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Articles & Interviews
When A Young Adult Stepchild Moves Back Home

After all three of my stepchildren had crossed into their 30’s, there were a few conversations I was pretty sure I’d never have to have again. One of them was the one about a kid wanting to move back in with us.

Then one night, after another long phone call with his youngest son, my husband trudged into our kitchen, sat down at our table, and said, “Patrick would like to move in with us…” He proceeded to tell me that a recent break-up had Pat thinking about moving home to the Pacific Northwest, but he wasn’t sure. He wanted to stay with us “for a while” to figure it out, since we have a music studio and he’s a musician who can teach lessons from home—as long as “home” has drum set and a soundproof room.

Now, I knew from past experience how loud things could get living with a professional musician—Patrick had lived with us for several years while working on his degree at an art school in Seattle and playing in a local rock band.

I also knew how uptight and upset my tidy husband could get when the pizza boxes and energy drink cans overwhelmed the laundry room after band rehearsals. And I knew how resentful I could get trying to keep the house quiet for a young adult who slept til noon—or beyond.

I remembered the million micro-arguments with Pat about him forgetting to turn off the lights, turn down the heat, take care of his dirty dishes, lock up the house and set the alarm. And I remembered the million whisper-fights with my husband about what to do about Patrick not turning off the lights, turning down the heat, taking care of his dirty dishes, locking up the house or setting the alarm.

I remembered our constant annoyance with a busy student/musician’s books, backpacks, and drumsticks on the good chair in our living room, and his month-old, mold-covered leftovers in our refrigerator. And I remembered Doug’s constant annoyance about having to take up these issues over and over again with his 20-something son.

Of course we both wanted to support Pat. But we both also wanted it to be different this time. My husband and I knew from past experience with kids bouncing back home that the key to success would be a good clear agreement ahead of time. My husband understood that he would need to work out a deal with Patrick that we could all agree on and stick to.

We had lots of good reasons to be confident about this move back. Pat was 30, not 20 as he was the last time he lived with us. Since then, he had lived on his own, cleaned up after himself, shopped for paid for and prepared his own food, and manned a coffee truck at 5 in the morning every weekday for one long, sub-zero Montana winter. He knew a lot more about grown-up living than he did the last time he bounced back home. My husband and I had done a lot of growing up, too. So we agreed that Pat could move back in as long as he and my husband could come up with a plan that would realistically address our expectations and help Pat get back on solid ground.

What Works When Young Adults Move Home
Let’s look at some of the lessons of experience—both my own and those of my clients’—that can help stepfamilies do better when a young adult bounce back home.

1) Multiple conversations make for better agreements. My husband and stepson had several phone conversations before Pat moved in about how much he needed to be working, keeping his personal stuff out of our shared family space, taking care of our sick old dog, picking up after himself, and otherwise being a good house-mate. I think taking the time to have an ongoing conversation before a young person moves back home is very helpful.

Yes, a young adult stepchild does show up on the doorstep from time to time—usually with good reason—and we deal with it. But more often than not, there’s at least a little time to pull together some kind of plan. Don’t waste that time. Talk with your mate—a lot—about what you can and can’t do for the young adult (e.g., I will feed them; I will not store their stuff), and what you can and can’t live with (e.g., I can live with his girlfriend sleeping over from time to time; I cannot have her here all weekend, every weekend) before any boxes cross your threshold. It’s so much easier and more realistic to deal with the foreseeable challenges ahead of time than to hope they won’t happen. They will happen, and you will need to be prepared to handle them.

Under most circumstances, a parent can insist on 2-3 phone, Skype, or email conversations before she agrees that a young adult can move back home. Stepparents need to insist that their partner initiate these conversations to hash out some kind of reality-based deal with their child (with emphasis on the practicality of deal, not the shortcomings of the young adult). This also gives the parent and their mate time to have some couple conversations to be sure everyone’s thinking clearly, on the same page, and feeling good about the agreement.

2) Goals help everyone. Understanding that Pat was living with us because of some specific things he wanted to work on—rest and recovery, practice, and building his teaching skills—was helpful as we planned for his return. We tried to keep things pretty low key in our household when he moved in, and we tried not to pry too much into what he was thinking/feeling/planning to do with his life or when he was going to do it.
My husband’s goal was to spend as much time as he could with his son without crowding the young man. He had missed an important year of his son’s life, and he hoped to make up for some lost time, to the extent that’s possible.

One of my goals was that Pat wouldn’t lose the valuable life skills—e.g., cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and keeping track of his belongings—which he had accrued during years of independent living. That meant I was going to have to resist over-doing for him. It also meant that his dad was going to have to nudge him to take responsibility for himself and not expect us to make healthy food, clean clothes, or his missing car keys magically appear.

3) Keep talking. I checked in casually with Pat from time to time—about how things were working for him, how he was doing on his goals, and what we all could be doing more of/less of/better. My husband checked in with him almost every day about how things were going. The fact that Pat had to work a certain number of hours every day according to our agreement helped, because we had an objective measure that showed us all how he was doing on one of his big goals. But a lot of the other things we were working together on—Pat’s rest and repair, his strength and fitness, his family connections—were things that had to be observed, discussed, and encouraged, rather than counted, weighed, or measured.

My husband and I watched how things were going and talked with each other every day, at least once. Not at length, but we’d check in with each other about what we were seeing, what was going well, what needed improvement. If we concluded that his son needed a reminder about the deal on any front, he’d take it up with Pat one-on-one, keeping the message brief and casual, but clear and to the point.

I know Amy said she’d rather hear about a problem from her stepmom or stepdad if one of them had an issue with something she was doing in their home. That’s a tough call for a stepparent. In my case, if there were a deviation from our agreement, I’d want my husband to take it up with his young adult child. But if I had a problem with one of my stepkids, say, constantly putting his electronics, keys, and other pocket debris on my hand-painted wood kitchen table, I’d take it up with him directly. Every day;)
4) A back end limit helps. My husband and I didn’t put a time limit on his son’s stay, or even discuss how long we could handle conducting our marriage in a fishbowl. This oversight probably happened because, when he’d lived with us before, Pat had always had to go back to school at some point.

In hindsight, I think we both defaulted to a “wait and see” position: keep talking with Pat to see how it was working for him, keep checking in with each other, keep standing in his corner. Though his stay worked out just fine, it would have been better if we’d have made a 90-day deal up front, then revisited his needs and our agreement at that point.

Even when a young adult stepchild has lived with you before, sometimes a new situation really changes how things go. That means you need a fresh plan. Be sure to have an end you’re all shooting for together—it doesn’t have to be an end time, it could be the achievement of a goal or completion of a major life project such as the young person finishing school, leaving for boot camp, buying a house, getting through their wedding, saving enough for a down payment, or finding a new job. You can always change your deal, but it’s better to start with a deadline or a target end point and renegotiate it than to not have one before you begin.

5) Focus on the relationship, not the problems.  Address the daily niggles in a timely manner. Let your partner handle the hard messages. Beyond that, use your access to your young adult stepchild to get to know her better and let her get to know you better. Do chores together, walk the dog together, go grocery shopping together. You can covertly work on encouraging their life skills while you build connections that will serve you both for decades to come.

Amy once told me about getting sick while she was living at her dad and stepmother’s home. Her stepmom went to the drugstore and got her prescription filled so Amy wouldn’t have to get out of bed. It was a small act of kindness and support that meant a lot to her. Opportunities to be generous, thoughtful, gracious, and helpful pop up all the time when you’re living with a young adult. While we don’t want to coddle them, cutting them a break once in a while can make a big difference in their regard for you as a person, and as a family member.

6) Moving home, and out, and back again, is now a normal part of growing up. One wonderful research finding about young adults today is that they actually enjoy spending time with their parents. Largely because they are partnering and procreating later, many of young people report valuing their intimate relationships with their parents more than twenty-somethings of the past may have. And parents and stepparents seem to really like their adult kids, too. That certainly squares with my own experience. So instead of setting your timer when the young person come through the door, let yourself be open to the pleasure and learning opportunity this time presents.

I hear from stepparents of young adults all the time who are wondering if it’s time to kick a young adult out of their home. I’ll tell you what I tell them—family members don’t get fired. Growing up is a process, and young people need us in a lot of different ways on their path to independence. If you could look at your stepchild’s bouncing back home from time to time to rest, rejuvenate, and regroup as an investment in their fully independent future, you’ll start looking for the opportunities to support them on the journey to adulthood.

What I Learned
Living with another human being, even one you know well and like a lot, is a huge learning opportunity. In addition to developing a refreshed, more adult relationship with my youngest stepson, I learned a lot during our time together. These are my a few of my big lessons.

No matter how tight you and your mate are, you will feel like an outsider at some point during your stepchild’s stay. That’s natural. Don’t blame you mate or your stepchild if you find yourself feeling like you’re at a dinner party where everyone else speaks the same language except you. You are an outsider, and it’s nobody’s fault.

What you can do is let your spouse know when you need a little extra attention, validation, or inclusion. “Hey, I think it’s terrific that you and Jeff enjoy working on his car together all weekend long. What’s hard for me is that sometimes you two talk carburetors and timing belts the whole way through dinner, and I feel left out. It would really help me if you would try to notice when that’s happening and gently steer the subject to something we can all talk about.”

No matter how great your young adult stepchild is, there will be frustrations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going well. It just means your family is human.

My stepson and I got into a tussle while cleaning the garage together after he’d live with us for 9 or 10 months. I wanted him to be more careful moving things around, and he wanted me to be a whole lot less precious about my things. It ended with him saying, “Kimberly, someday you’re going to have to trust me with your stuff!”

Let’s face it, biofamilies have conflicts when they do icky chores together, too, right? But for people who aren’t related by blood, even silly tensions can turn carcinogenic over time. In hindsight, the dust-up my stepson and I had was hilarious, but without the positive regard we’ve developed for one another over time, it could have turned into one of those conflicts that leave a mark on the stepparent/stepchild relationship. It’s a good thing that we both cut each other a lot of slack.

No matter how great you and your mate think this is going to be, you two are going to have at least some increase in marital tension. That tension goes right back to my first point above—your outsiderness.

Issues are tissues—we use them and throw them away. Try not to let issues like long showers, garbage piles, loud music, or dirty dishes turn into an ongoing series of skirmishes between you and your mate in which you are arguing for law and order and your partner is arguing for you to lighten up on her beloved son.

Every time a marital conflict about your mate’s young adult child looms, you should both be able to go back to your agreement and point to the place where you addressed that ahead of time.

If you didn’t address it ahead of time, you’ll need to decide if it’s a real issue, or an opportunity to blow off steam at your spouse because you feel left out. Certainly some things have to be addressed, and you’ll need to make an agreement on those issues when you identify them—e.g., sex in your house wasn’t an issue until your stepson got a girlfriend. Then your spouse can let her son know what you two concluded, and how things need to go from here.

None of this is fun and it will stress your marriage. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

Be As Careful in the End as You Were in the Beginning
After Patrick had lived with us for nearly a year, he and my husband agreed that it was time for Pat to move on. It was definitely harder on my husband that it was on my stepson. The night Pat left our house, Doug went down to the room where Pat had lived with us multiple times over the years, and he cried like a little kid for a long time.

Pat got himself an apartment and a full time job not far from us and his mom and stepdad. Then he and his dad drove to Montana, got the rest of his worldly belongings out of storage, and caravanned back to Seattle. My husband felt good about the two of them “finishing strong,” as he put it.

It wasn’t always easy or fun, but we all worked hard to keep our relationships clean, and we accomplished that together. Plus, I got to know the fine man my stepson has become in a very different way than I knew the kid he was when I met him.

Not every move back home has such a happy ending, but I believe that we parents and stepparents have far more control over how it goes than we think we do. Please help us learn from your experiences and questions by writing to us at evilstepmom.org.

 

 

 

 

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