Boomerang Kids

Now that peak college graduation season is over, the word “boomerang” seems to be on everyone’s lips, as in “boomerang kids,” college grads who return home to roost, $200,000 diploma in hand. In the New York Times last Sunday, Ginia Bellafante blogged about the New York City version of this phenomenon, and this week’s New Yorker has a take down of American kids (selfish, rude, bullying. . . .), using “boomerang kids” as one example of self-centeredness.

Just few years ago, the words, “He lives in his mother’s basement” seemed to connote someone with a bent for serial killings. Today, the phrase can be used to describe many twenty-somethings living happily at home. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of adult children who resided in their parents’ households increased by 1.2 million.

So, what’s behind this trend? The easy answer is “It’s the economy, stupid!” In many cases that’s true. From my perspective as a psychotherapist, there’s a more complex explanation. This generational phenomenon is one result of ambivalent parenting. Define ambivalent? Unclear limits and weak boundaries. Parents are helicopter parents in one moment and raising “free-range children” the next. In my office, I see many kids treat their parents like their personal attendants. One woman recently told me that her fifth grader objected to absence of menus for dinner — at home.

Another couple abandoned their dream of leaving Manhattan and returning to their native New England when their daughter went off to college. She vetoed the idea in two sentences: “Where are my friends and I going to stay when we visit the city? And where am I supposed to live during the summer?” End of plan.

We are an individualistic culture — but individualism unchecked can set the stage for infantilism that persists into adulthood. We all come into the world as narcissists, the center of our own universe. A parent’s task is to cultivate an adult who can get along in the real world, to create a caring person from a mass of narcissistic impulses. It’s hard work. Children don’t naturally welcome boundaries. In fact, they greet them with open hostility. This is what a tantrum is. A parent’s (exhausting) job is to consistently impose external boundaries and tolerate the consequences — “You may not speak to me in that tone of voice” — so that a child internalizes the idea of limits and becomes a civilized adult.

There is no more concrete boundary than the doorway to your home. Keep it open indefinitely and offspring who are unclear or afraid of adult responsibilities will gladly cross that threshold — and plop themselves down expectantly on the living room sofa like the family cat.

A brief post-graduate stay at home works if money is a major issue, or there are other extenuating circumstances that require a return to the nest. Setting clear limits is key (“You can stay for three months …) and expectations are set (“we know you are capable, and we will help you if you need us”). When parents allow children to lounge on that sofa for too long, they’re not assisting them. They’re cutting their legs out from under them and losing their respect in the bargain.

More posts about parenting:
Advice for Parents of Millennials (July 19, 2013)
Does A College Rejection Letter Mean You’re a “Loser”? (March 20, 2013)
Working Families (March 5, 2013)
Divorce and Parenting (February 7, 2013)
Bye Bye Baby — Seeing a Child Off to College (July 30, 2012)