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Adults who move back home during tough economic times sometimes find themselves reverting to adolescent behaviors.
By contributor
updated 6/22/2009 8:35:46 AM ET 2009-06-22T12:35:46

The recession has dealt a lot of low blows in the past several months, but none so devastating, perhaps, as forcing adults to do the unthinkable: move back in with mom and dad.

Unfortunately, the blending of households — not to mention TV, kitchen and bathroom habits — doesn’t always go smoothly. Last month, an Ohio man called 911 after his 28-year-old son, a political consultant who was living with him rent-free, refused to clean his room.

Apparently, Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again. And if you do, you’d better do your chores.

“In college, I was used to leaving the dishes overnight and washing them in the morning,” says Chanelle Schneider, a 25-year-old retail sales associate who moved in with her mother last January when money got tight. “But now, it’s like: ‘I don’t care if it’s midnight before you go to bed, do the dishes!’ ”

Growing pains
This latest stint at home is Schneider’s second, the first coming right after college, making her one of 77 percent of college grads to move back home after school, according to a August 2008 survey. (In 2006, that number was 67 percent.) In recent years, though, returning 20-somethings, sometimes dubbed “boomerangers,” have been joined by adults in their 30s and 40s — sometimes with a spouse and kids in tow. From 2000 to 2008, multigenerational households increased by 24 percent, up to 6.2 million, according to AARP.

So, too, have the problems of the blended households, particularly when it comes to settling that age-old question: Who’s the boss?

“I’m 25, so I want to be taken as an adult, a grown woman,” says Schneider, who’s grateful for her mother’s help but less thrilled about the “growing pains.” “But I’m still my mother’s child. She’s in mom mode, always.”

Adults who go through a job loss, home foreclosure or other financial hardship often feel infantilized, says Dr. Marion Lindblad-Goldberg, clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Throw in a return to the family home and you have the makings for a full-blown recession regression.

“Theoretically, by the time you reach adulthood, you’re supposed to be at the same power level as your parents,” she says. “But it’s never like that. Parents can relate to their adult children when they’re away from home. But in the home, particularly if it’s the same home, the kid goes from being 28 down to 25 to 20 and ends up at 7.”

Parents may start yelling at their adult kids to clean their rooms, wash their hands, and “Turn down that dang TV!” And adult children can revert back to throwing tantrums, neglecting responsibilities and feeling resentment about their powerlessness.

“Moving back home has the potential for robbing people of that feeling of adult competence,” she says. “And that can cause a dilemma.”

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The parent trap
Anastasia Avradopoulos, a 40-year-old Boston actress who lived with her parents for eight months following her divorce, says living at home definitely had its frustrations — like having her parents barge into her room without knocking. But there were also perks.

Video: Multi-generational homes make comeback “My mom would insist on doing my laundry,” she says. “Or my dad would say, ‘Don’t worry about getting gas, I’ll take care of it.’ So you start to get spoiled. Living with my parents was a blessing and an irritant. It was a gift with consequences.”

JoAnna Haugen, who moved back home with her husband after the couple’s Peace Corps service was cut short because of medical problems, says one of those consequences was feeling bad about herself.

“I’ve always been independent, and the fact that I had to move back home felt crappy,” says Haugen, a 28-year-old communications professional who has since moved to Las Vegas.

Rob Combs, 44, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., moved back in with his mom in 2008 after his business went bankrupt. He says he’s doing odd jobs and hunting for permanent work, but it’s still a challenge living with mom.

“I feel like I’m younger,” he says. “I have a list of chores that I do, things to help her out like washing the windows, filling in the potholes and cleaning off the roof. But I feel bad that I’m even here. And I have to admit, I do get a little tired of the ‘You didn’t show up and I thought you were in a ditch.’ I mean, I think I know how to drive my car.”

His mother, Ann, age 74, admits things can get “a little dicey” with an adult child living back at home, but overall she’s happy she can be there for her son.

“When you’re set in your ways, sometimes little things can get on your nerves,” she says. “It can be disruptive. But he’s really very amiable and a good kid. We usually get along pretty well. It’s just sometimes he’ll have to remind me that it’s not written in stone that the dishwasher should be loaded a certain way.”

Sorting things out
Although it can sometimes feel uncomfortable, sitting down and talking about the situation can help parents and adult kids work through the rough patches, says Lindblad-Goldberg.

“The nice thing about family is that you have some place to go,” she says. “But you do have to talk to each other, to problem-solve, to negotiate, to say, ‘Look, this is going to be an adjustment for you, and it’s going to be an adjustment for me.’ ”

Parents should try to respect their kids’ adulthood and not get all “excited about being parents again,” she advises, and adult children should respect the rules of the house and not take advantage of all those fabulous freebies.

Hate talking about issues? Then keep in mind things may just sort themselves out in other ways.

Avradopoulos, whose mother insisted on doing her laundry after she moved back home, says that one day while putting away clothes, her mother found her bedside goodie drawer.

“I came home and noticed there were different clothes on top of my toy, and when I went to talk with them, they wouldn’t make eye contact,” she says. “I finally just said, ‘Well, I guess you now know that I’m a healthy 38-year-old woman who knows how to take care of her needs.’ And then I started to giggle.”

Her parents started giggling, too, and afterwards, the living situation got much easier.

“It triggered an adult moment for everybody,” she says. “After that, I made sure I didn’t leave the gas tank empty for my dad, and they started knocking on my bedroom door. For the first time, we all saw each other as individuals.”

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