Back in January, if someone had told 23-year-old college grad Lydia that she’d be moving in with her parents later in the year, she would have had a “total breakdown,” she says.
But then, COVID-19 happened. Lydia, like so many millennials and older Gen Z-ers, found herself packing up the contents of her apartment in Kent, Ohio, and trucking it back to her parents’ home in a much smaller town.
The first weeks were fun ― filled with discussions of all the hot topics of the early pandemic months (new lockdown regulations, Netflix’s “Tiger King,” cable news coverage of Dr. Anthony Fauci versus President Donald Trump) ― but eventually, Lydia said, being home started to get to her.
While she says she feels ‘incredibly lucky’ to have a place to come home to, that place ― Pillow, Pennsylvania ― has less than 300 people and little to do besides hanging out with her parents. It’s hardly her “post-graduation dream city.”
“I mean, I left for a reason,” she told HuffPost. “I hesitate to say I was miserable because I know I’m just dramatic, but I wasn’t having a great time. My boyfriend of six years and I broke up in February. And now we were both back in our parents’ houses, in the same tiny town, half a mile away from each other. I felt like I was being surrounded and suffocated by all of my various ‘failures.’”
She’s hardly alone. Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, more than half of young adults (ranging in age from 18 to 29) in the U.S. are now living with their parents again ― the highest share since the Great Depression.
In July, 52% of young adults resided with one or both of their parents, up from 47% in February, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of monthly Census Bureau data. The number living with parents grew to 26.6 million, an increase of 2.6 million since February.
Many young adults admit there’s a lot of uneasy feelings associated with moving back home: Some, like Lydia, feel like their lives have been put on pause because of the pandemic.
Others say they feel like they’re starting to fall back into old habits from their teenage years (sneaking around the back to smoke weed, hookups on the sly). Many say they’re slowly regressing into old family dynamics.
That’s true for Marlee Baldridge, a 25-year-old freelancer and multimedia specialist who moved back to her parent’s home in Harrisburg, Missouri, in mid-August.
At the time, Baldridge, who runs a news site called The Objective, was looking for a job and didn’t want to sign a lease in the midst of that process and the coronavirus.
That feeling of regression is partly due to how her parents are treating her now that she’s back home.
“On some level, of course, I will always be 14 in their eyes,” she told HuffPost.
But at 25, she knows what it’s like to be fully self-sufficient. She’s interned in Boston and then twice in D.C., each time figuring out housing, budgeting, taxes, all on her own. Her mom and dad often seem to forget that.
“My parents did not help me with any of this, but I was recently hired, and my father sat me down and tried to explain to me how personal income tax works,” she said. “It was insulting. Like, where were you when I was 22 and moving 2,000 miles away? Oh my God, and then there’s the career advice!”
Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a psychotherapist based in San Francisco, said many of her clients who have moved back home say their parents are treating them like they’re 14 again. When they share that with her, she tends to bring up a quote by spiritual teacher and psychologist Ram Dass: “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”
“My interpretation of this is that despite the personal growth work we may engage in, the emotional and/or geographical boundaries we may create or the independence from our families we may establish, the pull of decades-old family ‘roles’ and patterns are strong,” Dahlen deVos said.
“It’s basically like living with roommates who make comments like, ‘You never used to eat eggs. Is everything OK?’”
– Marlee Baldridge, 25-year-old freelancer and multimedia specialist
For Baldridge, what’s most interesting is how, as an adult, she notices some of her own behavioral patterns ― ones she’s tried to work on ― in her parents.
“My ex always pointed out that I expected him to read my mind, and I would huff and puff at him when I was angry instead of just talking to him about the issue,” she said. “In the past few years, I’ve gotten much better at communicating with people when I’m frustrated. I moved back home, and I notice my parents do the same thing. It’s like, oh, this is where I learned that from.”
The other night, she said, her mother was having trouble with the TV and let out a few deep, laborious sighs to let the family know a little assistance would be nice.
“But like I used to do, she never just used her words and asked if I could stop what I was doing and help her,” Baldridge said. “There have been a few things like that. It’s kind of wild.”
Slight regression aside, the situation could be a whole lot worse. Baldridge knows she’s lucky to have a place to return to in turbulent times ― even if, sometimes, the family’s life does feel vaguely like a zany CBS sitcom.
“It’s basically like living with roommates who make comments like, ‘You never used to eat eggs. Is everything OK?’ and ‘Wow, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was Jewish? I find that just fascinating,’ and ‘I thought you and James broke up; why are you visiting him?’”
“Because I’m 25 and I need dick, mom,” Baldridge joked.
The transitions back home haven’t necessarily been easy for formerly empty-nester parents, either. In the U.K., 35-year-old comedian Tom Houghton moved from London back to the family home in Yorkshire.
In the early months of the pandemic, both comedy tours Houghton had been part of were canceled. He figured, why not be home with “my nearest and dearest” in a crisis?
The first few weeks had a couple of “teething problems,” he said, including his mom having to adjust to having her whole brood back home.
“Mum found us all moving back hard,” Houghton told HuffPost. “She is normally the sole resident in the house for most of the week, as my dad is down in London and my sister and I are multiple different places. To go from running the house on your own with your norm to suddenly sharing with three adults is not easy.”
“I often remind clients that as much as their lives were disrupted by returning to cohabitate with their families again, their parents’ lives have also been disrupted,” she said.
“Remembering that parents are individual humans with preferences, quirks, and needs can help clients see them as differentiated from their roles as ‘parents’ and in turn help the clients separate themselves from their identity as ‘children,’” Maenpaa said.
Houghton’s experiences speak to that. The comedian said that living back home has given him a new perspective on his parents as devoted life partners, not just “Mom and Dad.”
“I’m happy to say that I got to witness a husband and a wife in their mid-60s falling in love all over again,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it was sickening and I had to push them apart with a broom. But in general, it’s lovely.”
Now back in his own place in London, Houghton admits there were times when he felt a little penned-in under his parent’s roof; not quite like he’d regressed, but he certainly like his life felt a bit stalled at times.
“Sometimes a week would go by and you’d hardly notice,” he said. “Other times you’d really put value in that one walk a day. I tried to focus myself on learning a new skill ― editing ― and getting fit.”
“I often remind clients that as much as their lives were disrupted by returning to cohabitate with their families again, their parents’ lives have also been disrupted.”
– Jenny Maenpaa, a therapist in New York City
But Houghton is glad he didn’t have to endure the worst of the lockdown on his own.
“If I’d have stayed in London, then I would have been imprisoned in a surrounding that was normally my playground,” he said. “I’d have felt the restrictions. Moving to a different geographical location was more like, OK, this is the norm here.”
Many adults are still living in their parents’ homes unexpectedly, though, so to make that time a little easier, we asked therapists to share some tips on making it work as best as possible.
Set some boundaries and expectations for your time back home.
Clients who have fared best in these new circumstances are ones who have had conversations with their families about expectations and setting boundaries, Maenpaa said.
“That may mean you put a sign on the door saying you’re in an uninterruptible meeting,” she said. “Or it may mean offering to buy groceries or contribute financially to the household, and offering to run errands to keep [your] older relatives from having to enter stores.”
Think of the alternative.
It sounds cliche, but in moments when your frustration is getting the best of you, remind yourself that it could be so much worse: You could be living in your car or without a place to stay, save the shelter. Temporarily living back at home has its drawbacks, but remember: This is just temporary.
“What a privilege that you have this safe place to stay, people backing you up materially and interpersonally. And that your parents are alive, letting you be with them, and so on,” said Rachel Kazez, a Chicago therapist and founder of the therapy program All Along.
Be transparent about your needs as you go along.
Dahlen deVos tells her clients that it’s important to remind yourself that you’re now an adult, living in community with other adults, and that’s going to take some negotiation.
While there may be “house rules” that you’re expected to follow while living under your parents’ roof, you are an adult who’s lived on your own before. If you need your parents to cool it with the comments about your dating life or you find their general house rules stifling, speak up.
“It’s developmentally appropriate to have tough or uncomfortable conversations with your parents about family dynamics, discussions you may or may not be available to participate in (especially if you’re living with family members who have divergent political beliefs), division of household chores and contributions, respecting your privacy and so on,” Dahlen deVos said.
Don’t compare your situation at home to the experiences of your friends living back home.
Living back at home looks and feels different for different people. For every person who freely and happily elected to move back home, there’s another who was forced to because of the economy and now feels robbed of adult competence because of it.
“With some of my clients, it’s been a choice,” she said. “Maybe they were living in larger cities and felt cut-off from their social networks and the opportunities that drew them to the city in the first place, and as such, it made sense to keep the loneliness at bay and save a bit of money by riding out the pandemic at home.”
Other clients feel that their moves home were less of a choice, “but due to running low on funds due to job loss and the end of federally funded financial support.”
Understandably, those folks feel a lot differently about their current situation.
“For them, moving home has been another disorienting and very unanticipated stressor that this year has brought, on top of a pandemic and massive civil unrest,” she said.
Given the widespread differences in experiences, it’s wise not to make a big to-do of comparing.
Know that the anxiety you’re feeling about living back home is normal.
There’s nothing about living through a pandemic that is normal. If you’re feeling a heightened sense of anxiety about the pandemic or your current living situation, let yourself process that. Dahlen deVos said the majority of her clients living back at home are struggling with that.
“Anxiety is often an indication that there are emotions or experiences being suppressed or denied, and when living at home, clients don’t always feel the space or privacy to feel and/or express their feelings openly, or fear that if they do, they’ll be overwhelmed by anger, irritation or grief about the situation they find themselves in,” she said.
Dahlen deVos recommends finding a way of channeling your emotional experiences safely and healthfully: on solo walks, through therapy, by journaling or by sitting down and muddling through the thornier feelings with a family member or close friend.
“It may not be comfortable to feel these emotions, but emotions move through the system in an arc and eventually dissipate if we allow them space and attention,” she said. “Anxiety is usually a more stagnant energy that won’t go away on its own, and usually intensifies the more we attempt to ignore it.”
Consider taking breaks to stay with friends for the weekend.
Yes, you’re living back at home, but you don’t have to be there 24/7. And obviously, keep your eye on the prize: moving back out when job prospects finally do present themselves.
“If it’s miserable, work hard to make it possible to move out partially or fully, or take a break by rotating staying with a few friends for a week each,” Kazez said. “You weren’t planning on this time with your parents, but it’s just where you are right now.”