Boomerang children need special rules

Michael Tovani sweeps the inside of the coffee shop where he works, as his mother Chrystina Tovani waits for him to get off work to drive him home. Michael and his parents have had some difficulty figuring out the protocol when an adult child who's been out on his own moves back in with mom and dad for financial reasons.

Michael Tovani sweeps the inside of the coffee shop where he works, as his mother Chrystina Tovani waits for him to get off work to drive him home. Michael and his parents have had some difficulty figuring out the protocol when an adult child who's been out on his own moves back in with mom and dad for financial reasons.

photo

(Bryan Patrick/The Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Michael Tovani with his mother Chrystina Tovani, outside in front of his work place.

Mom’s side: He’s 20 now. He’s been out on his own. Now he’s come back home to live. So why can’t he at least screw the lid back on the jelly jar and put it away? And wipe down the sticky counter, too?

Son’s side: I’m 20 now. I’ve been out on my own. I’m just living at home briefly until I get back on my feet. None of my old roommates ever seemed bothered that I left the jelly out. Maybe mom should just chill.

Sometimes it’s the little things, those niggling annoyances, that best exemplify the shifting family dynamic when an adult child returns home to live with mom and dad after having flown the nest.

Independence can clash with interdependence for so-called “boomerang kids,” ages about 20 to 26 adults who find themselves jobless in a rough economy or who are just trying to find themselves during a stage of life fraught with upheaval. And their parents, with households suddenly repopulated, often wonder what the new rules are, whether to go back to guiding and mentoring, or try to live and let live.

Then again, sometimes a jelly jar is just a jelly jar.

“Living in the environment I was in (before moving back),” said Michael Tovani, 20, “it wasn’t like getting nagged by your parents all the time.”

“But did you put away the jelly?” asked his mom, Chrystina.

“No, and they didn’t care. But even if they did, they weren’t going to get on your case about it.”

Mother and son seemed more amused than annoyed by the Great Jelly Jar Controversy as they sat sipping iced teas in a cafe near their Carmichael, Calif., home. Michael’s father, Brad, apparently cast himself in the Switzerland role in the dispute and was not available to weigh in.

A challenging time

You can tell by their easygoing banter, their frequent smiles, that Michael and Chrystina have a great relationship, one that can withstand the occasional sticky kitchen counter. But that’s not to say there haven’t been adjustments on both sides since June, when Michael moved back after two years working and taking college classes in the Bay Area.

Michael has struggled to maintain a semblance of freedom back under his parents’ roof. He reminds himself it’s only temporary, he’ll pay off his credit-card debt, take classes at American River College to bulk up his general education credits, then get a degree that he hopes will lead to a career as an electronic musician. And to independence.

Chrystina, meanwhile, is coping with the financial burden and the decrease in the sense of freedom she and Brad enjoyed after the initial departure of their only child. They had moved into a smaller home and cut way back on their food bill. Now, Michael is sleeping on the couch and, as his mom said only half-jokingly, “going through a gallon of milk a day.”

“I want to make this work because this is also a special time,” she added. “It’s not like, ‘Ugh, it’s horrible.’ I want to enjoy Michael now because I don’t know when he’s going to move again. ... But it can be confusing. You think you’re finished parenting when they turn 18, and then they come back and there’s this whole different set of issues. Nobody taught us this.”

For his part, Michael is grateful that his parents took him back. “I respect their situation,” he said. “We’re all struggling right now.”

Changing stats

Census figures in 2007 showed that 43 percent of men and 38 percent of women ages 20 to 24 were living with their parents. Today, more than twice the number of adult children still live at home as in 1960, even adjusting for population growth.

In most cases, it’s not the slacker child sponging off mom and dad or so-called helicopter parents unable to let go, writes Richard Setterson in the soon-to-be- published book “Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone.”

Rather, he writes: “When living at home is done strategically, it can ensure more positive outcomes for kids who would likely be treading harder or sinking faster during the early-adult years. Living at home can help young adults emerge with stronger skills and richer resources to get them launched.”

Peers or parents?

That doesn’t guarantee a conflict-free path to relaunching. House rules and ingrained habits can be in flux. When Chrystina first learned late last spring that Michael was moving back, she had questions. Not necessarily about why, she knew and sympathized with his financial burdens. It was more practical: how to make it all work.

“What’s the right thing to do?” she asked. “Do you charge your child rent? But if you charge rent, will the child think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re doing this to me’? ... If you charge rent, does that give him the right to have people over to party or do whatever? Should he tell us where he’s going when he leaves the house? I respect his independence, but isn’t that common courtesy? Where are the guidelines that tell you what’s OK?”

Where, indeed?

Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist who writes the “Teen Talk” column that appears in The Bee’s Living Here: Family section every Tuesday, had no handbook when she moved back with her parents for nearly a year after graduate school. While she recalls her experience as mostly positive, she did point to pitfalls.

“Here’s where the conflict arises: The young adult sees it as (an) adult-adult (relationship),” Richardson said. “Parents always see it as parent-child. Some parents can never get beyond that. For the young adults, it’s more like being peers.

“For four years (in college), they’ve not been micromanaged by anybody. But Mom is still feeling like, ‘Well, you’re in my house, you’ll still pick up your room.’”

Both Richardson and Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, said every family is different but that all parents need to delicately balance their waning authority with their child’s budding autonomy.

Rent matters

Should you charge kids rent? “A lot depends on finances,” DeBenedetti-Emanuel said, “but I don’t think it’s unreasonable. ... Being 22 years old and hanging out and catching Jerry Springer in the afternoon isn’t acceptable.”

If the parents charge rent, does that mean the child should have expanded freedom to, say, stay out late or have the boyfriend or girlfriend sleep over?

“With increased financial contribution should come increased privileges,” DeBenedetti-Emanuel said. “A lot of it depends on a parent’s values system. If (you) don’t believe in having sex before you’re married, to have your son bring a girlfriend to spend the night, that’s challenging and parents have the right to say, ‘I’m not OK with this.’”

Richardson said that during her extended stay at home after college, her boyfriend slept in a separate room when he visited.

“Kids have to come in with respect that it’s still the parents’ house,” she said. “There need to be pre- established rules, and everybody’s going to have to give a little.”

Like the old days

The Tovanis had no major summit meeting when Michael asked to move back. Knowing his debts, Michael’s parents decided not to charge rent. But Chrystina said she and her husband talked a lot about logistics and how to maintain the family equilibrium.

“We had a chance to spread our wings, too, when he was gone,” she said. “We had gotten set in our ways.”

With Michael back, Chrystina has returned to buying the “$2 Safeway loaf of bread” instead of the fancy Trader Joe’s loaf. She finds herself running the dishwasher and washing machine much more often. In that respect, she said, it’s like the old days.

But Michael said he helps out when he can, buying a gallon of milk or filling up the gas tank. He’s working at a Peet’s Coffee in Sacramento while taking classes at American River College, but nearly all his salary goes toward paying off debts to former roommates and the credit-card company, and paying his bare-bones cell phone bill.

“I’m waiting for some federal aid (for college) to come in,” he said. “But I’m doing what I can now.”

He said he learned lessons during his first taste of freedom, when he attended Foothill College in Los Altos Hills and lived in a rented house in San Jose with seven others, some of whom bailed on the rent. Later, he moved to a studio apartment with his girlfriend and his cousin.

But Michael had trouble paying $500 a month in rent after losing his part-time job at an In-N-Out Burger. Then his girlfriend broke up with him. He knew it was time to reboot and move back.

“By the end, I was prepared for it,” he said of moving back. “I was looking forward to the things back here. I actually feel positive about this, because now I have something to work toward instead of just surviving.”

Neither Michael nor Chrystina knows how long he’ll stay. Most work for electronic musicians is in Europe, he said, so after his schooling, he may head overseas.

But he knows this: The next time he leaves the nest, he’ll have a definitive plan to make it on his own.

“I think,” Michael said, “I’ve grown up a bit.”

Up, but not yet out.

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