When you waved your grown-up kids off to college, cheered at their graduation, congratulated them on a first job or helped them move in with a partner, you didn't expect that one day you'd be following up those milestones with: "Welcome home!"
But one of the ironies of 21st century life is that just at the crossroads when emerging adults want to take a great leap forward toward independence, many are forced by circumstance to come back home.
The New Perfect Storm
Graduating with major student debt but without plans, as well as dropping out of college, unemployment, underemployment, poorly paid first jobs, sky-high rents and breakups or emotional upheavals can all create a perfect storm and send 20-somethings seeking shelter with mom and dad.
According to a national survey we conducted for our book "Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years," 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are living in their childhood rooms.
Thanks to closer parent/child relationships, smaller families, a later marriage age, and the pressures of hard economic times, that's a sharp shift since today's boomer parents were launching their lives. Back then, one of the major milestones en route to adulthood was moving out of your parents' home after high school.
The good news is that boomerang stints are mostly transitional and short-lived. Getting to know your grown-up kids as the adults they're becoming turns out to be more important than their dropped towels on the floor.
Here are five strategies we suggest so the pleasures of shared living will outweigh the problems:
1. Encourage a plan.
If John parties late and sleeps until noon or Jill turns down every job possibility as not quite perfect, you may understandably run out of patience. But if you see that your back-at-home children have a constructive plan, you'll be more supportive and more likely to forgive the occasional detour along their road to adulthood.
Help your grown-up kids create a purposeful agenda that moves them toward a self-sufficient future. Offer to share what you know about getting more education; sending out resumés and job applications; going to networking events and making connections; taking on part-time work to help defray expenses or doing an internship or volunteer jobs to build experience in a field they want to pursue.
Some will be so intent on making their own decisions that they won't want to hear parents' advice, however good it might be. But others will be grateful and relieved to know they're not in it alone.
2. Treat grown-up kids as the young adults they've become.
The key to making a successful transition home is for parents to recognize the change in their grown children's maturity and treat them not as adolescents but as adults.
It's best if the move is regarded as a temporary necessity, not a backslide to old family roles.
And home life will be more peaceful if parents hold back from over-vigilance, like waiting up at night for a grown child's return or pestering about his or her whereabouts. Observe mutual respect and give each other breathing room so the times you spend together will be freely chosen and mostly stress-free.
3. Let them know your expectations...before they move in.
Before their overstuffed duffels are unpacked, it's a good idea to discuss living arrangements that feel fair and doable on both sides.
Once you come up with a game plan, expect to revisit it after the first few weeks and then months to see if it's still workable.
Among the questions to consider: Is there an end date (e.g., a few months or no more than a year), or is the arrangement open-ended? Will they pay rent, contribute to household expenses, do chores? Will they be allowed to borrow the car? Do they need to call or text if they'll be out for dinner or the night?
Be upfront and specific about how much and what kind of help you'd like or need: making dinner, grocery shopping, doing laundry, caring for a pet or helping out with occasional big tasks like cleaning out the garage or taking stuff to the dump.
Emerging adults may have outgrown the chore rotation list taped to the refrigerator, but spelling out the division of labor helps get the jobs done. And sometimes-oblique reminders are more helpful than confrontations.
One dad we interviewed sent occasional emails to his moved-in kids to jog their memories about putting towels in the laundry or dirty plates in the dishwasher.
4. Have the money talk.
About half the boomerang kids who move home pay some sort of rent, and almost 90 percent help with household expenses, according to a 2012 Pew Report. But there are many ways to divvy up what it takes to run a household.
Some parents ask for a monthly cash contribution, or if a grown child has a decent job, perhaps 10 percent of his or her monthly salary (that's still a lot less than the 30 percent of take-home pay that most adults put toward rent or mortgage payments).
Other families collect rent, but then funnel it into a "nest egg" fund, a kind of enforced savings plan for an emerging adult to use later.
Beyond rent, some families want a contribution toward utilities or car insurance, not just because junior is using lights, heat, and the family car but also to help instill the habit of budgeting for these extras when he's on his own.
And, of course, emerging adults can contribute to the household in non-monetary ways as well - running errands, cooking, doing housework and so on.
A hard truth for many of today's families is that they're strapped financially and don't have the wherewithal to support grown kids for an indeterminate stay. If that's the case, hold the guilt and let your emerging adults know what they need to contribute.
5. Consider couple relationships - yours and theirs.
When the house fills up again, parents often react with mixed emotions. Yes, it's fun getting to know their grown kids as the good people they're becoming. Table talk at dinner grows livelier, and cherished childhood friends come around again. But what about the quiet, private, maybe more romantic, come-and-go-as-you-please couple time that many partners created when their kids went to college?
Since your kid's move home will (most likely) be short-lived and your couple connection will (you hope) be forever, take care to protect your time as a twosome. Emerging adults are totally capable of fending for themselves while parents have a quiet dinner out or go off for the weekend by themselves. Do what's needed to keep the romantic fires burning.
As for your grown-up kids' relationships, life can get complicated very quickly when one or more significant others enter the picture. Most parents know that their grown-up kids are sexually active, but not all feel comfortable hosting a sleepover at their home.
Things to consider: whether or not this is a long-term relationship, whether there are much younger children at home and whether there's enough room to give everyone privacy. You need to feel comfortable in your own house, so, ultimately, it's your call.
Keep in mind, too, that involuntary celibacy is a great incentive for finding a job and moving out.