Healthy boundaries set the stage for healthy relationships.

Source: Psychology Today

By: Danna Ramirez and Christopher Shepard

Date: March 12, 2021

  • Many young adults have moved back in with their parents as a result of the pandemic.
  • The transition can be difficult, as both children and parents adapt to the new family dynamic.
  • Authoritative parenting, which is highly responsive but not controlling, can help foster healthy and fulfilling relationships.
  • Parents can navigate relationship challenges by setting boundaries and being supportive rather than directive.

Emerging adulthood is a period of development distinct from both adolescence and young adulthood that encompasses the ages of 18 through 25. Compared to other age groups, emerging adults have diverse and variable living situations, which is representative of the exploratory characteristics of this time.

Moving out of a parent’s house is an important milestone for these individuals because it symbolizes the beginning of self-autonomy. The average age for young Americans to leave home is 19, many doing so to pursue a college education. At this point they experience the freedoms and opportunities of independent living; however, maintaining this independence is a far more complex task. An analysis done in 2014 showed that by age 27, about 90 percent of individuals had left their parental households at least once and more than 50 percent of them had moved back at some point after moving out. Multiple factors are involved in this cycle; currently, two of the most significant are economic instability and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The rapid outbreak of COVID-19 led government and university officials to mandate city-wide lockdowns which consisted of business and school closures. These events forced many emerging adults, prominently the college student population, to abruptly move back into their parent’s household. As of July 2020, 52% of individuals ages 18 through 29 are living with their parents. 

This transition is difficult for both the parents and the children because it requires the adjustment and acceptance of each of their lifestyles. If approached inadequately this process can lead to intrafamilial conflicts, negative emotions, and disruptive behaviors that can inflict psychological distress. The parent-child relationship plays a crucial role in what type of living environment will be formed and how the emerging adult will respond to this setback.

The Effects of Different Parenting Styles

Transitioning from independent living to a parent’s house is difficult to navigate for many reasons, including a change of independence for the emerging adult and the difficulty of the parent trying to understand their role during this period of their child’s life. The relationship between parents and children changes throughout the different developmental stages of life.

Three parenting groups have been specifically identified during emerging adulthood: uninvolved (low on all aspects of parenting), controlling-indulgent (high on both extremes of parental control and low on responsiveness), and authoritative (high on responsiveness and low on control).

These parenting styles have different psychological, emotional, and developmental effects among this population. Authoritative parenting is associated with better overall outcomes and healthier relationships. These parents have appropriately transitioned with their children as they become emerging adults, allowing them to explore while offering the necessary support. Uninvolved and controlling-indulgent parents are more likely to cause distress and feelings of powerlessness among college seniors/graduates moving back home due to the pandemic. These two parenting styles provide less emotional support and structure, limit the personal growth of their emerging adult children, and are related to more psychological and emotional challenges.

Even though parents can be a primary source of support, guidance, and structure, they can also be a source of stress. Independent living relieves emerging adults of the instability that comes with more challenging parenting styles and the family conflicts that can emerge as a result. This independence from their parents also allows for emotional and behavioral exploration, development of opinions, and friendship and relationship formation.

The disruption of having to move back home and continue to live at a parent’s household after graduating college can lead to diminished self-perception and adjustment difficulties. Some of the factors that cause these negative outcomes may include lack of control over decisions, miscommunication with parents and other family members, lack of privacy, and economic instability.

Tips to Navigate Relationship Challenges  

Parents need to understand their role in their children’s life. Often parents struggle with still being the “police,” which at this point is not their primary role. They should reflect on their interactions with their child and ask, “Was that supportive or was that directive?”

Establishing ground rules for the home is a significant step during this transition. Parents should pick a few key points or rules that will set appropriate boundaries. If these are clear from the beginning, the emerging adult will understand their new role in the household and adjust accordingly. With appropriate boundaries, relationships are healthier and can grow.

It is also important for parents to understand the effects of the pandemic on the job market and minimize blaming emerging adult children for their current employment status. Emerging adults need to feel supported and acknowledged. Parents should serve as a guide and provide necessary resources for their children; this approach will be motivational and beneficial to their emotional health.

Create an intentional time to check in with each other. This time can serve two different purposes: to provide feedback and to process and evaluate each other’s feelings. Many individuals are unaware of how their actions can create a hostile environment. Therefore, providing feedback is necessary to correct disruptive behaviors and unhealthy communication patterns. Understanding the feelings of every member of the household is equally important. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic differently and their experiences are unique; understanding where each person is coming from helps defuse any conflict or tension.

Lastly, it is important that the parent-child relationships focus on mutual respect and appreciation.

About the Authors

Danna Ramirez is the Clinical Research Informatics Engineer at The Menninger Clinic. Her research interests include the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, especially personality disorders and mood disorders. 

Christopher Shepard is a Senior Research Coordinator at The Menninger Clinic. His research interests include sleep disorders, suicidal behavior, and emerging adulthood.

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