The bounce-back kids: Why empty nesters are finding themselves trapped

The recent report that an adult child returning to live at home makes parents’ lives miserable rings resoundingly true with many – self-confessed ‘trapped nester’ Sarah King included.

When my 20-year-old son Sam announced he was dropping out of university and moving back home, my heart sank. I knew Sam’s plan for taking up residence in his old bedroom was as bad an idea for him as it was for me. We would inevitably revert, within weeks of sharing the same space, to our previous roles of screaming banshee and truculent teenager. And I didn’t want to spend my late 50s shouting with frustration – or see him regressing and losing sight of the man he had started to become.

I have been a single parent for most of Sam’s life, and we had only just begun to discover the joys of independence. I was travelling once more – without the added worry that in my absence Sam would burn down the house. Sam was studying computer coding at a London university and sharing a house with friends. We were interacting as adults. He’d cooked dinners for me, hosted my birthday party and we celebrated Christmas at his.

Now suddenly he didn’t want to continue his coding course. His heart wasn’t in it and he’d fallen behind with his studies, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do instead. It looked as though – for both of us – possibilities were about to contract instead of expand. If Sam moved home, all I could see in my future was less money, less freedom and more stress. I would become a trapped (as opposed to empty) nester, my hopes and dreams submerged by, among other things, my son’s dirty laundry.

Miguel Gallardo

When Sam called to say he’d be turning up with his rucksack of belongings (and his guitar) that weekend, a sense of panic kept me awake. So it was a guilty relief to read that my mixed feelings were not unique – a recent study by the London School of Economics revealed that when an adult child returns to a home occupied only by their mother and father, the parents experienced loss of ‘feelings of control, autonomy and pleasure in everyday life’. This has ‘a substantial effect on their quality of life, similar to developing an age-related disability such as difficulties with walking’.

According to figures for 2015 from the Office for National Statistics, 3.3 million young adults (aged 20 to 34) in the UK are sharing a home with their parents. It’s the highest number since records began and it means a lot of trapped nesters. Saga, which specialises in services for over-50s, states in one survey that around three million parents over 50 have adult children living at home. Their average age is 27, but one in seven is between 31 and 40.

There is no doubt that economics has played a big part: this is the first generation of young people to earn less than their parents; home ownership is at a 30-year low, and rents are at an all-time high, plus there is an increase in the student dropout rate (largely because of financial difficulties, according to the National Union of Students).

However, marital therapist Andrew G Marshall believes we can look much closer to home for the reasons many of us are trapped. ‘Parents have to look at themselves,’ says Marshall. Many of us are providing what he calls ‘red-carpet parenting. If young adults have parents who give them the full works,’ he argues, ‘such as three meals a day, freedom to have partners and friends to stay, while dispensing cash, tea and sympathy, there is no incentive to leave home.’ In other words, we’ve made the rod for our own backs.

As Marshall lists the sins committed by many parents – including finishing their offspring’s educational assignments (I’ve heard of parents staying up all night to complete an essay and feeling chuffed to get a 2:1!), fixing their financial messes, interfering in relationships, coming to the rescue when things go wrong at work or university and, horror of horrors, being Facebook friends – I realise I’m guilty as charged. No wonder Sam was finding it hard to be independent when I constantly involve myself in his life.

And not only do mollycoddling parents stunt their children’s development, they create hardship for themselves – both financially and emotionally. Michelle, 58, and her husband Anthony, 59, both solicitors, have a five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Lincoln. Their son Adam, 20, and daughter Lucy, 21, are away studying at university, and the couple recently decided they would like to downsize and move closer to the city centre, where going out would be easier. ‘There’s really no need to be rattling round a house this size,’ says Michelle.

What they weren’t expecting was the reaction this idea elicited from their adult children. ‘They were outraged that we would consider selling their childhood home,’ she says. ‘They were planning to come back after university and wanted everything to be the same.’ Anthony believes that attitudes of young people have changed from his day. ‘Although finances play a part, many young people – my own children included – see university as an extension of school, not as the start of their adult life. It’s a hiatus until you return home. Becoming an independent adult is starting later.’ Michelle continues: ‘They don’t want to rough it. I lived in one grotty bedsit after another. But why would they want to move out? It’s comfortable here.’

But it hasn’t made the lives of Michelle and Anthony so comfortable. ‘Because of their reaction we have put our plans on hold,’ explains Anthony. ‘Michelle was going to retire and I wanted to go part-time. But there is no way we can contemplate doing that while we have this house.’

There is a certain amount of financial frustration for Claire, a teacher, and her husband John, a store manager, both 56. They live with Daniel, their 28-year-old son. ‘He will do his washing – sometimes,’ she says, ‘but then he throws it all in the tumble dryer even when it’s a hot day. He eats us out of house and home and is always borrowing money from us.’

A survey by the insurance company MetLife states that a quarter of British parents over 50 have adult children living with them, 43 per cent of them without making any contribution to household expenses. The parents estimated that they were spending an average of £72 a week on food and other household bills directly related to their adult offspring. Many parents continue to support their adult children financially – topping up wages, paying off student loans, providing deposits, etc. Suddenly pension pots, house equity and savings are disappearing. Fast.

For Claire, though, the hardest thing is the emotional stress. ‘I’m walking on eggshells as Daniel is very volatile if things don’t go his own way. Then there’s shouting and even smashing things. He behaves like a child, his room is a tip, he never clears up after himself. I’m forever rescuing my cutlery, crockery and glasses from his room. Yet he wants to be treated as an adult. This creates a lot of friction in the house and it’s not how John and I want to be living.

‘When Daniel left home for the second time, we decorated his room to use for guests, but then he lost his job and came back. Now even if he wasn’t here for the weekend I couldn’t let anyone stay in his room – it’s a pit – so we can’t have friends staying over. We have less freedom to go out as well, because we have less money.’

However, there are worse consequences, says Marshall. ‘Living with adult children can be destructive for trapped nesters’ relationships. Lack of privacy means the biggest casualty is the parents’ sex lives – just when they were beginning to recover from years concentrating on the family – and the children can also take a lot of the emotional focus a couple should be giving to each other again.’ You may even find yourselves squeezed out of your own space. One friend complains that her 20-something daughter and her boyfriend hog the living room sofa, so she and her husband have to watch films on a laptop in the kitchen.

Neither does having an adult child living at home do much for your chances if you are single and trying to date again, as 51-year-old Maggie has discovered. Maggie was widowed five years ago, and when her daughter Shannon, 27, moved back home six months later, she was pleased to have the company. ‘Then Shannon moved out to live with a boyfriend and I started to get used to being on my own and rebuilding my life. Shannon’s relationship broke down and she moved back in, then out again. But once she had a baby I thought she was well on the way to being an independent adult and mother.’

Miguel Gallardo

Maggie applied for and was accepted at art college. ‘Ever since I was young I had wanted to paint, but life and having children got in the way. It felt as if now was my time. I’d even started internet dating.’ But Maggie never put a foot in the door of the college and no man ever crossed the threshold of her house. ‘Shannon’s relationship broke down and once more she moved in with me. She needed childcare for her two-year-old, and suddenly my dreams were on the back-burner again.’

That you would die for your children goes without saying, but we shouldn’t have to give up our lives just to make theirs easier. So what is the solution for trapped nesters and those who are in danger of following a similar path? I’ve known a number of parents resort to extreme measures. One dad, a single parent, felt the only way he could force his 22-year-old daughter to become independent was to get up and leave. He rented out their house and bought himself a boat. She’s living with friends and he’s enjoying his freedom on a canal. He is thriving; his daughter is still adapting.

Which is why, when Sam mentioned coming home, he was bundled off to my brother in Australia before you could say boomerang (generation). I hoped it would give him a chance to continue growing without being marooned. My brother would not baby him in the way I would. Other friends trying to achieve a similar result have taken on massive mortgages to buy their stay-at-home offspring their own properties.

But not all of us have the financial means to push our kids out of the nest, so what else can we do? We can encourage our babies to fly (see left), but we must also look at ourselves. Marshall says, ‘You need to understand what the “hook” is for you in indulging your adult child.’ In my case, I realise that with Sam I have overcompensated for my own mother’s coldness. I’ve used overindulgence to show how much I love him. Hopefully, if I understand the hook, I’m halfway to letting him grow up. Others might be hooked on feeling younger when around their children, or on the sense that it gives them value to be needed. Often the problems of a trapped nester are the flipside of the empty-nest syndrome.

In his book It’s Not A Midlife Crisis, It’s An Opportunity, Marshall argues that your 40s and 50s are the time to discover who you are, beyond the role of parent. You need to be asking yourself: what gives my life meaning? If you’re still running around being a cleaner, caterer and cashier for your progeny, you’ll never get the answers – or even have space to ask the questions.

Sam recently flew back to London. He has started work in a restaurant so that he can get his own place. I’m planning a trip to Australia. We talk as adults with our own lives. In this nest, it really is a case of what is good for the goose is good for the gosling.

How to help them fly solo

START YOUNG As soon as you can, make growing up and becoming independent seem fun and appealing.
DON’T BE A DOORMAT If your home feels less like a hotel, your children are more likely to check out.
DON’T LET THEM CONTROL THE HOUSE If your offspring live at home, make sure they’re following your rules.
BE A CONSULTANT, NOT A MANAGER Talk to your children like adults, ask questions about how they see their future and advise them on how they can achieve their goals.
LOOK AT YOUR OWN MOTIVATIONS Are you sure it isn’t your fear of being an empty nester that is subconsciously encouraging them to stay at home?
ANALYSE WHAT YOU WANT FOR YOUR OWN LIFE When your children leave home, it should be seen as a new exciting period for you, too.
DON’T LIVE VICARIOUSLY THROUGH YOUR CHILDREN They will leave eventually and you need to have your own life in place when they do.