How to Get Your Adult Child Out of Your Basement and Into a Thriving, Independent Life

As a couples and family therapist, I have heard numerous…

  • distressing stories of 20, 30, 40, and even 50 somethings still living in their parents’ basement using drugs, playing video games, or just hanging out (with perpetual and creative reasons they cannot work or live on their own).
  • painful stories of these same adults living on their own with their parents paying all or most of their bills and lots of broken promises by the adult child.
  • heartbreaking stories of adult children stealing the Christmas gifts under the tree from their family members or other heirloom items that were the parents only tangible connection with their past relatives. (broken trust is harder to mend than grieving the lost item)
  • devastating stories of adult children verbally and physically abusing their parents and siblings while the parents continue to provide room and board for them.

When it’s not our child, we have LOTS of advice for the parents in this predicament that we think is common sense for them to implement. And I sometimes slip into judgmental thinking as well given my first career was working with teens with severe and profound cognitive disabilities who still worked in the community. I will never forget how inspired I was watching one of my 12th grade students (with hydrocephalus) enthusiastically work her shift as a dishwasher at a coffee shop. She not only seemed to enjoy the work and put forth her best effort, she also was one of the friendliest and beloved employees.

Yet, in my therapy office and outside, I see parents who are in deep emotional pain because they feel they have tried everything short of throwing their child out on the street, which would devastate any parent with a heart. They are also terrified that their adult child will sever ties with them if they say, “No” to any requests made by their child. These parents want what all loving parents want~ their children to be happy and successful in life and stay connected to them. What’s so wrong about that?

In this blog, I am going to focus on solutions that I have seen work instead of explain why this problem occurs. If you would like to process the “why” of the problem, the resources below can also be helpful to you. This blog is a guide for parents (instead of the adult children) because I find change is more likely to occur when the people who WANT the change do the work versus wait for the other family members (who don’t want the change or feel ambivalent about it) to make a move.

Here are 5 Tips to Get Your Adult Child Into a Thriving, Independent Life

1.) You can still LOVE your child without financially supporting him/her.

Have you heard of the book The 5 Love Languages? These include: gifts, acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, and physical touch. Let go of the gift giving one (& possibly acts of service too) since this keeps your child dependent on you and stuck in life. You are more than a paycheck! Your love, emotional support, and wisdom far outweigh the amount of money and caretaking you are currently offering your adult child who is likely not showing any gratitude or growth as a result of your gifts.

You can show your love for your adult child in one of the other 3 “languages” (depending on your child)- quality time, words of affirmation, & appropriate physical touch. And if your adult child only seems to care about your monetary support and acts of service, then consider letting him/her know, “I love you and hope someday we can have a healthier relationship that is based on mutual respect, love, and reciprocity.” We teach others how to treat us and sometimes our children lose their way. If you hold firm to your boundary about what you’re willing to give (emotional support/love/quality time) and what you’re not willing to give (money/acts of service), your adult child will be much more likely to change because deep down s/he wants a healthy adult relationship with you too (or will discover this after s/he gets emotionally well).

2.) Fire yourself as your adult child’s career counselor, house manager, bill collector, chauffeur, life coach, mental health counselor, etc.

And, instead hire professionals to teach your adult child life skills (& hold him/her accountable). This includes your adult child leaving your home to live on his/her own.

A Few Professional Resources in Colorado (for your adult child):

  1. Recovery 360 – provides life skills and career coaching to help adults become self-sufficient and live healthy, happy, and abundant lives.
  2. Community Mental Health Agencies (located in every county, ex. JCMH is the agency serving Jefferson County)- provide counseling and case management services to enhance emotional wellness and support adults in living independently and finding paid employment.
  3. Addiction/Mental Health treatment programs often provide counseling and case management services and sober living houses for adults in transition or on their path of wellness, self-sufficiency, and paid employment. You can call the 24-7 CO Crisis Hotline to find out about different treatment centers in the Denver Metro area: 844-493-8255.

Parents who follow this guideline are constantly amazed at the positive changes in their adult child when s/he has to answer to a professional because growth finally occurs! The adult child cannot con a professional the way they can with their parents and other loved ones. The professional has no problem saying, “No” and holding the adult accountable since s/he is not in a personal relationship with the adult child and the adult child knows this.

For example, if the adult child cannot afford to live on his/her own and the parents suspect s/he has a substance use issue interfering with his/her seeking employment, the parents can offer to pay for residential treatment and/or a sober home. Since sober homes regularly drug screen their residents, the adult child no longer can continue using drugs if s/he wants a roof over his/her head and thus may finally get into recovery!

Secondly, parents get a break from the never ending conflict and power struggles they were locked into with their adult child and finally begin to experience serenity and a good night sleep. The adult child also tends to be more amenable to suggestions the professionals make not only because they know they no longer have the safety net their parents once provided, but also because they feel more in control of their future.

3.) Build Your Support System

For example: couple/family therapist, religious/spiritual leader, Love and Logic instructor, community support groups, and friends and family.

When you disclose the secret of your adult child’s struggle, you will find you’re not alone and ideally will be connected with another parent who is on the other side of this struggle happy to share his/her story of experience, strength, and hope!

Having the right support system will help guide and encourage you to stay the course when your adult child’s resistance to change, anger (possibly even explosive toddler tantrums), and distance occur. Trust that “this too shall pass” (It often does).

And if your adult child threatens to harm himself or others, call 9-1-1, take your adult child to an emergency room for an evaluation, or to a treatment center so s/he gets the help s/he needs or learns that threats cannot be used as a weapon to get what s/he wants because you will take them seriously and follow with with interventions.

Finally, even if you’re not sure or positive that your adult child does not have a problem using alcohol or drugs, support groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon (for family members of alcoholics and addicts) can still offer you extremely helpful tools and new perspectives on how to cope more effectively with your adult child to break the dependency cycle s/he is in with you.

4.) Learn everything you can on how to successfully launch your adult children. Here are some resources:

1. Emptying the Nest; Launching Your Young Adult Toward Success and Self-Reliance by Brad Sachs, PhD
2. Interview with Dr. Sachs- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mn8dbmVJNc
3. Why don’t they just quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction by Joe and Judy Herzanek

4. “The Kids Grow Up; Letting Go is Hard to Do” (the mourning, letting go, and co-launching processes (parents must move forward too) by Lana Isaacson

5. “I Thought I Was Helping; How to Differentiate Between Helping and Enabling” by Lana Isaacson

Love and Logic (has books and videos as well)

Counseling/Support Groups
1. Marriage and Family therapists &/or coaching by Love and Logic instructors
2. Families Anonymous (if available) or Al-Anon/Nar-Anon
3. Parenting and/or Empty Nest Support Groups

5.) Be kind to yourself and continue seeking support.

Change is hard and unconscious or unresolved issues could come up (ex. Your own experience launching/leaving home as an adult)

Reflect deeply on what’s “yours” and what’s your “adult child’s”. Let go of the guilt about your adult child not making healthy choices. Everyone gets off course at times in their lives and it’s not always the parents’ fault! You also don’t get to take all of the credit if you have another adult child doing the right thing. Our children are on their own journey! We’re an important part of it, but they ultimately decide their actions.

Also, sometimes an adult child (especially the last to leave the nest) will unconsciously remain tethered to you if s/he is worried about you, your spouse, or your marriage. By both spouses committing to living healthy and happy lives and nurture a satisfying marriage, this can free your adult child to also move forward in his/her life. Parents need to launch too! See “The Miracle of Midlife” for some inspiration. If you too are struggling emotionally due to past unresolved issues and/or in moving forward in your life or marriage, be a role model for your adult child and seek help from a therapist, life/career coach, etc.

If needed, allow yourself to grieve the loss of your adult child growing up and your role/life stage ending. Also, as your adult child moves forward, new wonderful roles (such as friendship with your adult child and grandparent) will come into your life.

In closing~ There is HOPE!

I have witnessed numerous adults who once struggled to demonstrate any level of responsibility for their own lives create meaningful, responsible, and happy lives and even enthusiastically engage in being of service to others!

Having observed high school students with severe and profound cognitive disabilities work real jobs in the community and practice life skills shaped my belief that everyone is CAPABLE to be self-sufficient if given the right level of professional support and guidance and the opportunity to be independent. Mental health issues are not a legitimate excuse either. I know individuals with every DSM label under the sun who live self-sufficient lives. What makes these individuals different is their choice to restore their dignity, their grit (which anyone can develop), and they ran out of enablers.

I have also sadly observed numerous well-meaning family and friends who “disable” their loved one through excessive caretaking, which prevents the underfunctioning adult to step up. There’s an expression in the addiction field, “It’s not the addicts or the dealers we need to get off the streets. It’s the enablers!”

The key for family members is to detach with love by:

  • following through with your adult child moving out of your home (if s/he refuses to follow your expectations, such as having paid employment, doing chores, behaving respectfully, etc.)
  • connecting your adult child with professional resources (that s/he can decide to work with).
  • allowing your adult child to experience the natural consequences of his/her behavior, which will motivate your adult child to make better choices in the future.
  • continuing to express and show love for your adult child through love languages that do not perpetuate dependence (ex. verbal affirmations, quality time, and appropriate physical touch)
  • seeking HELP for yourself if you cannot stop enabling or you are experiencing an unmanageable level of anxiety and distress in following through with the steps above. You are not alone! And you are not the first to struggle. There are lots of loving folks at support group meetings on the other side of this journey who would be happy to be there for you as others were for them.

Give your loved one the GIFT of hitting their “bottom” so s/he can finally discover the motivation to change. It’s only when the PAIN (of remaining the same) outweighs the GAIN (of changing), do we change. As humans, we have an indomitable will to survive! Setting boundaries is often the most loving thing parents can ever do for their child when their adult child chooses to stop growing and gets stuck in their basement.

With experience helping young adults launch, I can help your family too.

If you are a parent struggling with your adult child’s failure to launch or inability to take more responsibility for his/her life, I can help you at my Centennial or Lakewood, CO office.

Contact Lana at: 720.432.5262, [email protected], or set up your first session or free 15 or 30 minute consultation here on my online calendar.