Monday, April 27, 2009

The CHILD Trap

Bounceback Kids who end up living in your basement are more than a minor nuisance.  And yet many parents encourage this behavior.  The goal, with children, is to launch them, not keep them as pets.

I suppose after writing my diatribe about smothering parents, I should give equal time to other side of the coin - The Child Trap. For many people, enduring their childhood takes up nearly 1/3 of their life. The end up spending the next 1/3 trying to break free of it. And if they are lucky, maybe they get to live the last 1/3 as themselves.

For parents, a similar trap can occur. Raising children takes decades, and if they never leave the home, you may end up spending your whole life either as a child, or a perpetual parent, never having time to live your own life.

Many parents often find themselves financially strapped by actions of their children, who refuse to grow up and leave home, and as a result end up being a lifelong financial burden to their parents.

Granted, when you decide to have children, there is always that risk that your child may have some debilitating mental or physical illness that necessitates that you care for them for their lifetime. Autism or physical disabilities, for example, may mean that your child requires lifelong care. And while many parents approach such situations in a loving manner, it can be a difficult situation for the parent financially, and since most children outlive their parents, planning for the child's later care can be difficult.

But that is not the sort of Child Trap I am talking about. I am talking about perfectly able children who refuse to leave home or return home, and subsequently make life difficult for their parents. In some ways, this posting may be redundant with The Marijuana Trap, previously posted.

This occurs particularly in suburban, middle-class homes.  The children involved are not retarded or otherwise disadvantaged.  On the contrary, often they are brighter than average.  But often, low self-esteem issues, combined with drugs, leads them to the security of Mom and Dad's basement, instead of the risk of leading their own lives.

As a child, one of the most intimidating things to think about is how one will transition from the role of dependent to that of independence. Visualizing yourself as a money-making independent person no longer relying on your parents for food, clothing, and shelter, is a difficult and daunting task. And for some children, this transition is never made, or takes much longer than necessary.

You can do well in school, get good grades, and be President of the Student Council, but still not be able to find and keep a job. Let's face it, the skills you learn in high school and college have little or nothing to do with the skills you need to get and keep a job. School provides you with a good background, nothing more. Most of the skills we use in our jobs we learn on-the-job.

In Engineering School, for example, they told us, "We can't teach you to be an Engineer, only how to THINK like one. You'll learn how to be an Engineer on the job." Funny thing, too, because in Law School, they said the same thing, only about lawyers. And both schools were right. Designing an electrical controller for production is something you have to do day in and out to learn, as is writing a legal brief. School provides only the background, not the actual training.

So it is entirely possible that even straight-A students often lose their way from graduation to finding (and keeping) that first job. And not surprisingly, the late teenage years and early 20's are the time when most mental illnesses first manifest themselves. There are a number of theories why this is, of course. However, I think the stress of trying to figure out where you "fit in" to society is part of it.

In a way, I was lucky, in that at age 18, I became a salaried employee of General Motors. General Motors Institute, where I studied, was like the military. You were given a lot of responsibility early on, and no one questioned your capability to do the job. This was a probably the best education a young man could have - to be told early on that you can do things and there is a place you fit in. While most of my peers were smoking dope and living with their parents, I was working for a large corporation, had full medical care and a company car. It was a heady experience.

But even though I never finished the program at GMI, it was a valuable experience, as I became accustomed to the idea of having a job, a career, and moreover was already trained in the workplace long before graduation. Few young people have such opportunities, except perhaps in the military.

Most of my peers graduated from College at age 22, never having worked at a real job. Oh, sure, many had summer jobs as lifeguards or working in the mall. But few actually were able to snag internships or co-op positions in their field of study. Getting that all-important first job is a difficult task, and a daunting one at that. Delaying the process with graduate school can only make it worse, even though you might end up technically more qualified.

As alluded to earlier, drug and alcohol abuse can exacerbate the problem. In my blog The Marijuana Trap, I've illustrated how that drug tends to make one anti-social, paranoid and virtually unemployable. The rise in stay-at-home adult children and returning children is directly related to the use of that (and other) drugs. Marijuana users who "start things" with their employers tend to end up unemployed. Moreover, a collage career marked by excessive drug use and mediocre grades is not one that will land that important first job.

As a result, a large number of young people, from middle class backgrounds, who are intelligent and could otherwise be productive people, end up unemployed or underemployed and never leaving home, or returning home after one setback or another. The college graduate ends up working at "McJobs", often in retail or manual labor, and getting fired or laid off often - usually accompanied by a long-winded story about how the boss was an "asshole."

For such children, the "real world" seems a scary and hostile place. Staying at home is a way of remaining a child just a few years longer - a way to stay in a safe, warm, and fuzzy place. But safe, warm, and fuzzy can also be smothering, and staying at home with your parents is often the worst thing, mentally, a young adult can do.

Many parents end up in despair over these bounced-back children. Will they ever leave home? Will they ever amount to anything? And will they ever clean up their room?

As the old saying goes, "it takes two to tango", and as a Parent, you need to take assertive steps to make sure you "launch" your children into the world in such a way that they take flight, and don't return to the nest again and again. The following are some suggestions, based on some real-world experiences:

1. Built Your Child's Self-Esteem: I have used the example of the hapless friend more than once. He was a classic bounce-back child who ended up living at home after graduation from college. A chronic marijuana smoker, his grades in college were only so-so. And showing up stoned for job interviews certainly didn't help land that first job. How did this happen? Well the answers are numerous. Not all of us have strong personalities or can stand up for ourselves. And mental health is a frail thing. But his parents did little to help him in this regard, and in fact, damaged him severely.

His Father, in particular, took every opportunity to run my friend down. Well, he did that to all his kids, but for some reason, my friend seemed a particular target. When he was an adolescent, his Father bullied him into signing up for "Pop" Warner football. His Father was convinced that all of his sons should play football as a character-building exercise. But rather than actually spending time with his kids playing football and instilling a love of the game in us, he expected them to just take it up, and of course, excel in it.

My friend signed up, desperate for some affection from his Father. But his Dad never went to any of his games or practices, he just groused about the inconvenience of having to drive my friend back and forth to practices. My friend was miserable. He knew no one on the team, and having no skills, was constantly yelled at by the coach. He decided to quit.

This further infuriated his Dad. On the day my friend quit, his father made him go before the whole team and announce he was a "quitter". When my friend was playing, his father took little interest. But the act of quitting was an opportunity for him to teach my friend a "character lesson". For hours and even days afterwords, his father harangued my friend as "Mr. Quitter" who would "Never amount to anything."

"For the rest of your life," his Father said, "you'll be known as 'Mr. Quitter'. Wherever you go, people will say, 'hey, there's the guy who QUIT Pop Warner football! You might as well give up on getting into a good college, once they find out what a quitter you are!"

It went on and on this way. In case you haven't guessed by now, his Dad was a first class asshole. While we might laugh at such a harangement as adults (or punch someone who says things like that in the face), to a young adolescent, going through the throes of puberty, trying to determine what it means to be a Man, such a verbal and public castration was devastating.

And yet my friend's experience is not that unusual. I've seen many a parent say to their children, even young children, that "you're stupid" or "you'll never amount to anything" or "you're no good". Such degrading comments become self-fulfilling prophesies.

People have children for all the wrong reasons. They think their children will be little clones of themselves, or perhaps (as noted in The Parent Trap) an audience for their lives.  Some people even have children as status symbols.  The reality is that children often end up doing weird and spooky things that may disgust and embarrass you. They wet their beds or poop their pants. They suck their thumbs until age 10. They act inappropriately in public. They develop strange and bizarre tastes in music, clothing, and appearance.

The teenage years in particular, can be problematic, as teens exhibit bizarre behavior as they go through their hormonal stages. Many parents see this as a chance to "correct" their child's disturbing behavior by browbeating or belittling their kids. If you want them living in your basement at age 30, this is a sure way to go about it.

As I noted in The Parent Trap, every generation has its own ideas, and usually these ideas are an anathema to the generation before. But the next generation has to live in their own world, not ours. So it doesn't matter that I don't like "rap" music, or that I think tattoos are trashy and body piercings ugly and disturbing. That's the style of a younger generation, and decrying it does little more than mark me as a "geezer".

Similarly, trying to squash or belittle the hopes and dreams of your children is counter-productive. My friend wanted to get into radio or maybe become a journalist. His father belittled these goals and told him he should get into "business" - without really taking any time to explain how to do so, or get him interested in the field.

The point is, what worked for the previous generation might not work for the next. And unnecessarily belittling your children's dreams only insures that they will have none.

If you want your kids to succeed in life, you have to be supportive of them all the way. Pissing on their parade will not accomplish anything.

2. Don't Let Them Back In: When I left GMI, I moved back in with my parents - for a total of four days. My father did not want me back home, and the feeling was mutual. I found a job an apartment of my own within a few days. Other parents are more accommodating - feeling sorry for their failed children, offer them food and shelter on a long-term basis.

While it may seem compassionate to help an adult child by giving them a place to live, it also ends up being smothering. In far too many instances, this ends up being a long-term live-in arrangement.

It is possible for an adult child to support themselves and have their own place. But it does require hard work and sacrifice on their part. In many situations, I see young people living with their parents, but driving brand-new cars. The basement family room is made over into a bachelor pad, complete with wall-screen television, hi-fi system, and a waterbed. It is not that the adult child cannot support themselves, but that they cannot live as wealthy a lifestyle without the "free rent" and free meals from their parent's house.

And I have seen a number of young people do just this. And it is crippling. Instead of looking for a better job or trying to improve their careers, such young people end up working at low-paying jobs, making just enough to buy the toys and things they want in life. Having to support myself, I worked to get a better job, with more pay, so I could get a better apartment and live a better life.

Many parents will say that they "don't mind" having the adult child living at home. And in some respects, this is true. Some parents like having the child at home, as it staves off the loneliness in life and provides them with a companion - like a pet. For single parents, this is particularly true.

Other parents will argue that the adult child helps out with the chores, or helps pay a token amount of rent, thus making life easier for them. This may also be true, but in the long-term, is it what is best for the both of you?

Note also, as set forth in my blog Emotional Vampires, some parents also like having the returned child at home, as it gives them something to bitch about all the time. They like to regale their friends with stories about their failed child's inadequacies, in a perverse sort of way (See also, The Parent Trap). They like to nail themselves to the cross and elicit sympathy from others, as if to say , "Look at me, bearing this burden!" when in fact the burden was taken up freely and willingly.

Being firm and saying "no" to the returning child is often the best approach. And if your child has drug or alcohol problems, probably doubly so. If you provide free room and board to a 20-something or 30-something child who spends all day smoking dope, you are merely enabling his drug habit. Tossing him or her out of the house will force them to fend for themselves - and perhaps force them to chose between a life of drugs, and a real life.

3. How to Get Them Out - Presuming that you really want to get the kids out of the house (and don't have some sick need to keep them home) there are ways to get them to leave. And failing that, there are ways to make it so if they do stay, you are not a doormat. Here are some suggestions.

Charge Rent: It only makes sense that an adult should contribute to the cost of maintaining the household. Charging your adult children rent as a condition of them staying on the property is a good way of conditioning them to support themselves. Also, once they get used to the idea of paying rent, the idea of paying rent for an apartment of their own does not seem so onerous. There are two possible pitfalls with this scheme, however. First, once you start charging (and receiving) rent, you formalize the relationship with the child, and they may assume they have the "right" to live at home, as they are paying rent (and who knows, under the law, they might). Second, make sure your rent is onerous enough to encourage them to leave. Charging a below-market rent will insure only that they stay. Of course, if the child refuses to, or never pays the rent, what do you do then?

Never Co-Sign a Loan! - This is probably a good subject for another short article. I've seen many parents co-sign loans for cars for their live-in kids. Not only are you liable for the loan balance (in most instances, the co-signer on a loan ends up making at least some payments on it) but the debt and monthly cash flow requirement insures that the child cannot "afford" to rent their own apartment. A child does not "need" a brand-new car to "get to work" particularly when they don't have a job in the first place. Buying them a car (which in essence you are doing) first, before they get a job, is backwards. You get a job, and then earn enough to buy a car. That's how that works.

Enforce the Rules: It is your house, and you don't have to be a doormat for adult children in a game of passive-aggressiveness. One parent regaled me with a tale of how his returned son never does dishes. The son lived in the basement, avoided the parents during the day and late at night would come up to the kitchen to eat, like some Troglodyte. The next morning, the parents would be appalled to find a sink full of dirty dishes. After getting sick and tired of cleaning up the dirty dishes, they decided to just leave them in the sink. That didn't work, as the child would just eat off dirty dishes, or wash only what he needed and return it to the sink.

There are creative ways around this. The Father took all the dishes out of the sink and put them on the child's bed. That's one approach, I guess, that avoids direct confrontation. Unfortunately for him, Grandma stopped by, and having sympathy for the child, washed all the dishes for him (Once again, the Helpful Grandma raises her ugly head, See Emotional Vampires).

I suggested that he simply put away all the dishes in the attic, except for a very few plates and cups for three people. That way, at least, the number of dishes that would need to be washed at any given time would not rise to staggering heights. Keeping dishes for eight or ten around with a son like that only means that you end up with eight or ten place settings in the sink.

There really is no way to get around this without confrontation, and since most parents want to avoid confrontation with their adult children, they continually back down. But here is really no reason an unemployed adult child should not help with the basic chores around the house. Letting your adult kids live at home is bad enough, waiting on them like servants is worse.

By the way, such behavior in adult children should be screaming to you that they are probably using drugs and are also suffering from depression. Catering to depressed people by waiting on them only encourages the feelings of helplessness, dependency, and worthlessness. Even a simple task like doing dishes can help instill self-esteem. Having your adult child help around the house could help them as well. But don't be surprised if they call you a "fascist" for asking them to do the dishes, particularly if they have been smoking pot.

Stake Them: Unfortunately, it may be necessary to pay the security deposit on an apartment and give the child some money in order to get them to leave. Banks have to do this all the time with foreclosures - offering "key money" to a tenant or occupant, to leave quietly and hand in the keys. It may sound wrong, but in the long run, it can be less costly. If the kid has a job (or can find one) help them find an apartment, get them in it, hand them the keys and say "good luck".

Then change the locks on your house so they don't come back.

Avoid the "Drop-By" Child: It is tempting for an adult child living near home to "drop in" now and then and use the laundry machine, raid the refrigerator, and the like. And I hate to admit it, when I was in college, I used to do just that. But it does invade the privacy of the parents, and should be discouraged.

My father, upon remarrying, discovered that he had adopted three such "drop by" children without his knowlege. Well into their 30's and 40's, his new step-daughters were quite accustomed to stopping by to use the laundry machines and see what was in the refrigerator. My Father, not used to this arrangment, had a fit one day, when he came home for lunch, only to find his step-daughter in the kitchen, eating it.

And unfortunately, he backed down. His new wife convinced him that her children were somehow damaged goods that needed the home to come back to, for occasional raids on the pantry and laundry. Not only did my Father back down, he ended up apologizing to the step-daughter who ate his lunch. After all, it was his fault that he didn't properly mark the pork chops as his, right? And he could afford more pork chops, right?

If you want to live that way, fine. But I suggest it is a poor way to live and it instills dependency on the children.

Move: One way to get rid of a live-in child is to move. This may sound extreme, but it sometimes is practical. If you are older and retired, you may be contemplating moving to a smaller house, an apartment, a retirement community, or another State where the cost of living is less. Some parents put these plans on "hold" because of live-in adult children, which is a very bad idea.

Rather than put off your dreams because your child refuses to live theirs, just move. Tell your son or daughter that the home is too large and expensive for you to maintain and you've decided to downsize. Lie if you have to. Sell the house and move to a new place where there is no spare bedroom, and no pull-out sofa. If you are in another State, so much the better.

4. Addicted or Dangerous Children: One heartbreaking scenario is when a child becomes a drug addict or has severe mental or emotional problems. Such children can be dangerous and you should consult a professional. One friend of mine had an adult daughter who became a junky. The reasons are many - and the low self-esteem beat into her by her Father was part of the deal, of course. But as they say, you can't un-bark the dog, and being a co-dependent later on out of a feeling of guilt doesn't make up for poor parenting earlier on.

The junkie daughter moved back home and of course started stealing from her parents to support her habit. She got arrested, and her parents spent small fortunes on lawyers to keep her out of jail and in re-hab. She would return from re-hab and return to drugs. She started bringing home unsavory friends to her parent's house. The house was broken into several times, and parents suspected these friends, if in fact the breakins were not staged by their daughter.

Such a scenario is a nightmare for a parent. At a time in their lives they hoped to be retired and secure, they are living with a dangerous addict and in fear for their personal safety. They eventually were able to get rid of their drug-addicted daughter by giving her bus fare for Los Angeles and making it clear she was not welcome back. For a parent, this is no doubt a hard thing to do, and the mindless recrimination from other folks (who have never had to deal with an addicted family member) certainly doesn't help.

The daughter ended up being homeless for a while, but she learned to survive. Nearly 60 today, she is still a drug addict, now living with (and off) her own grown adult children, in a reverse scenario of the bounce-back child.

Others are less fortunate. Children with severe mental problems (schizophrenia, psychosis) can end up becoming violent and threatening or harming their parents or themselves - and the same is true with drug addicts. I wish I had some helpful advice for such situations, but those things are probably left to the professionals. My only comment is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has such children, don't be judgmental of their actions if they seem unusually cruel in refusing to take their children back in or support them.

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