06/29/2012 09:26 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Boomerang Kids

Now that peak college graduation season is over, the word "boomerang" seems to be
on everyone's lips, as in "boomerang kids," college grads who return home to roost,
$200,000 diploma in hand. In the New York Times last Sunday, Ginia Bellafante
blogged about the New York City version of this phenomenon, and this week's New
has a take down of American kids (selfish, rude, bullying. . . .), using "boomerang
kids" as one example of self-centeredness.

Just few years ago, the words, "He lives in his mother's basement" seemed to connote someone
with a bent for serial killings. Today, the phrase can be used to describe many twenty-somethings living happily at home. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of adult
children who resided in their parents' households increased by 1.2 million.

So, what's behind this trend? The easy answer is "It's the economy, stupid!" In many
cases that's true. From my perspective as a psychotherapist, there's a more complex
explanation. This generational phenomenon is one result of ambivalent parenting.
Define ambivalent? Unclear limits and weak boundaries. Parents are helicopter parents
in one moment and raising "free-range children" the next. In my office, I see many kids
treat their parents like their personal attendants. One woman recently told me that her
fifth grader objected to absence of menus for dinner -- at home.

Another couple abandoned their dream of leaving Manhattan and returning to their
native New England when their daughter went off to college. She vetoed the idea in two
sentences: "Where are my friends and I going to stay when we visit the city? And where
am I supposed to live during the summer?" End of plan.

We are an individualistic culture -- but individualism unchecked can set the stage for
infantilism that persists into adulthood. We all come into the world as narcissists, the
center of our own universe. A parent's task is to cultivate an adult who can get along in
the real world, to create a caring person from a mass of narcissistic impulses. It's hard
work. Children don't naturally welcome boundaries. In fact, they greet them with open
hostility. This is what a tantrum is. A parent's (exhausting) job is to consistently impose
external boundaries and tolerate the consequences -- "You may not speak to me in that
tone of voice" -- so that a child internalizes the idea of limits and becomes a civilized

There is no more concrete boundary than the doorway to your home. Keep it open
indefinitely and offspring who are unclear or afraid of adult responsibilities will gladly
cross that threshold -- and plop themselves down expectantly on the living room sofa like
the family cat.

A brief post-graduate stay at home works if money is a major issue, or there are other
extenuating circumstances that require a return to the nest. Setting clear limits is key
("You can stay for three months ...) and expectations are set ("we know you are capable,
and we will help you if you need us"). When parents allow children to lounge on that
sofa for too long, they're not assisting them. They're cutting their legs out from under
them and losing their respect in the bargain.