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The Empty Nest, Or Is It?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Remember the television advertisement in which parents and son say a tearful goodbye to one another as the son heads off to college? Then, immediately after he leaves the parents break out into joyful smiles and laughter as they turn their son’s newly unoccupied room into a den and sewing room. According a July 14, 2007 in the business section of The New York Times the empty nest is a thing of the past for parents and their adult children.

Today many young people return to live in their parent’s home after graduating from College. The reasons for this are many and complex. For example, most young people are saddled with heavy debts from four years of college education. These loans have to start being paid 6 months to one year after graduating. The costs of these loans combined with the costs of living independently make it impossible for many people to start their lives separate from the homes in which they grew up. Rather than have their recent college graduated children return home other parent pay their rent and even their monthly school loans after they get jobs and settle into their own apartments. To complicate things even further starting salaries in many professions and fields of work are too low for these young people to truly function on their own without a lot of assistance.

Even if children do not want to accept assistance from their parents after graduation many must do so if they planned to continue their education and training into graduate schools. Graduate degrees are absolute requirements for many professions. However, the tuition costs of graduate programs add additional heavy debt to what was already accumulated during four to six years of undergraduate leaning.

The article discusses the financial impact of these facts on the "nest egg" parents have accumulated in anticipation of retirement after their children became independent. The title of the Times article states it clearly: it is not nest that becomes empty but the "nest egg" as parents use their savings and assets to support children into their twenties and thirties.

What is the emotional impact of children moving back home?

While it true that supporting adult children into their twenties and thirties impacts on the finances of the parents, the article does not report the emotional impact of all concerned. Of course, this was reported in the Business section, and not where one would expect a psychological discussion to occur.

Emotionally, for both parents and children, returning home represents an extension of adolescence for everyone in the family and this may not be pleasant for anyone. For example, many parents find it difficult to accept the fact that their adult children are not children but are full adults. As a result, conflict can occur if parents insist on waiting up late for their son or daughter to come home from a late night date or party. Some ill advised parents may even attempt to set up the "house rules" from when their children were fourteen and fifteen years old. Such rules may come in the form of curfews and other archaic rules.

Even if the children are not living home but are being financially supported by their parents as they live and work or attend graduate school in cities far from home, some parents use money to attempt to assert control over their sons and daughters.

These college graduates, forced to depend upon parents far longer than they wish to, often experience the old conflicts from earlier days when they were fighting to establish independence and autonomy.

Parents and children, despite their best intentions, discover that old wounds and resentments open up again. Even the most willing and supportive parents in the world may experience resentment and anger at having to spend money that had been put away for leisure or retirement in their later years. In addition, parents may have to extend the amount of time they have to continue to work after they had intended to retire.

Then too, I have heard many parents and young people complain and worry about their situation. Some parents have told me how worried they were that their adult children were back home because this was not what they experienced. They asked if their children were normal or if they had done something wrong. At the same time, Sons and daughers have sat in my office and reported that they felt "pathetic" because they were still living home or accepting financial help from parents. The truth is that nothing about the situation is abnormal or pathetic. It is just the way things are today and the Times article confirms this.

None if this is to suggest that all families experience these types of difficulties. In some circumstances young people may be able to work and function after graduating without parental assistance. Other families may not experience the types of stresses and strains being discussed here after children return home. It’s the old story about having to careful about generalizing to everyone. However, it is also true that there is a new economic reality today as compared to the last generation. That reality has caused adolescence to extend much later into life than was previously true and this has made life difficult for many.

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