BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am the mother of three adult children who moved out of the family home to start their own lives. I lived alone for more than five years and I never had a problem with empty-nest syndrome. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the solitude.

Four months ago, my 33-year-old daughter moved back in with me (with her dog!!!) after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, whom she lived with in another state. Of course, if my children need shelter, my home is always open, so it was only natural that I would welcome her and her dog.

The problem is that she has an, ahem, active social life. Since she moved into my home, there has been a steady stream of men coming over and spending time in her bedroom. They usually only stay an hour or two, but this weekend I woke up to find a man leaving my house. While I am angry and upset, I tried to be rational and explain that my home is my sanctuary, and that I don’t appreciate all the men she has coming and going like it’s Grand Central Station, and that I really don’t appreciate her having men stay overnight, especially without my knowledge or permission.

She’s angry with me and giving me the silent treatment. (Full disclosure: I like the quiet, so I’m okay with it.) She refuses to see my position and I don’t understand why.

Can you help me clarify for her my feelings on this subject?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I can understand how your daughter’s move back home has disrupted your empty-nester peace. It makes sense that you want to set some rules in your own home, but before you can clarify them for your daughter, you’ll want to have a clearer understanding for yourself of your rules and what’s motivating them.

Many parents of adult children struggle with similar dilemmas: On the one hand, they want to help their children in a time of need; on the other, parents have their own lives, and their generosity isn’t boundless. But for various reasons—they don’t want to seem harsh, they wrongly assume that their children are on the same page as they are—parents neglect to talk with their kids about the expectations that accompany the shared living arrangements. And without this up-front discussion, the result is usually similar to what you’re experiencing—resentment and bafflement on both sides.

So what to do now? It’s not too late to have this discussion, but before you do, you’ll need to be rigorously honest with yourself about what you are and aren’t okay with—and why.

For instance, you say that you’ll always offer your children shelter if they “need” it, but what kind of need is your daughter currently in? Perhaps she’s grieving her breakup and adjusting to a new city—both significant stressors, but even so, most 33-year-old adults would be capable of living independently after an initial adjustment period. In your mind, what constitutes a need for shelter, and is there a time limit (one year? Two? Five?) to your offer? If there is a time limit, does your daughter know about it and is she taking steps to meet it, such as looking for an apartment, or a job that will make renting her own apartment possible?

And if there’s no time limit, you need to ask yourself why. Is it simply because you, as a parent, think it’s important for your children to know that they always have a place to stay, no questions asked? Or is it perhaps possible that despite enjoying your solitude, a part of you also enjoys her company and isn’t invested in helping her on the path to independence? Many parents say they want their kids to live independently, but then send mixed messages by failing to create the conditions that would support this desire.

You’ll also want to ask yourself questions like these: How do you want her to contribute to the household while she’s living there (such as taking on certain chores, cooking, maintaining a standard of cleanliness, running errands, buying groceries, paying rent)? Are there any rules around her dog related to, say, access to your furniture, or leaving the dog in your care when your daughter’s not home? Again, there might be a mixed message here: I’m not happy about having you disrupt my solitude by moving in along with your dog, but I also wholeheartedly welcome you and your dog. The more clarity you have around your true feelings with these living arrangements, the more clarity you’ll have when you share your wishes with your daughter in a way that she can understand.

Which brings us to the subject at hand: your feelings about your daughter’s houseguests. Here it will help to figure out what, exactly, bothers you about the people she brings over. Is it that you’re uncomfortable having any of her guests in your home (such as platonic friends) because it feels like Grand Central Station, or does it only feel that way with her romantic partners? Given that most adults have sex, would you like her to take her romantic life to the men’s homes instead? Or is your annoyance less about location and more about the kind of sex life she chooses to have? Meaning, if she were in a monogamous relationship with a committed boyfriend who stayed overnight, would you still be “angry and upset” and require her to ask permission and inform you in advance of his visits?

The feelings underlying your request likely informed its delivery, so I wonder whether your daughter is angry not just because she objects to your request, but because on top of that, she also feels judged. If you want her to understand where you’re coming from, you’ll also need to understand where she’s coming from, and she may feel humiliated and wounded by what might have been implied about her character in the way you presented the new rules. At the same time, from a developmental perspective, the silent treatment is a very “young” way of communicating feelings such as anger or shame, and her inability to consider that she’s a guest in your house suggests some immaturity as well. It’s worth noting, too, that the silent treatment is actually not silent at all, but emotionally loud. It's one thing to like your peace and quiet, but an enraged family member who's not talking to you is very different from the quiet sanctuary you seem to enjoy.

Your way of dealing with her immaturity is to try to cater to her anger (how can I get her not to be mad at me for having this rule?) rather than to treat her like an adult, which might sound like this: I understand that you’re unhappy with my discomfort with the men you’re bringing into my home. We should have talked about our expectations earlier on, but I’m glad we’re having this conversation now. Here are my rules, and here’s why. Then lay out clear, specific expectations in terms of household responsibilities, considerate behavior (such as communicating with words rather than sullen silence), and privacy, after which you might add: You don’t have to agree with my perspective, but because you’re living in my house, you do have to abide by it. If you want more privacy, you can find a more private living situation.

When adults are treated as less capable than they are, they actually become less capable—of making good choices, of holding themselves accountable, of seeing themselves clearly in relation to others. You don’t have to convince your daughter that your request is “rational”; your job right now is to remember that she’s an adult and to treat her like one. That means having a respectful conversation that lays out what you’re willing to offer at this time in her life, and letting her choose the living situation—whether that’s following your rules or finding her own place—that suits her best.


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