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I’m an adult. Why do I regress under my parents’ roof?

<span>Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

My friend has started seeing a man who lives with his mother. This isn’t the punchline or deal breaker it once was: these days you can’t begrudge anyone trying to save on rent. But it can still come at a price.

His mother texts him when they’re together to ask when he’ll be home, or simply to check in. One illustrative example: “Are you having a nice time?”

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Recently she confronted him about the “long blond hairs” she’d found on his clothes. He’s turning 30 in a few months.

My friend finds it hilarious; her date, not so much. “How does she expect me to reply?” he said to my friend, despairingly. “With a picture of us in bed with our tops off?”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re 29 or 59: few of us are above feeling put upon by our parents, no matter how mature we may be. At this time of year especially – when many grown adults go home for the holidays, even sleeping in their childhood beds – it can be unsettling how quickly we fall back into old patterns.

I live on the other side of the world to my parents, meaning we see each other only once every three years. For the record, I see this as regrettable, not advantageous – but even on those infrequent visits, I find myself regressing.

I can’t work out why the people I love the most bring out the worst in me

Liam, 38

I veer between performative adulthood – unpacking the dishwasher, treating my parents to dinner and otherwise straining to be an exemplary houseguest – and slipping back into the uncommunicative, frequently sullen self who last lived under their roof at age 17.

I’m relieved to hear the same story from friends. “The teenage mode flicks on in my head as soon as there’s even an ounce of friction,” says Josh, 36. “I hate it – but I can’t not,” says Nick, a 41-year-old father of two. Sophie, 32, says it only takes a day of being with her parents before they start snapping at each other: “It’s hard because I love and care about them, but they’re so incredibly frustrating.”

For Paul, it’s a matter of hours before he “is reduced to using a screechy, semi-tantrum voice”. Once, on a family road trip, Paul asked to stop for food but his parents kept on driving, as though they hadn’t heard him. He was in his 30s, Paul says, “used to making my own decisions about when to eat”.

It seems that our parents’ insistence on, well, parenting compels us to behave like children. Carolina, 27, remembers having a “full-on meltdown” after her mother had unsolicited feedback on her cleaning technique – “then I lay in bed in the dark all afternoon, refusing to talk to anyone”, she says. “I was 23.”

Mickey, 34, says that when she’s staying at her parents’ house, she stops cleaning up after herself entirely – “which I’d never do at my actual house”. Ron, 29, finds himself doing the same: “I turn into a useless sack of shit; doing the dishes feels infinitely more arduous.”

Liam, 38, sums the unfathomable frustration: “I can’t work out why the people I love the most bring out the worst in me.”

***

Even the most enlightened among us aren’t immune. “There’s a joke, I can’t remember which Buddhist teacher said it – ‘I was so at peace on my meditation retreat, and then I went home for the holidays,’” says Satya Doyle Byock, a psychotherapist and author of Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood.

Byock’s book brings together her clinical interest in those pivotal decades post-childhood and her clients’ experiences – not to mention Byock’s own bumpy path, leading her to abandon the tech industry for graduate study in Jungian psychology – to make the case for “quarter life” to be recognised and respected as a distinct developmental stage.

While we might culturally be considered adults at 18, our brains don’t stop developing until years later. Factor in the life-shaping choices we face between the ages of 18 and 40 – what to do for work, whom to date, where to live – as well as the often suboptimal conditions in which we must make them, and Byock says it can be a hard road to contentment.

The first stage in her four-step plan to maturity (informed by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey) is psychological separation from the family unit, enabling us to detach from our parents’ values and expectations and attune to our own. You don’t have to move away from your parents to achieve that, says Byock (though, I can attest, it certainly helps). It’s more the process of transforming those relationships to allow for independence and personal growth.

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Traditionally, this “need to separate” from the bonds of childhood was marked as a formal milestone, says Byock. Today, in the western world at least, it may only be acknowledged with a blowout 21st birthday party – and often, the psychological process is interrupted, delayed or even sabotaged.

“A lot of quarter-lifers feel pinned by their parents into a certain identity that they’re actively growing out of,” says Byock. But the driving purpose of these decades is “becoming oneself”, she continues: gaining new skills and interests, exploring sex and intimate relationships, and even changing personality.

“When they go back home, and they’re seen as though none of that has taken place, it’s not only incredibly frustrating – it can be very depleting, very quickly,” she says.

Indeed, instead of becoming more independent from their family, many grown adults have been forced by economic conditions to depend on them.

A recent analysis of US census data found that 20% of millennials (age, on average, 32) and nearly 70% of gen Zers (about 22 years old) still live with family, and do not anticipate moving out within the next two years. Unsurprisingly, these “multigenerational homes” are most common in Los Angeles, New York and other cities with high costs of living.

Living with one’s parents may be a financial necessity, as wages fail to keep up with inflation and rising rents – or it might just seem like a sensible option through a period of transition.

My friend’s date, for example, has invested in a house, but is living with his mother while it’s being built. Every delay in construction adds further pressure on to their relationship.

Some of my friends with children are newly dependent on their parents for childcare, because the full-time expense has ballooned beyond even dual-income households. Becoming a parent yourself doesn’t protect you from regressing around your own, one informs me with a sigh: “Sometimes I realise I’m paying more attention to my parents’ emotional needs than to my kid’s – it’s exhausting.”

Everyone I talk to is at pains to emphasise that they don’t take their parents’ generosity for granted – but nor could they get by without it. The sense of being beholden to her mother weighs on one friend, she tells me, keeping her “constantly in this minion position”.

The desire to differentiate ourselves from our parents, kickstarted by puberty, lays the groundwork for the other three “pillars of growth” identified by Byock: learning to listen to ourselves, building a life that’s our own and integrating all the lessons learned along the way.

When that instinct to individuate is thwarted, she says, adults can find themselves feeling trapped or lost, leading them to pursue their parents’ desires over their own.

“You may end up having children that you actually don’t want, or marrying somebody you don’t want to marry,” says Byock. “As growing adults, we have to be able to say: ‘This is not what I want.’ Of course that’s harder when you’re living together – but it’s still critical.”

On top of the normal hungover self-loathing, there’s the self-loathing of being a 31-year-old woman and having no control over your dinner

Rochelle

I ask Rochelle, a friend who lived with her parents for three years in her 30s, to paint a picture. “I don’t think I realised how much I regressed until I was out of it,” she says.

Rochelle was working long hours at the time, and says it was a “pretty sweet” setup to return home at 9pm to a home-cooked meal. But she wasn’t living life on her terms. Her parents, for instance, have a moral objection to getting food delivered. “So on top of the normal hungover self-loathing,” says Rochelle, “there’s the self-loathing of being a 31-year-old woman and having no control over your dinner – and then of feeling ungrateful because your mum’s just handed you a plate of fish and vegetables.”

On top of that, dating was “completely impossible”. Rochelle would cut short promising dates or even nights out with friends so as to avoid questioning in the morning. “I’d just go home, when I did not want to go home. That was kind of stifling.”

Looking back, Rochelle says, her parents were fulfilling the role of a spouse: supporting her in her career, and short-circuiting the search for other relationships. “I remember hearing myself talking to my mother really terribly, and telling myself: ‘You are so nice to your friends, and this is the person who has probably done more for you than anyone else in the world – why are you being such a petulant bitch?’”

***

Byock is reassuring: this regression is a “universal” phenomenon, reflecting our longest relationships and deeply embedded patterns of behaviour. “But there’s not a lot of emphasis on how to actually shift those dynamics within a family – or even really a recognition that those dynamics are at play, versus ‘That’s just how that person is,’” she says.

I tell Byock that my group chats boil over with my friends’ frustrations. Even the most therapised among them struggle to extend compassion to their parents, or put boundaries in place for their own self-preservation.

“I wonder how much of that could be different if everyone was really acknowledging that you are not who you were when you were 10,” says Byock. “I’ve personally experienced the potential for a pretty radical shift – if individuals take responsibility for their reactions, and really make efforts to change.”

The onus is not just on younger generations to be tolerant, or elders to accept them: every family member plays a part in shaping the unit, and can take an active role in restructuring it from a parent-children hierarchy to one that’s more accommodating of a group of adults, Byock says.

Genuine curiosity and conversations – “getting to know each other again” – can go a long way in getting around those entrenched imbalances, says Byock. But, she admits, it’s trickier to maintain the necessary “consciousness” for prolonged periods under the same roof – especially when it may be no one’s first choice of living arrangement.

“It’s important for the quarter-lifer to be grateful to the parent for what they’re offering,” says Byock – but, she adds, accepting support with housing or childcare does not mean agreeing to being infantilised, or granting total transparency.

At the same time, what Byock calls the “actually very healthy behaviour” of spending the night with a date might be difficult for parents of adult offspring to see.

In negotiating the “pressure cooker of old patterns, expectations and demands”, ground rules can be helpful, says Byock. Both sides might be able to find trade-offs: “What is possible for an adult child to offer, so that the parent doesn’t feel quite so put upon?” For those committed to flipping the script (and who can afford it), family or individual therapy might be productive.

There’s communication, and there’s boundaries – but all of it involves self-awareness

Psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock

But, Byock warns, as much as family dynamics are capable of shifting, some can be extremely resistant, if not actively hostile to the attempt. In the case of parents who are routinely critical, condescending and otherwise “bumping up against abusive territory”, strict boundaries may be necessary, she says. And frankly, going home may not be the right thing.”

Even if everyone gets along, moving back in with your parents can bring up feelings of shame. But – Byock says, encouragingly – we don’t achieve maturity through financial independence, nor the external trappings such as a house or spouse, but through “that psychological transformation” towards clarity of self and self-respect.

Related: Why we can’t stop looking at homes we’ll never own

“People can move thousands of miles away from their parents, and never really do the psychological work, while others can live very close and achieve a great deal,” she says.

There’s a reason why stories like “how to talk to your racist relative” abound in the media at this time of year, Byock adds. “Everyone’s bracing themselves to go home. There’s communication, and there’s boundaries – but all of it involves self-awareness.”

It’s why I can’t enjoy that seasonal TV pleasure Gilmore Girls. I tell Byock that the boundary-less mother-daughter bond is just too stressful. “I feel the same way – I could never get into it,” she says. “I just felt: ‘Something is very not-right about this dynamic.’”

But in that particular case, Byock adds, the first step towards separation might be straightforward: “They should probably drink less coffee.”

All case studies’ names have been changed.