect things to be quiet.” Alex suggests you view the living arrangement as similar to sharing an apartment with someone. Discuss “the same kind of courtesies” you’d expect to work out with anyone else you were co-habiting with. For Brandon, the issue that needed the most revisiting had to do with eating “at all hours of the day. The kitchen was never clean.”

Money and fighting

Elizabeth Savoie, of Wilmot United in Fredericton, has had both her adult son and daughter boomerang back home “at various times, several times.” And every time it happened, “I was pleased because I thought they were in a better situation at home, and I enjoy their company.” What wasn’t so easy was when they were back home at the exact same time. “They reverted back to their teenage bickering,” says Savoie. “Sometimes I would say, ‘Grow up!’” Interestingly, having one child at home when the new arrival landed on the doorstep usually meant that one of them left sooner rather than later. And Savoie says, “unless they are absolutely broke, they should pay board.” Parents may choose to be merciful about the amount, or do that nice parent thing where they sock the money away to give back to their child at a later date, but adult children do need to be fiscally responsible when they move back home.

Physical space

By the time Rose Brandon had arrived back home from driving her eldest son to the airport so he could move to Calgary, her youngest son had already moved into his older brother’s bedroom. Then, a year or so later, older brother came home — to the basement. Brandon’s daughter’s bedroom had become her den, which then went back to being daughter’s bedroom, and these days is Brandon’s den again, thankfully. “The house was just too small,” says Brandon. “There were too many adults.”
For Elizabeth Savoie in Fredericton, her son’s room had been turned into a computer room when he first left, so he also became a below-ground basement dweller when he returned home. Although the separate space helped, his stuff tended to drift upstairs and spread out through the living room. “I would say, ‘This living room is a mess. Get your stuff out of it,’” says Savoie. Again, open and ongoing communication is key to keeping everyone calm — and contained.

The amazing thing about families

It’s probably just a coincidence, but the Statistics Canada study uses terms such as “hazard model analysis” and “risk ratio” to pinpoint the circumstances that will turn your independent adult offspring into  boomerang kids. The bottom line is that the tendency for adult children to move back home, at least once, has risen in each generation, starting with the baby boomers.

“Families change and have taken on all kinds of transformation patterns over time,” explains the Vanier Institute’s Clarence Lochhead. “There have always been issues and difficulties. We hear about the downside of family life and it would be foolish to pretend that doesn’t exist. But I would say that overall one of the amazing things about family life is that — despite having choice — they choose to come together.”


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