Much has been written in recent years about the phenomenon of so-called boomerang kids and how their empty-nest parents can best manage the situation.
According to Pew Research, a record 21.6 million Millennials lived in their parents’ homes in 2012 — up from 18.5 million just five years before.
We know what’s driving this: fewer job opportunities, crippling college debt, delayed marriage and, according to some observers, parental encouragement. Articles have dissected the situation from every angle, assessing the pros and the cons and even the cultural implications.
But no one has taken on the unique — yet hardly uncommon — situation of boomerang kids and single parents. Exact numbers aren’t available, but we can extrapolate. According to some estimates, half of all mothers will spend some time as sole guardian of their children; at any given time, 25 percent are raising kids by themselves. This means that perhaps 5 million or more adult children are cohabitating with just one parent. And ever since my adult son recently moved back home (again), I’ve been reflecting on how different things are for us single parents.
(MORE: So Boomerang Kids, You Want to Move Back Home? Really?)
Challenges of Single Parents of Boomerangs
Sally Koslow, author of Slouching Toward Adulthood, sums up the unique problems of solo parents of boomerang children. “They are often put in an especially difficult position,” she says. “On the one hand, they may have no partner with whom to share the difficulty of the situation, which may include the need to offer financial assistance as well as advice, and to help young adult children define limits.
“On the other hand,” she adds, “they may be lonely and some may relate to their ‘adultescent’ as a peer rather than a parent and may act like their sister instead of their mother. And sometimes they send mixed messages because they don’t necessarily want the kid to move out because they'd be lonesome. This is confusing to children and handicaps them in their growth."
On top of that, she notes, there’s the special issue of dealing with both parent and child dating. “It's especially tricky between mothers and daughters: cougar-y moms trying to act young, possibly flirting with their daughters' dates.”
(MORE: How to Set Money Ground Rules for a Boomerang Kid)
Just the Two of Us
Once, when my son was in high school and we were having one of our classic confrontations, I remarked that we seemed to provoke each other more than other mothers and sons did. Always the wise observer, he responded, “Of course we do, Mom: You’ve only got me and I’ve only got you.”
He wasn’t implying that we were friendless; he meant that we only had each other to act out against. He was absolutely right and I’ve never forgotten that comment.
Each time he’s moved back home (this is number three), he’s older, more mature and nicer. I hope the same is true about me. Sure, we both fall back into old patterns — it’s almost impossible not to sometimes — but for the most part, we’ve shifted something in the relationship.
I like to think it’s a reflection of our mutual maturity and our unique relationship. As he pointed out, it's been just the two of us for most of his life. That's made us extra close. When we’ve been able to set anger and frustration aside, we each had a special compassion for the other’s struggles and appreciation for the triumphs.
5 Survival Tips for Solo Parents
Every household is different, of course, but there are certain guidelines that can help single parents keep their sovereignty — and the peace — once boomerangs invade their space.
- Take a realistic assessment of your own needs. However cool you think you are, you’re going to have some unconscious behavior governing your interactions. This is especially true when you don’t have another parent there to support and balance you. Pay attention to how you communicate with your child in actions, words and even body language. Your job, still, is to be the parent, though it’s easy to project your own longings without realizing it. Kids, on the other hand, are geniuses at picking up on that — and it can weaken your parental role.
- Set and enforce clear house rules. Having lived on their own, many young adults keep late hours, have different lifestyle habits than you and possibly very divergent notions of housekeeping. Before things get out of hand, establish some rules as well as the consequences of not following them. Also discuss what they will get in return (e.g., rent-free living, use of the car, etc.).
- Try to see things from your child’s point of view. Yes, it’s your house, but once you’ve agreed to let your child return home, you owe him or her some sense of personal space. Falling back into your old pattern will trigger their old reactions. To break the cycle, reflect on how you are coming across to them. Remember, you’re the adult here and as hard as it may be in a moment of strong emotion, you need to act like it.
- Get support. There are sure to be situations that push your buttons. Reach out to sympathetic friends and family members. Talk to people going through similar things. Just taking a little time-out from the intensity of your own home life can defuse the situation.
- Keep your private life private — and respect their right to do the same. No matter how close you are to your child, there are certain topics that need to be verboten, like intimate relationships, grievances with their other parent and explicit financial information. Like good fences making for good neighbors, healthy boundaries keep parent/child relationships strong.