Thriving as a Family when Addiction or Mental Illness Brings Adult Children Home Again
For myriad reasons, it often happens that our adult children move back home for a time following financial hardships. We welcome them with open arms, nostalgic and happy to be supportive. We assume the move is temporary and that in short order they will resume independent lives. However, in the context of addiction recovery and severe mental illness, many of us find ourselves incurring long term financial costs and imposition without an end game in sight.
Relating to Our Adult Children
The transition from adolescence into adulthood is rough under the best of circumstances. There is usually a profound change in how we relate to one another once we are no longer in a position of authority. While our relations become far more egalitarian in nature, on an emotional level, they remain our kids. There’s a residual protectiveness that makes setting and maintaining boundaries difficult.
Mistakes to Avoid
Not Establishing Limits
The biggest mistake parents of adult children tend to make is offering support without clearly established limits and mutually understood expectations. When we fail to be clear early on, we may feel as though we have no right to revise arrangements later. Resentment becomes inevitable and progressive when we choose not to communicate our wants, needs, and feelings. At any juncture, we are free to revise our arrangements, but doing so often feels awkward and stressful.
Revisiting Old Wounds
Whatever dysfunction or difficulty existed prior to our adult children moving home assuredly remains and can be problematic. While dealing with both the needs that brought them to return home and finding the solutions to current problems, now is not the time to revisit old wounds. I encourage folks to maintain a focus on today forward. Addressing the past with people who are overwhelmed never creates positive outcomes. First we attain stability and security, then we seek to reconcile the past.
As in any other part of life I caution family members: assume nothing. It’s entirely possible that our adult children want some level of involvement from us in addressing current needs, but we need to ask what that looks like. We must not take ownership of their struggles nor can we presume to know what is best. Presumptions and assumptions are made individually or in tandem with our partners and spouses. They are not made collectively. Open and honest dialogue ensures clarity and prevents rescue attempts, enmeshment and/or inadvertently crossing boundaries (even with good intentions).
When our expectations are not met (needs unmet, issues that brought them home remain unresolved) levels of stress individually and collectively increase. The pitfalls here are many. We can easily become angry with one another and often threats and ultimatums follow. In this way, emotional distance becomes relational divide.
Approaches to Embrace
Working as a Team
In working with families I consistently find that whatever happens to one person in a family will affect all members of a family, directly and/or indirectly. Living together amplifies these affects. Those of us who have partners or spouses need to be a unified front. If we work as a team we won’t feel isolated or allow our partnership to be negatively impacted by the needs of our children. United we support one another. Divided we choose sides.
Making Clear Plans
Accountability is key to any change process. Whatever plans are being established, they need to be communicated in very specific terms (who, what, where, when) and they need to be measurable (defined outcomes). Tolerating descriptions from our adult children regarding overly vague goals (examples: “I’m gonna look for a job.” Or “I’m going to work on getting sober.” or “I’m going to try to take better care of myself) does nothing to promote our understanding of what to expect.
Getting Outside Help
To the greatest degree possible, utilizing outside resources ensures not only better outcomes but also reduces stress on the family unit. While many of us struggle to accept support from people outside of our families, we need to be realistic regarding the scope of our challenges and our ability and willingness to overcome them. Our goal is to promote autonomy and reduce dependence. Achieving this often requires incrementally reducing the support we offer and requiring that it be sought elsewhere.
Feeling Trapped & Obligated
What we most want is an outcome that meets everyone’s needs. Sometimes this simply isn’t attainable. The mistake that parents and caregivers most often make is to hang in there until they’re burned out. What follows is almost assuredly regrettable. If we find that we cannot afford to continue (financially, emotionally, physically) to maintain status quo, then we have a responsibility to ourselves and our loved ones to determine and to share very clearly what the limits of our support will be.
Sometimes the people we love stay stuck. They fail to make necessary changes, follow through with treatment, or otherwise remain overwhelmed. While our love for them endures, our loyalties are stretched. It’s completely disheartening and the solutions are often counterintuitive.
Sometimes the very best thing we can do for our adult children is require that they move on. Think of it as catapulting someone out of quicksand. It would not be their preferred method but it will certainly help them get unstuck. Leaving our comfort zone is not something we do without sufficient motivation. There are myriad conditions and circumstances that rob people of motivation (depression, addiction, anxiety/fear).
There’s an adage that folks most often change when the fear of staying the same outweighs the fear of change. My experience is that those scales can stay balanced for a long time so give them a push, give them 30 days notice; give them help in getting their own home if you can. Give them all of the ongoing support and encouragement you can; just don’t make it comfortable for them to stay stuck.
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