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New Thinking on Empty Nests and Boomerang Kids

Take our true/false quiz and learn how living with adult children can work in your favor, not against you.

by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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There’s nothing like watching a child turn into a young adult to set off a chain reaction of life change. Maybe it’s the realization that—wahoo!—you are suddenly done paying tuition, own a spare bedroom and have produced a fully minted adult. Or maybe you’re filled with angst from watching your demoralized 20-something crawl back home, take over the den and get in the way of your newfound freedom.

Whatever you expect, expect to be wrong, at least some of the time. New research reveals that much of the popular wisdom about living with adult children is as dated as a flip phone.

“Don’t worry about the conventional wisdom. It’s all about being a family. Eventually, boomerang kids will find their footing and get back out there.”

Take our test and see how you score:

True or false: Empty-nest syndrome hits women hardest.

False. Once upon a time, this may have been true, says Adam Davey, a developmental psychologist and associate dean for research at the University of Delaware. “Historically, the individuals who were most likely to have difficulty with this transition were women who had never worked outside of the home, and for whom the parent role was their primary identity.” That’s why they were often encouraged to think about the transition ahead of time and to find new interests, hobbies and social activities. “In some ways, this was similar to the experiences of many men following retirement, where most of their identity and social relationships outside of marriage were derived from the workplace.”

See also: When the Nest Empties, Gambling on Adventure

Not so today, when many women work outside the home and have outside interests. For them, he says, “It’s unlikely that the transition to an empty nest will be negative.”

But dads, Davey says, may find themselves more affected by the change than they expected: “With fathers’ increasing involvement in child care, they may notice the difference to a greater extent that previous generations.”

True or false: Having an adult child living at home isn’t necessarily good or bad, and it usually doesn’t strain your marriage.

True, but this is a very recent change. Research from the University of Texas at Austin found that in 2008, around the time of the recession that derailed so many millennials, sending them scurrying back home, having an adult child (18 or older) correlated with more unhappy marriages, especially as described by mothers. But when researchers did the study again in 2013, having these kids at home had no impact on marital happiness.

“We expected that we’d find having an empty nest was good for marriages, and having a boomerang child would be bad. So we were surprised by the results,” says Eden M. Davis, a Ph.D. candidate and lead author. “Why would having a child at home have a bad effect on a marriage in 2008 and no effect in 2013? We think what’s considered normal in our culture shifted. People are becoming increasingly used to the idea.”

In fact, even though the economy is much improved, kids are still more likely to be living home, typically to save money or get more education. (The Pew Research Center reports that despite a low unemployment rate and a rebound in wages, adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to live at home than during the height of the recession. Currently, only 67 percent of these young adults live independently, down from 71 percent in 2008.)

The research has made Davis realize that parents should fret less about allowing kids to stay home longer or move back in. “Don’t worry about what you think the conventional wisdom is,” she says. “It’s all about being a family no matter what. Eventually, boomerang kids will find their footing and get themselves back out there.”

True or false: Many marriages fall apart when kids leave home.

Maybe, but only if the marriage was rocky before. “Empty nests tend to reinforce existing marital patterns,” says Davey. “The transition is often associated with increased opportunities for closeness, time together and shared activities, resulting in greater marital satisfaction than at any time since children were born,” he says. “Sorry, kids, but it’s true!”

Often, couples adapt faster than they expect, he says. Many already have plans for their child’s room, and they often savor the extra hours they find each week: “People are surprised at just how much time is devoted to parenting even an adult child.”

See also: How I Feathered My Empty Nest

But if the marriage was already full of conflict or unresolved difficulties, “an empty nest can provide the perfect opportunity for couples to call it quits, especially if they feel they were staying together for the children.”

True or false: Part of what makes an empty nest sad is that it means growing apart from your kids.

False. In fact, research from the University of Texas at Austin finds that today’s parents and their young adult children have closer, healthier relationships no matter where they live. Some of that is as simple as technology, which makes it easier for families to text, Skype, email or stay connected through social media. But it’s also due to the decline in authoritative parenting styles, which makes for a more even footing between parent and child. “Ties between young adults and parents appear to be thriving,” writes researcher Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., a professor of development at the university, and also a co-author of the study about boomerang kids and marital satisfaction. She predicts that as marriage rates among millennials continue to decline, the ties may grow stronger still: “Relationships with parents and children are the most important enduring ties in individuals’ lives.”

Besides, points out Davis, for most parents the empty nest makes them feel happy and accomplished. “Parents are proud of launching these successful young adults. In this day and age, they can still be close. Yes, the child has moved away. But they often report they are more in touch than ever."