When Adult Children Return Home: The Collision of the Empty Nesters and Boomerangs


by Patricia Skellie, Psy.D.

Many baby boomers, the greatest generation in my opinion, and millennials face a challenge relating to family dynamics. At times, words are misspoken, or interpreted as hurtful when what is really happening is a failure to understand how different generations view the world, their lives, and their own priorities in life.

In most cases, the older generations were expected to fend for themselves when they reached a certain age, usually 18 years. Parents had completed the launching of their children into adulthood by raising them to maturity and it was now the adult children’s responsibility to find employment and care for themselves. They had to find a place to call their own, start a family, and raise their own children. The need for support may have been in the form of an occasional “loan” (but not a “grant”) for financial support, a shoulder to cry on, and advice when necessary. However, parents never expected to “owe” unending support for bad choices, limited attempts at self-reliance, or failure to take responsibility for their adult child’s own actions.

Over the past quarter century expectations of some adult children have become more about “what can you do to solve my problems” rather than “how can you help me solve my problems.” Blame for setbacks or failures are often attributed to the amorphous “they” meaning parents, employers, the government, or anyone or anything else.

Empty Nest

As a result, two types of effects have begun to occur. One the “empty nest” occurs when parents who have raised their children, sent them on their life’s journey, now have time to enjoy each other. To some this comes with a sigh of relief and a feeling of accomplishment; for others a feeling of loss, lack of purpose, and emptiness.

For the former, life has entered a new phase and the couple sees opportunities that were once delayed now possible. For the latter whose life was totally invested in making their children happy and tending to the needs of those children, they now lack purpose and may begin to view their future with fear, angst, and depression.

The Boomerang Child

The second effect “the boomerang child” happens when the “launched” child suddenly appears on the “empty nester’s” doorstep with any number of reasons why they need to come back home and get help restarting their adult life. How the empty nesters respond will have lasting effects on the parent-child relationship. Establishing a plan that includes all parties and their respective responsibilities is essential both during the temporary reunion of the family and the end goal of the restarted adulthood.

Some life events can be expected to throw a curve in the child’s attempts at “being on their own.” Poor job markets after college, technical school, or high school graduation; high costs of getting established; personal relationship issues like divorce or separation; and in some cases medical or mental health issues are serious and can adversely impact the adult child, their children, and their parents. Though these events are all serious, they can be resolved if everyone works together to find solutions that benefit the parent and the child.

Visit – Vacation

First, all involved must agree that this situation is called a “Visit,” not a vacation. Checkout time is not negotiable and the facility does not provide maid service, room service, or a mint on the pillow unless you provide your own mint. In other words, if you are the “boomerang child,” do not expect to have a free ride.

Reset, Restart or Homestead

Remember there is a time limit and there must be a set amount of time that will be allowed for the “reset,” “restart,” or in some cases a “one night stand.” Do not expect that by your returning you have established your homestead. The claim will be denied and can be nullified at any time. (See House Rules below.)

House Rules

Establishing boundaries, expectations of shared responsibilities, and/or grounds for eviction must be settled up front. A simple list should suffice:

  1. No yelling, fighting, or abuse of the contents or inhabitants. Do not be disrespectful of your benefactors and visitors, don’t break stuff, and clean up your messes.
  2. You may legally drink adult beverages, use recreational drugs, but not in this home. Only one violation of this rule is needed to be removed from the home. Case closed. (Actually this rule should prevent the need for rule 1 in most cases.)
  3. Anyone invited into the home will be invited by the parent or with their consent. This is your temporary home, but it is not a “hang out” for your new friends. Again see rule 2; it applies to visitors as well.

Who’s in Charge

Both the parents and the child must agree that only one authority exists. The parents are the final arbiter when it comes to settling disputes. When children or grandchildren are involved, the parent is responsible for ensuring that the house rules are followed. If children are not disciplined by the visiting parent, the authority will hold the child’s parents responsible.


Be clear about what is expected and what will happen if the expectations are not met. Similar to a pre-nuptial agreement-both parties never expect something bad to happen, but in case it does. Just sayin’.

Reasons for Staying and Reasons to Leave

Goals tend to be more achievable if greater benefits are realized by the goal setter. Start a list of all the good that will come after the adult child can once again live on his or her own. Make it a giant list; the more benefits the more likely the goal will be achieved.

Then build a list of circumstances that will prevent the visiting adult child from leaving and start a plan of action for solving each of these reasons. In similar fashion, establish a list of needed steps to allow the adult child to leave on his or her own terms with respect or with their tail between their legs. (Re-read above rules for examples of how the latter could occur.)

Love or License

It is one thing to love unconditionally, but unconditional love does not grant a license to abuse the source of love or expect no consequences for bad behavior. Often, unconditional love means doing what is best for all involved, even the adult child, even though it does not “feel” good.

The bottom line is that for the situation to be a positive experience, all involved must give a little, accept some role changes, and be willing to build a plan that will benefit everyone involved. By turning a stressful situation into a chance to reconnect, the family can enjoy some very close and personal time with loved ones.