Boomerang Kids vs. Parents: How to Minimize Conflict

Joe Liebeskind interned with the New Jersey Nets (now called the Brooklyn Nets) in the summer of his junior year of college. At the end of the internship, his coordinator said a job would be waiting for him once he finished school. But the diploma he received in December 2008 wasn't the golden ticket he thought it would be--bad timing meant the team couldn't hire him.

After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, Joe moved back in with his parents in Hillsdale, N.J., for three-and-a-half years. However, his decision to live at home wasn't a result of not landing a job with the basketball team. "I was always planning to move home for at least a year to try and [save] some money, as to not be living paycheck to paycheck with the cost of rent," he says.

Many of today's college graduates follow Joe's path. An estimated 3 in 10 young adults have moved back in with their parents in recent years, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in March. Saving money is their chief concern, as nearly 80 percent of those currently living at home say they don't have enough money put away to lead the kind of independent life they want.

The high cost of education is partly to blame: The average 2011 college graduate with student loans owed $26,600. Consequently, many of today's graduates--known as "boomerang kids"--are turning to their parents for monetary support. They've returned to their childhood homes, hoping that living under their parents' roof will enable them to find a job and save enough money to move out.

[Read: How to Start Paying Off Student Loans.]

For many recent college graduates, sparse jobs and low starting salaries make it virtually impossible to support themselves. Coupled with high housing costs, the real world isn't exactly welcoming to this generation. In addition to financial woes, moving back home can lead to arguments between kids and their parents and can potentially damage their relationship in the long term. Parents who prepare for these challenges before greeting their kids at the front door have a better chance of avoiding these hardships.

Laying the groundwork. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children, says how the parents approach the situation sets the foundation for a healthy living environment. "Both sides need to understand that moving back home is a good economic strategy, and not an indication that the child has failed," she says.

Recognizing that may be more difficult for the child, says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), which educates the public about new research on American families. "So many people are [moving back in with their parents] that the social stigma around it has been largely eroded, but there are still some kids who are ashamed by it," he says.

Linda Gordon, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., and co-author of Mom, Can I Move Back in With You?: A Survival Guide for Parents of Twentysomethings, says kids sometimes mention they "feel like they're getting younger every mile they get closer to home." Once the kid sets aside any initial guilt, Gordon says it's important for the parent to no longer view their living situation with a parent-child dynamic but to see it as two adults living under the same roof.

Brian Canell, a 2011 graduate from the University of Maryland--College Park, noticed this kind of positive change when he moved home. "During high school, they always checked up on me," he says. "After college, occasionally they wanted to know what time I'd be coming home, but they gave me a lot more freedom."

However, some kids like Bourree Lam say fewer ground rules can lead to conflict. She wishes her parents had a conversation with her outlining firmer expectations before she moved home. "Those things are hard to talk about," says the 2007 graduate of the University of Chicago. "When you're a young adult, I think that's when parents feel that they can sort of be able to tell you what to do," but that the gray area is what causes problems.

Some people believe those issues can be avoided if the parents ask the child to sign a contract that lays out the rules for living under their roof. Paul Markowich, a certified financial planner at Firstrust Financial Resources in Philadelphia, recommends a formal agreement to help ensure both parties are on the same page. "Children will eventually sign a contract for renting an apartment. This shouldn't be any different," he says.

Even if a contract isn't used--Gordon thinks it's a good idea, but says few families will actually make one--it's important to have a conversation that specifically highlights the expectations. Nemzoff advises families to discuss even the minutia, such as how long the kid can leave their laundry in the dryer.

[Read 14 Things Parents of Boomerang Kids Can Do to Minimize Problems.]

Where to draw the line. Simply because some twentysomethings think they're in charge doesn't mean the parent has to put up with their attitude. Parents should feel comfortable denying certain requests, according to Gordon. She says it's OK to say no to footing the bill for a gym membership, for example, or to bankrolling a night at the bar. Kids should also be expected to clean up after themselves and help around the house. "They're not a guest," says Coleman of the CCF. "They're still a contributing member of the family."

Unless the kid has a source of income, it's wise for parents to keep an eye on how their child spends money, says Mike Blehar, a principal and financial advisor at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. He says if parents give their kid money to cover basic living expenses and then watch them squander it, they shouldn't show sympathy when the kid comes back and says he doesn't have enough money to live independently.

Another common concern among parents is they'll have to stay up late, wondering when their child will be home. Many experts say that parents shouldn't set a curfew, but that it's reasonable to ask for an approximate time when they'll be home so they don't lose sleep.

With most kids, those guidelines won't ruffle feathers. However, whether a parent charges their kid rent is a decision that can have a significant impact on the relationship. Adam Levine, a 2011 graduate from Ohio University, paid his parents $200 a month when he moved back home. As the costs for food and other living expenses increased, they raised his rent to $400. "The point of living at home is oftentimes to save up to move out of the house, and when you're being charged rent, that makes it a little more difficult," Levine says.

A parent charging rent doesn't always lead to tension. Michelle Rome, who graduated in May with a master's degree from Quinnipiac University, says it doesn't bother her that her parents charge about $100 a month for food. She's just happy she was able to negotiate the price. "They originally wanted me to pay more for food, but then I explained to them exactly what I eat, so they lowered it," she says.

[See 10 Ways to Save on Food Costs.]

Many parents charge their kids rent, usually to avoid strain on the family's finances and to stay on target for their savings goals. In fact, the Pew survey released in March reports that 48 percent of boomerang children have paid rent to their parents. Financial planner Markowich points out that parents only get one shot at planning for retirement: "A kid can get a loan for a house or a car, but parents can't get a loan for their retirement."

When to step back. While some parents charge rent, others oversupply their boomerang kid with money. Markowich says such parents are "enablers" in the sense that they give their kid such a cushy lifestyle that they may never want to leave.

Parents who take care of their kid's laundry and make their bed every morning may be undermining their child's self esteem. Gordon refers to them as "helicopter parents"--parents who treat their kids like they're in elementary school and not like young adults. "Kids need to know and feel that they are self-sufficient," Gordon says.

Young adults and parents often think differently about how money should be spent. Kids may want to buy the latest iPad, while the parents feel that money can be better spent elsewhere. Markowich says it's important for parents to recognize that these viewpoints mark a generational difference and shouldn't be used as ammunition.

Some parents also exercise too much control over how their kid spends their time, according to Nemzoff. If college graduates are forced to revert back to a situation where their parent wants to be the boss of their time, it can feel like a regression. The resentment that can result from this has the potential to spoil over into other areas of disagreement.

Many boomerang kids are particularly worried about how living with their parents will affect their social life. Joe Liebeskind says the main thing that bothered him was the trouble of starting a relationship with a girl with while living down the hall from mom and dad. Others who stay with their parents for a long period of time may watch their nearby circle of friends shrink over time.

Reaping the rewards. Despite the criticism and grumblings parents may hear from their boomerang kids, many college grads recognize various benefits of living under their parents' roof. The most common: The financial support gives them time to search for a job and save money so they can live on their own.

Few complain about the home-cooked meals. Brian Canell, for example, says now that he's out of the house all he can make is scrambled eggs and pasta.

Bourree Lam stayed with her parents for 90 days while hunting for a job. Since she moved to New York City, she only sees them about 10 days a year. She appreciates how much "precious time" she got to spend with her family.

Others like Michelle Rome value having the support system her family provides. She says it's a lot easier to talk to a parent who's in the next room rather than have a conversation over the phone.

Adam Levine is thankful his parents let him live like he did during college. He says they didn't impede his social life and allotted him privacy by letting him have the upstairs floor to himself.

Joe Liebeskind says he's glad he was able to develop a closer relationship with his sister Dara, as the two have an 8-year age difference. His parents say Joe carried part of the burden of raising Dara by stepping in to tell her things like, "Why are you fighting about curfew when you can just come home?"

Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition, says she discovered an admirable trend among parents of boomerang kids while researching for her book. "I think families deserve a lot of credit for trying to be resilient problem-solvers," she says. "They can't cure the problem with the labor market or the cost of higher education, but many parents are helping the next generation any way they can."

Many boomerang kids are returning the favor. "Joe was ready to move out, but it was hard for us when he left," says his mother Susan Liebeskind. "We had to learn how to use the TV remote to control the DVR."